The Caribbean island that changed a UK town
Written By: Natricia Duncan
WHEN PEOPLE from St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) arrived in High Wycombe in the 1950s and 60s, many felt unwelcome and struggled to find a place in the sleepy market town.
But a lot has changed over the decades and today they are part of a vibrant and diverse community.
In recognition of the role that the community has played, the High Wycombe Town Committee signed a Memorandum of Understanding with SVG, which recognises the links between the island nation and the Buckinghamshire town.
The agreement means that the town council and local Vincentian community organisations such as SV2G, who witnessed the agreement, will continue to work together on a number of initiatives including an annual festival, a steel pan school that is the first in the UK to offer formal accreditation, and a Heritage Lottery funded, intergenerational project called Coming Back Home which documents the experiences and the impact of the Vincentian Diaspora on High Wycombe.
Co-founder and chair of SV2G, and executive of the SVG National Association UK Jacqueline Roberts, said she is passionate about raising awareness of the Caribbean legacy and culture in the UK. She described the heritage project as a “vital piece of untold history.”
Roberts hopes that the project will discover why High Wycombe has remained home to one of the largest concentration of Vincentians and people of Vincentian heritage in the UK.
According to scholar, playwright and curator Dr Michael McMillan, who created the well known Caribbean Front Room exhibitions, early Vincentian migrants were assigned to the area by the Home Office.
Other Vincentians, he said, followed to join family and friends and to take advantage of work in the thriving carpentry trade. Some, he claimed were even attracted by High Wycombe’s green, hilly terrain which has striking similarities to many parts of their lush, mountainous island.
Vincentians, he added, have made significant contributions to the development of High Wycombe.
He said: “High Wycombe is now a diversified town and Vincentians had a hand in making it what it is today. Their influence is evident in the food, the language, and they even helped to build its infrastructure, transport system, its university and its shopping centre.”
Councillor Tony Green, Chairman of High Wycombe Town Committee, described Vincentians as the “leading lights in local groups” and as “part of the fabric of the town’s everyday life.”
Over the years the relationship between High Wycombe and SVG has remained strong, with the Prime Minister of SVG regularly visiting the area to meet and address the Diaspora, and encourage the formation of new alliances through teacher and youth exchanges.
“It was a High Wycombe to St Vincent youth exchange programme that opened my eyes to the importance of heritage, its link to self-esteem and cultural identity and the need to connect with it. Essentially it sowed the seeds for this intergenerational project,” said Roberts.
The Coming Back Home project, she added, is as much about what was left behind as it is about the new experiences in the UK.
“The way of life, the religion, the culture back home is a big part of that conversation about why they came here and the experiences they had when they arrived; and naturally the next chapter of that story is about how future generations have adapted and integrated into this experience. It is about engaging the whole of the community in this exploration of our culture and teaching the younger generation to connect with who they are, but at the same time embracing other cultures.”
Head of the Heritage Lottery Fund South East, Stuart McLeod, said: “The project will raise awareness of the impact of migrant cultures among the larger community.”
Every aspect of SV2G, Roberts stressed, is geared towards recognising and celebrating the Caribbean legacy. The organisation has steadily risen to prominence, last year receiving the London 2012 Olympic Inspire Mark. Its steel orchestra was also invited to play for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations at Buckingham Palace.
Third generation Vincentian, 19-year-old university student Shani Edwards who has been part of the steel pan orchestra since she was eleven said SV2G has boosted her confidence.
“SV2G helped me to experience a sense of community and made me feel very connected with Saint Vincent. Being able to share that heritage with the wider community through experiences such as playing pan for the Queen is amazing and an honour.”
The organisation has also seen growing success with its yearly Wycombe Community Festival which showcases its steel pan orchestra and a variety of local, national and international talent.
Last Saturday it attracted over 3000 people.
Mayor of High Wycombe Councillor Trevor Snaith said the event was a celebration of the multiculturalism in High Wycombe and praised the Vincentian community for their contribution to local life.
He said: “They are excellent when it comes to creating community events that all of the community could participate in.”