Every October, Black History Month gives us an opportunity to learn about the experiences and contributions of people of Caribbean and African descent to Britain, a history that is often absent from school textbooks and mainstream narratives.
This year’s theme is about ‘Saluting our Sisters’, allowing us to put the spotlight on the crucial role that Black women have played in building and shaping their communities, as well as inspiring and uplifting other Black women to do to same.
One such woman is the late Loris Wilson, who was part of the Windrush Generation. She came to Britain from Jamaica in 1961, aged 25, in search of a better life, settling in Leyton, raising a family and working as a nurse in Whipps Cross Hospital for nearly three decades. This is her story.
From Rose Hill, Jamaica to Tilbury Docks
Loris Wilson was born to Robert “Bob” and Miss Emily Daley on 8 August 1936 in Rose Hill, Manchester, Jamaica. She was the youngest of five children, her older siblings being Pearl, Clyde, Clovis and Vansette.
Loris’ official birthday is actually 24 September but despite there being a requirement to register new births within a month, this was not always possible for those living in rural areas of Jamaica.
When she was old enough, Loris went to work in a convent where she developed her skills as a seamstress. Hearing about the employment opportunities in post-war Britain, she was keen to follow in others’ footsteps from the West Indies and across the Commonwealth and come to the UK to help rebuild the country. However, she opted to delay her departure from Jamaica to ensure a young relative could also travel with her.
The official documents to enable Loris’ youngest niece to travel to London had not been authorised in time and instead of going on ahead, as many around Loris had urged her to do, she preferred to delay the trip to ensure her niece could make the journey too. Loris feared that if she left Jamaica without her niece, the young girl may not make the life-changing journey at all. Loris later told her own children, “It didn’t feel right” to leave her niece behind having agreed to come to London together. Loris’ stance and self-sacrifice was reflective of her caring and family-orientated approach to life.
The East End: West Ham and Whipps Cross Hospital
In 1961, the two women finally set off for Britain, travelling by boat and arriving at Tilbury Docks. On arrival in the UK, they initially lived in East London, in Poplar and West Ham, where they had family and friends. It was through this that Loris ended up becoming a lifelong fan of West Ham Football Club.
Loris moved across East London to Hackney, where she met her future husband, Keith. In November 1964, the pair married in a ceremony where all the family who were in the UK joined them to celebrate their union. Their family grew and initially they resided in Hackney before moving to Leyton in 1967.
As well as working, Loris was a homemaker who raised five children. She had two sons and a daughter, and also helped to raise two daughters by her husband from a previous relationship, whom Keith sent for after he had settled in the UK.
Loris’ early training as a seamstress helped when she first arrived in the UK, as it was one of the jobs she did. She also worked in a canteen in London Transport bus depots before taking up a new profession as a nurse.
Loris landed a job at Whipps Cross Hospital in Leytonstone, where she worked for more than 28 years until her retirement. She mainly did nightshifts, stationed in the hospital’s geriatric wards, where she cared for patients who were suffering with the same debilitating illness that would later rob her family of her too. Loris ensured her patients were always treated with dignity as they endured this difficult chapter in the twilight of their lives.
When talking to her family about her early experiences in Britain, it was always with fondness tinged with some sadness, as she explained the many problems she encountered along the way.
“No Black, No Irish and No dogs”
Like other new migrants in the country, Loris had to take any job she could. She was offered a job in the canteen of a bus garage in the East End of London. This was the 60s, and Loris would regularly came face-to-face with skinheads and Teddy Boys, who would shout abuse at her and her friends to “go back home” using awful racial slurs. She was also shocked to see signs “No Black, No Irish and No dogs” in the windows of properties when she was looking for accommodation.
Loris would later tell her children she never expected to see and hear such racist abuse, given that they had been invited to the UK to help rebuild the country and to do the jobs that the British didn’t want to do. It left her with a heaviness that she tried to hide knowing that despite her best efforts to integrate into Britain and to serve her adopted homeland as best she could, she was regarded by some as an ‘unwelcome foreigner’.
Yet it is a testament to her strength as a Black woman that she did not capitulate to the racists and taught her family the same. She always encouraged her children to fight their corner and not allow people to bully them. She gave them the tools to defend themselves verbally and to only fight back physically if absolutely necessary.
She pushed her children to work hard, to do their best to reach their goals, and to not be afraid of failure, from which they were expected to ‘pick themselves up, learn from it and move on’.
Loris raised her three daughters to be independent women. She wanted them to never have to rely on a man to do anything. Alongside this, she taught them the importance of family and looking out for each other.
She also passed on her love of cooking. Her children would regularly watch their mum busy in the kitchen, learning little tips about how to cook delicious West Indian food.
Women like Loris “had a really difficult time but were able to create the path we now tread”
Loris was not afraid of new challenges either. She opted to learn how to drive when she was in her forties as she craved more freedom. After passing her test, Loris brought herself a runaround, which helped her and her family greatly.
Even when Loris received the devastating diagnosis that she had dementia following a series of strokes, she remained a fighter and would carry on as best as she could.
Claudette, Loris’ youngest daughter, said of her mother: “She taught us to be strong and to fight. Not to give up, that there is always a way to get to where you want. It may not be a direct route, but you can get there if you put your mind to it. She always told us to support each other, and that ‘if we see someone who needs help, to help them, don’t walk past them’. She’d say, ‘you could be that person later on who needs the help’. She would tell us not to bring each other down.”
When asked why stories like the one about Loris Wilson are important to tell, Claudette said: “It is really important to hear the stories from the past, as women like mum paved the way for the rest of us to come through. They had a really difficult time but were able to create the path we now tread. We are able to be what we are because of them.”
“I was lucky enough to be able to get an education that mum would have loved to have received herself. Instead, she helped me to go to university,” Claudette added, before continuing about the importance of her Jamaican roots and identity.
“My parents came to the UK and dealt with the problems of being outsiders in a country that had invited them to be here. They forged a life where they stayed.
“Mum was in the UK for over 60 years, but she always saw herself as Jamaican although never went back to live there, as she realised Britain was her home. She never lost her Jamaican identity and was able to impart a lot of historical knowledge onto us as we grew up.
“I was very lucky to have her as a mother and a friend. It was my honour to be able to look after her in her latter life, to ensure she was comfortable at home and always felt loved. Even when she didn’t recognise who I was, she always knew I was someone who she was safe with and loved her and would look after her.”
Loris sadly passed away three years ago, yet her essence firmly remains with her descendants, as Claudette explains:
“We lost our beloved mother at the hospital she worked for over 28 years, in July 2020. I still feel her presence and she lives on through us and her grandchildren and great grandchildren.”
With many thanks to Waltham Forest resident Claudette Wilson for allowing us to publish photos of and relay details about the life of her late mother Loris Wilson for Black History Month 2023.