Windrush journey to the Palace

In 1960 an excited ten-year old named Floella Benjamin boarded a ship in Trinidad and sailed for two weeks to reach London and a much longed-for reunion with her family.

On arrival she found that it wasn’t just the British weather that was cold. As part of the Windrush Generation, Floella and her family were often met with hostility, threats and intimidation. However despite all the adversity, the insults, and the challenges that marked her early years in England, Floella would go on to blaze a trail through television, education, charity work and politics. Fifty years after disembarking that ship, Floella became Baroness Benjamin of Beckenham. And in 2020, was awarded a Damehood to go with her OBE that had been bestowed on her in 2001.

It is, by anyone’s standards, a remarkable journey and one which Floella shared in 1995, writing her children’s book ‘Coming to England’. Towards the end of 2020 she published a second version of this story; a picture book edition aimed at younger children that has become a number one best seller.

“My publishers released a special edition of the original book for its 20th anniversary.” Floella says. “And it made us consider the fact that it was excluding younger children, a group who crucially need to understand who they are. I always say ‘childhood lasts a lifetime’. It’s so important you find yourself and see your place in society early in life as it can have such an impact on your future.”

The nature of the subject matter could make it a challenge to write for very young children – how do you convey the realities of 60s racism without repeating the hateful words of the perpetrators? It is something that Floella focused on extensively to make sure the book was appropriate for the age group without losing its message and meaning. Even in the original book, the language is not as strong as if it were written for adults but it retains its impact.

Floella says: “You have to get into the mind-set of the age you’re writing for, and use words and situations that young children will understand. Everybody feels emotion, everyone knows the feeling of rejection. So while young children might not understand racism or discrimination, they will likely have felt loneliness or sadness, they may have felt excluded or different, or they may have experienced bullying.

“If you frame your story around circumstances children comprehend, they will have empathy with the people going through it. I have had comments from children comparing the book to a time a parent was away for just a week (mine were away for two years) or going to a new place for the first time, and also questioning why some characters were mean. They understand the principles of the story and the importance of kindness.

“Plus ultimately it is a positive tale with a happy ending, so I don’t want children to dwell too much on the negative. I love giving people hope”

"I love giving people hope."
Baroness Floella Benjamin of Beckenham, DBE DL
Former Chancellor of the University of Exeter

Floella on Play Away in 1983

Image (c) BBC Image Library

A key way of engaging with these young audiences is through the illustrations. British illustrator Diane Ewen is responsible for the beautiful drawings that accompany the story, and she and Floella worked closely together to ensure all the details were perfect.

Floella says: “It was very important to get the right illustrator. Children need to look at the characters and engage with them, and the scenes need to express the emotions of the story. Diane had a wonderful feel for the characters and I helped with some of the details – getting the clothing correct for the time period, the specifics of the Trinidadian birds, insects and flowers, that kind of thing.

“I was glad to have a person of colour illustrate the book. Because of the personal experiences that they would bring to the book, I didn’t want the characters to be stereotypes but to be real and engaging.

“It’s so critical for children to see themselves in books. Later on, in text-only books, readers can imagine the characters as they want, but with a picture book they are relying on the illustrations. Children need to see themselves on the pages to know that they are important. If the hero of the story is Black, Asian, or disabled like they are, then they know they can be the hero too. Back when I read books on Play School in the 70s & 80s all the characters in the illustrations were white and I strongly felt there should be some diversity. The producers just simply hadn’t noticed because they themselves were always represented in the books.I pointed this out and got them to change that mindset. For the illustrations to have diversity and be inclusive, representing all the children watching the show.”

2020 was a year when conversations on racial equality and discrimination came to the fore, including further reports on the Windrush Scandal. As a part of the Windrush generation herself, Floella successfully campaigned for a Windrush Day and was appointed Chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee, charged with commissioning a monument to celebrate the major contribution the Windrush Generation has made to Britain. For someone who has been on such a journey, how different does society seem now compared to 1960?

“Things have changed certainly. For example my mother in 1958 would never have dreamed of becoming Chancellor of a university, but that is exactly what I was able to do at Exeter. However there is still implicit bias, when you’re Black and you enter somewhere new your colour goes before you, it is usually the first thing you’re noted for or judged on.

“When I asked for more diversity in television back in the 70s I was told to shut up or I’d never work again but slowly, as more people spoke up, things have now started to change. You have to pave the way for others. I know I won’t get everything done but I can supply the shoulders for the next generation to stand on.

“I hope that I have inspired others. I often hear from my Exeter graduates (Floella spoke to more than 35,000 graduating students during her time as Chancellor) telling me how they are changing the world and I cannot tell you how wonderful that makes me feel inside. To know that I have had a positive impact on a person who is then going on to do something good for others, just makes my heart sing.

“I want 2020 to be the new age of enlightenment – when eyes were opened and shackles were broken. When we right the wrongs of the past and move on to a better future, without hatred or anger in our hearts.”

Floella with her statue which was unveiled on the University of Exeter Streatham campus in 2017 to celebrate her 10 years as Chancellor. Its presence ensures students can continue to benefit from a hug, just in a slightly different way.