Title ID 12291Collection ID1258
TitleMedway on Screen: Oral History Interview - Percival Thomas
CollectionMedway on Screen - Project films
Genre/TypeProfessionalScreen Archive South EastNon-fictionOral History
ThemeUrban Life
KeywordsCommunities Ethnic Groups Everyday Life Oral History
RegionalMedway Kent
NationalEngland United Kingdom
ProductionScreen Archive South East
Commissioning bodyScreen Archive South East
Funding bodyHeritage Lottery Fund
EditorScreen Archive South East
NarratorPercival Thomas
ParticipantsPercival Thomas
Other creditsCatherine Walsh (interviewer)
FormatN/A Sound
Duration48 min. 50 sec.
Copyright & AccessCopyright restrictions apply, contact Screen Archive South East for details.


An audio recording of an oral history interview with Percival Thomas, conducted during Screen Archive South East's Medway on Screen project in Black History Month in 2011. Interviews were held with members of the MACA group at the Sunlight Centre in Gillingham, recording memories of coming to and living in the Medway towns.


Percival Thomas's memories of moving from St Vincent and the Grenadines in the the West Indies to the UK in 1960 at the age of 21. Percival recounts his first impressions of life in the UK including witnessing discrimination. He describes his career, from working in tailoring, then delivering carpets and work in a paint factory to gaining a degree in Social Sciences and a life teaching Economics. He discusses his move to the Medway area and the sense of community gained through the MACA group.

The online clip features a 14 minute extract from the full audio interview. Accompanying photographs supplied by Percival Thomas.

Interview extract transcript:

CW: OK, so you lived in the family home until you were around 20 and so what happened then when you left home, when you came to England when you were 21?

PT: Well, when I left home it was a bit sad because my brother had already left home and my elder sister had left home, and I felt I was deserting my mother and my younger sister, so that was sad. But it was a decision which I had to make, I mean there were opportunities. They didn't mind, I say they didn’t mind - they knew it was something that was going to happen. I should say that my uncles had travelled abroad - they had gone to work in [?] on the oilfields, so there is a tradition that people will leave the island to go abroad to make a living and look for more opportunities, yes.

CW: Had your elder brother and sister stayed on St Vincent [and the Grenadines] but just left home or had they gone abroad?

PT: My elder sister went to British Guyana to get married and my brother went to Trinidad to work.

CW: So why did you decide, or how did the decision come about where you would go and what you would do when you got there?

PT: Well at the time England was, if you like, opening up. More people, West Indians, Vincentians, were coming to England, and I used to do some tailoring and my boss came to England and I was encouraged to come to England. In fact, when I came he received me.

CW: And how did you feel about leaving? I know you said you felt sad leaving your mother and your younger sister but how else did you feel [check’s recording] when you made that decision and you left to come over here?

PT: Once the initial thing about feeling a bit sad had worn off, I mean I felt very good - I was confident, because I mean there were opportunities ahead, and I was going to, you know, seize those opportunities really.

CW: And was it the tailor that you went to work for when you first arrived, or what did you do when you arrived?

PT: I can remember arriving on a sunny Saturday morning and I can even remember the first thing I saw on television and that was the Oxford and Cambridge boat race. I saw it in the afternoon. Then on the Monday morning, somebody, one of my boss's friends took me out to look for a job, and there and then I found a job. I should say, in those days jobs were plentiful, easy to get. So I started work on the Tuesday actually, not far from where I lived.

CW: where were you living at that time?

PT: I was living in South Norwood and I started working in Thornton Heath. The two districts are close together.

CW: And what were your first impressions of that area - both where you worked and where you lived? What did you find that was similar or different..?

PT: Well, the houses were different, firstly, because in St Vincent, and I suppose most of the West Indies, unless you live in the town, the houses are separate, if you like they are like detached houses, little detached houses. Whereas in England they are terraced houses, they are joined together. And in some ways one was surprised really about, if you like, the housing and the conditions. From what one learned at school it was different, yes? It was different, in the sense that in the houses, I mean like toilets outside and so on. And I wasn’t accustomed to that coming from the West Indies, one would expect things would have been different the houses and things like that.

The shopping was good - the shops were plentiful and other things were good as well. But just in those days, housing was probably the most different things for immigrants. Not just those from the West Indies, I think the Irish had problems as well with housing. You would see notices – “No Blacks allowed” and things like that. And one of the things which came out is that you would, there would be a house in the paper for rent and when you go and knock, its gone the room its gone. It happened with jobs as well. There were vacancies and when the Black people applied, it’s gone. But they had friends, you see some of these Black people had friends and they would send their friends to go to the same place and they would get the job, and you would find out the job hasn’t gone.

CW: And did you find that surprising when you were there? How did that feel?

PT: Ah, it was surprising, because from what we learned about England, we never knew that you would have this kind of, not being treated fairly, if you like. We weren’t taught about elements of racism or anything like that in schools – we regarded, we were taught more about, if you like, British history than our own history. And when you came here, you were made aware by the newspapers and other people that you were different. Whereas in the West Indies; like I played cricket with a white boy and, if you like, dealt with White people and there was no difference. If there was any difference, maybe there was in subtle ways. But over here you were made aware that you are different.

CW: But you had contacts over here that helped you get a job and somewhere to live quite quickly?

PT: Hmm.

CW: And so what did you think of your first job? Did you enjoy it?

PT: It was in a factory that used to clean carpets. In some ways I liked it. What would happen, they had about two branches. The carpets used to be taken to a branch in London to clean and they were brought back to Thornton Heath. The guy I worked with was an Irishman and we had to sort out the carpets and put them into different bays. For example some carpets are going to places like Esher, Banstead and so on. So we had to sort out the carpets and put them into different bays. Roll them and so on. But what was enjoyable about the job, what I liked about it was that sometimes we used to go in the vans, we used to go on the vans to deliver the carpets and then we get in and go to places like Epsom and Banstead and Esher and those places, and that was good.

CW: So that enabled you to explore?

PT: Yeah, yeah, rather then being in the factory all day.

CW: I was going to ask you actually how different it felt like coming from somewhere that was very lush, with all the agriculture around you, to somewhere like London, that was a big city; and also the weather as well, how did that...

PT: Well the weather was the worst, that probably was the worst thing. But I mean I was young brave and determined, and I had my, if you like, goals in my mind. - I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I mean when I came to England I had clearly in my mind that I had to help my mother and sister financially and I had to do some studies and improve myself educationally, so I knew what I had to do. But as I say just was the weather. We have central heating today, gas central heating. In those days it was paraffin heaters or a coal fire and the thing about the paraffin heater, is it just smell isn’t it, it wasn’t nice. So the heating in those days wasn't very good.

CW: And how about food - how was that different?

PT: The food, well I suppose I missed some of the food in the West Indies but I mean there was plenty of food in England you know, so food wasn't a problem, just that you miss some of the foods. But later on people started importing food from the West Indies so, like today you could get most of the West Indian food in England.

CW: So obviously studying was very important to you. When did you pick up your studies again?

PT: I think I started in 1960. I started doing a correspondence course to do some GCSEs, no GCEs, because I wanted to be an accountant but once I started doing O Levels I discovered I liked economics very much indeed so I pursued Economics doing O Level Economics and A Level Economics then I did a degree in Social Science specialising in Economics. Then I started teaching Economics

CW: and where were you teaching

PT: I started teaching Economics on a part-time basis in colleges of further education in London. I taught in one called Vauxhall College and taught in private colleges as well. In those days a lot of students came from overseas, especially Nigerians, and a lot of private colleges sprung up in London.

CW: What did you enjoy about teaching?

PT: I just loved economics, and I like students and I like imparting skills to students, really. And one can't underestimate the importance of education. And in terms of business which I like, economics is one of the main subjects as well. So here were young people going up, getting some training to take part in the UK or maybe in their own country, that was important to me.

CW: And how long was your teaching career?

PT: Well actually teaching was my second career. Before I started teaching I was working in factories. I worked in the paint industry and while I was working in the paint industry I got interested in the social sciences - I was reading history and economics and things like that – so and I arrived at a point, at a crossroads, where I had to make a decision, If I am going to work in the paint industry doing chemistry, but I liked Economics so I made a decision that I was going to go that way.

CW: And do you felt it was the right decision?

PT: It was the right decision, yeah. I had a very successful career in Economics and to answer your question, I taught for 23 years and I enjoyed every moment of it.


Percival Thomas teaching EconomicsPercival Thomas in the UKPercival Thomas in St Vincent

Contextual information

Medway on Screen was a community history project run by Screen Archive South East in 2010-11, exploring memories of the River Medway and West Kent.

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Video Clip

A short video clip of Percival Thomas speaking at the Medway on Screen Black History Month review day in 2011:

Video Clip Transcript

"Because I think it should encompass things like the social, the economic, the political and the main things like immigration, all those issues. I think the guys want experiences. Whether you have a job, or you haven’t got a job, whether you have somewhere to live, or you haven’t got somewhere to live, whether you can walk the high street feeling comfortable, or not, all those things should encompass oral history. So for me, it’s now very very diverse. When I started I thought it was something very narrow, just my whole history. It’s also, how, if you like how, my history and myself, impacts on other people and the community, and how the community impacts on myself."


Medway on Screen

Web page about the Medway on Screen project, run by Screen Archive South East in 2011