Portrait of a Generation: Spotlight on South Londoner Hermine Grocia

Hermine Grocia welcomed award-winning social documentary photographer Jim Grover into her house in April last year. Here is her story as told to Grover. Her portraiture and many of these photographs feature in the exhibition and document her everyday life with her wonderful family.

Kiss

Hermine Grocia was born in Clarendon, Jamaica, in 1938, the second eldest of eight children. Her father was a farm labourer, her mother a seamstress. After her parents separated her father came to Huddersfield, where he initially worked in a textile factory, leaving Hermine with her mother in Jamaica.

Hermine Grocia

There are seven children within the family. Hermine gave birth to two children who she left with her mother in Jamaica; her future husband, Lester, also had a child in Jamaica. Hermine met Lester on the wharf in Kingston waiting to board the ‘SS Begona’ which brought them both to England in 1959. They married in 1960 in the Brixton registry office and had four children together. They lived happily together in Brixton until Lester passed away in 2011. They have nineteen grandchildren and twenty-two great-grandchildren.

‘My Dad sent for his younger children…my elder brother was already here and we were very very close…so I said OK. On the wharf in Kingston I met Lester who was on the same ship, the Begona. I was twenty going on twenty-one…he was twenty-four. We had two weeks together on the ship. I guess it was love at first sight…we were still together in 2011 when he died.

I wasn’t excited to be coming to England…didn’t seem like a nice place to see…always chimneys and smoke. Huddersfield wasn’t such a nice place to be…it was very very cold in December when I arrived and the thread in the textile factory burnt my fingers…I didn’t like that.

Four months later I was here in London with Lester, who had stopped in London. I was told by somebody who wrote from Jamaica that my dad was upset that I’d left him…but he never told me. Lester had rented a room in a house near the Oval so that’s where we lived. I liked London. He was working in a plastic moulding factory…I started out working in a laundry by the Oval but changed jobs soon after.

Did I experience racism back then? No…it was a long time before I realised being black was an issue. Once when I did home-help job I remember I went to this man’s place. I knocked on the door…he opened the door. He look at me…I look at him…and I said I was sent by Miss so and so. And he said, “Go away I don’t want no black people here”. So I just said, ‘Fair enough”, and just left him to go about my business. But I don’t remember anyone else who did that to me.

Lester and me were married on December 10th 1960 in the Brixton Road registry office. Afterwards we went back to the house and we had a cake and something to drink…just with Lester’s friend, Mike, and the English landlady.

Just us. My elder brother knew but my dad didn’t know anything about it. I bought my wedding dress…I don’t have it anymore…I made dresses for the girls out of it.

We lived in two different places before coming here…Evandale Road in Brixton…in 1973 and we’ve never left. It’s a council house. Lester liked to stay put. Lester worked as a butcher at Dewhurst’s…he’d learned to be a butcher in Jamaica but was a special constable there. I was working as a home-help for Lambeth council…I went to work when the children were at school but always made sure I was here in the evenings.

How hard was it bringing up a family? It was hard in its own way. If you wanted something you had to prepare for it. So when the gasman came I would be able to get some rebates and the rebate would buy something for the children. Money was tight but there’s only so much you could do about it…you either do with what you haven’t got, or do with what you’ve got. I sewed dresses for the girls…and little trousers for the boys…and used to knit for them. I had a Singer sewing machine…still have it.

I always say to them when you go to school you go to learn…listen to your teachers. At the same time we’d get on the floor in our home and we’d read to them…we play games…teach them the ABC…how to count up…all of those things. My husband wanted the kids to come straight home…didn’t want them to stop and chat. We’ve never had conflict with anybody. I told them to just say ‘hello’ to people on the streets…and don’t laugh at nobody.

We used to go out but when we had children we didn’t go out. We wouldn’t leave the children on their own…unless in the daytime when I had to go to work. They could play in the garden…but not in the street.

Lester was a good husband and father. He was too good. He doesn’t like taking risks. I would have liked him to take more risks…like buying a house. He didn’t believe in buying a house unless he had the cash. I wish he’d bought a house…I did tell him. They were selling council houses. He says he is not going to buy a house like that because Mrs Thatcher will run us out of our house…I said she can’t do that. So we didn’t buy the house.

He could do without friends. I told him life doesn’t work like that…you have to have friends…you cannot be alone like that…you need friends. His view was that he knew exactly what he was doing. He was that kind of person. He caused no trouble…he don’t interfere with nobody…he went about his own business…he go out and he come back. He didn’t stay out late…he’d look at his watch and come home…he was like that. I’m different…I’d go out seven days a week if I could…I love going out.

We had to be careful with our money. It was hard but no one would know unless I tell them. But I coped…I didn’t beg from people…I didn’t borrow…I don’t like that.

I love my church very much. Every Sunday I’m there in St John the Divine which is CoE…always have been. Two of my children went to St John the Divine…two went to a Methodist church. Lester was a Methodist.

In 1976 I had a stroke…I was thirty-eight…I had to have rehabilitation. I spent three years without working…no money coming in…and then I went back to work. I worked for fifteen years…including catering at Credit Suisse in the City in the eighties, firstly in Shoreditch and then in Canary Wharf. Then they laid off everybody so I worked with a friend around Victoria. I could still walk not too bad…so I used to enjoy myself!

We call ourselves a family of seven. I have two children from Jamaica from two different relationships when I was a sixteen and seventeen…it’s not that uncommon in Jamaica. I left them with my mother but they came over later…Peggy when she was eight or nine…and Roy when he was sixteen. If you see them all together you’ll never know they are not all the same family…they are all brothers and sisters together. Lester’s daughter couldn’t come because the time had passed when you could bring family here…so she just came on holidays, stayed with us for a while, and then went back home. After a while she found enough money to go to America. Her dad wanted her here but her mother didn’t want her to come here.’

Every Friday evening is ‘open house’ in Hermine’s Brixton home when family of all generations come to catch up, chat, share food and just enjoy being together. Twenty members from four generations came along to join Hermine (including five of her children), ranging in age from two months to eighty years. Hermine had started preparing traditional Jamaican food the day before but everyone brought something to share. The leftovers were taken home in plastic containers.

Frying plantains

Five of the younger children crowded around a scrabble board on the floor in the hall; one of the granddaughters did Hermine’s hair. Most of the time the family relaxed in armchairs and sofas running down the two walls of the small downstairs front room, or squeezed into the compact kitchen.

‘It’s quite common amongst West Indian families. Grandparents do things different…if they see someone on the street they’ll call out and say, “Come and have something to eat”…there’d always be something to eat.

I have been having Friday evenings for family as long as I can remember…they just drop in. It starts anytime after seven and sometimes finishes as late as two or three in the morning. Twenty people passing through is common…sometimes more. Some come every week. When they were younger they knew they could come and get something to eat and there’d be nothing to worry about. Now when they come in they’ll say, “Are you all right mummy…or granny?”, but the first place they’ll go to is the kitchen…!

They’ll just find some space. The children may end up playing on the floor in the hall, like they did on Friday. Sometimes the grandchildren sleep over and take over the upstairs.

And we adopt other family…maybe ninety-five percent are blood-related…but there may also be a sibling of a nephew or niece. We just adopt them too…nobody needs to know…they’re just family. It’s just how we are…very humble. Friends come sometimes and are always welcome.

Sometimes they’ll dance…they roll up the carpet and put it behind the settee and then anything can happen. Sometimes they dance outside. I used to dance but no more because I can’t move properly. Sometimes they play a board game or have a quiz…like filling in missing words in hymns. I am happy to sit in my chair and watch it all happen. Mostly we just sit and chat.

It can get as big as it wants…some of the family come every Friday. It’s become a tradition. Just after Lester passed we left the chair where he always sat so that he was here in spirit. When the children were younger Friday was Lester’s night for going out and he’d always come back with fish and chips …or shrimps…a bottle of rum or stout…or a box of weekend chocolates. So the children would wait up for him…eat fish and chips with him…always on a Friday. Maybe it stemmed from that…Friday was a special day…the family got together.

I just sit back and listen and watch in my chair in the corner…they’ll all ask if there is anything I want. Where I sit I can see and hear everything…it’s a pleasant feeling.

Some families do it but not everybody. When friends come they are always overwhelmed and say they wish their family was like this…for us it’s completely natural.’

Hermine looks back on her 60 years.

‘I’ve enjoyed life. Living in Brixton has been very good…very good. I have no arguments about it. I could do the things I wanted to do and I’ve been travelling…to Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Portugal, Hawaii, US, Jamaica, Corfu, Ireland…travelling with a friend as Lester didn’t want to go to places. I’ve always said I can die now because I’ve been to all these places.

Anything I’d change? I doubt it. I live life day by day…that’s me…there’s nothing I can do about it…I’m very, very easy going.’

Dates: 19 Sept 2019 to Jan 2020
Title: Windrush: Portrait of a Generation
Fairfield Halls
Arnhem Foyer
Park Lane, Croydon.
CR9 1DG
https://www.fairfield.co.uk/whats-on/windrush-portrait-of-a-generation/

Admission is free.
Monday-Sunday, opens 10am – 11pm
Tel: 0203 292 0001

The exhibition also has an accompanying book which can be bought at the venue or on Amazon.

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