Black History Month: The history of Hertfordshire’s Windrush families and the museum telling their stories

North Hertfordshire Museum is one of Hitchin’s most interesting places, and it’s open throughout the year.

The museum, which can be found in Brand Street, boasts four amazing galleries highlighting the area’s fascinating history.

You can discover things about North Hertfordshire very few people will know, including the history of the area from prehistoric times to the present day. There is also some amazing art on show.

Read more: Latest news and features from Hertfordshire’s Black Communities

Run by a passionate team, one of the main aspects that the museum tries to focus on is the community.

In October, to celebrate Black History Month, the museum held a very special exhibition.

‘From Windrush to North Herts: a new life in a new country’ gave people a fascinating insight into the history of the Black community in North Herts who have been living there for decades.

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Hertfordshire is now a more culturally diverse area, but shortly after the Second World War the county saw people from Caribbean islands moving to Britain to start a new life.

Life back then for the community would have been hard – working in demanding labour jobs that were poorly paid, and Black people were regularly discriminated against simply for the colour of their skin.

Many moved to North Herts, including Letchworth Garden City, and thankfully stayed there for the rest of their lives.

This then naturally grew the community in our county and many people who live here now would have families linked to the Windrush Generation.

Noticing this special and moving piece of history in Herts, the museum produced an incredible display showing real life pictures throughout the 1950s and 60s of the community that lived here.

Pictures of Windrush families from Hertfordshire
The exhibition highlighted the incredible history of Hertfordshire’s Windrush families

In 2007, Hitchin Museum collaborated with Eric Blakely and Gurdev Delay in putting together an exhibition and book – North Herts African Caribbean Roots – with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Using a mixture of archive photographs – some of which formed the exhibition – personal recollections and poetry, the book was compiled and is on sale in the museum shop.

One of the most fascinating parts of the exhibition was the fact that the museum had very little information about the people in the photographs.

Curator of the museum, Keith Fitzpatrick-Matthews, said the exhibition wasn’t only to celebrate Black History Month but to celebrate the Black community in Hertfordshire, whilst aimed at trying to find out as much information about the people as possible.

He said: “We thought it would be a good time to bring these back out into public view to get the community involved because we know almost nothing about the photographs.

Records of Windrush families from Hertfordshire
Many families moved to the county as part of the Windrush Generation

“We know almost nothing other than what was written in the book. The authors put together a series of notes accompanying photographs so it’s been quite hard to say anything about the exhibition but what we’d like is members of the community to come in and tell us about who these people are.

“A lot of the black community arrived during the 1950s and 60s from some of the Caribbean islands – alot of families come from Grenada, others from Barbados.

“So they formed communities in North Hertfordshire. A lot of them got jobs in Letchworth Garden City and they filled vital roles within our local communities.”

The photos ranged during this time and showed families at parties, musicians playing in the local area and more.

Black History Month in Hertfordshire

Many of the photos at the exhibition – which can be seen online on the museum’s website – had captions with barely any information.

One of the photos showed a family of six of mixed ages, known as the Lee family.

Other photos showed a family at a wedding with the names of bride and groom attached as Tony and Purlyn.

Keith stressed his eagerness to find out as much information as possible about the people in the photos.

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Not only does the museum take a look back at the history of the area but also holds a number of special events to raise awareness of other communities too.

One of those events involves raising awareness of the fabulous photographs of Brian Sawford. Brian was a local resident who passed away in 2020, with the exhibition commemorating his wonderful work.

One of his main passions was photography and he loved taking photos of the varied landscapes and wildlife of the district. He was a talented photographer and well-known naturalist, serving in various roles for the Letchworth Naturalists for many years.

His work is being shown at the museum until January 2022, so head down and check out his amazing work out.

Other exciting exhibitions with special meaning include ‘The Woman Inside: Paintings by Katie Wilson’.

The museum’s website reads: “Katie is a well-known local trans woman, who has organised a Pride Picnic on Windmill Hill and coffee afternoons. She has long suffered from anxiety and as part of her therapy, she has taken to creative writing and painting.

Exterior shot of North Hertfordshire Museum
The exhibition was created by North Hertfordshire Museum in Hitchin

“She has published a number of books of poetry and lyrics exploring issues around her identity as a trans woman. The paintings deal with darker issues of depression and she is keen for people to discuss mental health openly and candidly.

“The exhibition looks at both mental health and trans identity. It straddles Transgender Awareness Week (13 to 19 November) and Transgender Day of Remembrance on 20 November.

“The Awareness Week draws attention to the disproportionate discrimination and violence faced by transgender people and the Day commemorates those who have lost their lives as a result of violence.”

Keith added: “As a museum we want to represent the local community and we want to involve people who are parts of smaller communities in our community.”

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