British Social History: Photos By Thurston Hopkins

In the 1950s, immigration from the West Indies was becoming a political issue. At the same time, many people all over Britain were still living in slum conditions and poverty. Thurston Hopkins travelled to some cities in Britain to record what was happening.

1955. Three West Indian men photographed on the streets of Birmingham. Racist attitudes often made it very difficult for them to find accommodation and employment.

1955. Mr Siebert Mattison from St Anne in Jamaica now lives, sleeps and cooks in the same room with his Welsh wife and their three children.

1955. Kwessi Blankson from Jamaica offers a light to workmate Jack White at The Phosphor Bronze Company where he is in charge of the oil burners.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A child sleeping in a slum dwelling in the backstreets of Liverpool, where 88,000 of the houses are deemed unfit for human habitation.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A woman washing her face over a basin in her rundown Liverpool home.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A woman sitting by a stove with two children at their home in the Frank Street slum clearance area of Liverpool. She is probably their grandmother.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
Three teenage boys with fashionable hairstyles on a street corner.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
An elderly woman standing among the litter in a back alley of the Liverpool slums.

Liverpool Slums, November 1956
A group of children playing weddings.

An Alphabet Of My Life: X


dislike of or prejudice against people from other countries.
“the resurgence of racism and xenophobia”

I was introduced to this from a very early age. I didn’t know the word until I was in my teens though.

The area I was brought up in was predominantly a white working-class part of London. In my youth, many of the local older men had travelled abroad during the war, but few of the women had ventured outside of Britain. Attitudes to foreigners were ingrained. Almost everyone hated the French, dating back to the Napoleonic Wars. That had been updated by the French surrender at the start of WW2, and the Vichy collaboration with the Nazis.

The Japanese were detested because of atrocities in WW2, and their treatment of allied prisoners. (My uncle had been a POW captured by the Japanese.) Italians were considered to be cowardly, and not worth thinking about. As for the Germans, well they had started the war and bombed London and other cities, so were still hated with a vengeance in the 1950s.

Nobody I knew spoke a foreign language, and the only black or oriental people I ever saw were sailors from ships in the nearby docks. Foreigners were described as ‘Wogs’, Wops’, ‘Darkies’, ‘Chinks’, ‘Yellow Men’, even ‘Cannibals’. Much of this was purely descriptive, and rarely spoken with any outright malice. It mostly derived from ignorance, lack of interaction with outsiders, and the old jingoistic love of ‘Empire’.

At junior school, there were no foreign-born pupils, and no black or mixed race ones either. The only Jewish boy was the son of the barber in the local High Street. We were sometimes jealous of him, as he was excused morning assembly on religious grounds.

But Jewish people were also unpopular. They were considered to be money-grabbing, unfair businessmen, and not really welcome in that part of London. They were routinely referred to as ‘Kikes’, or ‘Yids’, and I knew some older men who would not use Mr Cohen’s Barber Shop because he was Jewish. Catholics were rare, and almost all from Irish families. Though there was a famous Catholic school nearby that many girls went to, where they were taught by nuns. The attitude to Catholics was that they were all Irish, the men were drunks who did menial labour, and that they had too many children.

Once there was an influx of West Indian immigrants in the late 1950s and 1960s, there were still very few living in our area. I went to a senior school with 1,500 pupils, and we had two West Indian pupils and one African pupil. As I grew into my teens, I still had little or no contact with anyone who was not white and working class, though I had been on trips to France by then. Once we moved away to the suburbs, the only foreigners in that affluent area were the Indian family who owned a local Indian restaurant.

Times changed, and not for the better. Race riots in West London, the rise of neo-Nazi political groups like the National Front, and overt racism reared its ugly head in many parts of Britain. I was working by then, and married not long after. We were not racist. We embraced the new cultures, the tasty food, the shops that stayed open late. We developed an interest in foreign countries, and travelled to them. We worked alongside collagues from many countries, of many races, and didn’t think twice about it.

Xenophobia has not gone away, far from it. But most of us did not inherit the attitudes of our parents, I am happy to say.

Our Multi-National, Multi-Cultural Country

I watched a report on the BBC about statistics for England and Wales regarding the numbers of people born outside those countries, but resident in them as of late 2021.
(Scotland was not included as it had not participated in the survey.)

I looked up some of the details available.

People born in India top the list, with a total of 920,000 born in India, but living in England or Wales.

760,000 people who were born in Poland also have a British passport, along with 539,000 people born in Romania.

EU nationals account for 36.4% of those born abroad, but living in England or Wales.

Between 2011 and 2021, the population of England and Wales rose by over 3,000,000 as a result of foreign-born migrants, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Other nationalities in the top five include Pakistan, and Ireland. Total numbers of foreign-born residents now exceed 10,000,000, almost 14% of the population.

Over 35% of all foreign-born nationals living in England and Wales live in Greater London

I find all of this fascinating. As a former Londoner, I can confirm the last figures. London is incredibly diverse, and the different cultures have added to the overall enjoyment of living in that city.

However, where I live now, in Beetley in rural Norfolk, I could count foreign-born nationals on both hands and have fingers to spare.