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 Post subject: A Sri Lankan in England - 1953 - 1998
 Post Posted: Sat Feb 18, 2006 5:25 am 
A Sri Lankan in England - 1953 - 1998

Contributed by: Malcolm Abayekoon - 2004
@ movinghere


I left Colombo, Ceylon for England on May 29th 1953 on board the P&O liner Maloja. The ship called at Bombay, Aden, Port Said and Marseilles. The coronation of Queen Elizabeth 11 took place whilst I was on the high seas, as the ship was flying the Red Ensign a grand party was held that night. The Maloja berthed at Number 34 shed, Tilbury Docks on June 22nd. My passage cost 73 inclusive of meals. The boat train brought me to St. Pancras Station in London where I was met by an English lady who my father knew. My heavy cabin trunk was deposited with Carter Paterson's goods transport agency for delivery to where I had temporary accommodation. Carrying a small suitcase and accompanied by the lady who met me I for the first time travelled by underground railway. It was on a fine evening that I reached 100 Grove Road, North Finchley, my home for the next few weeks.

In Colombo I worked for a short time as a clerk for Mackinnon Mackenzie & Co, the P&O agent there. As an Asian I found it difficult to obtain clerical work in London, what was available was poorly paid. My first job in this country was as a van boy on a flatbed truck delivering soft drinks. My wages were 2.10 per week, out of that 2 went for rent with full board. I lived near my place of work hence no travelling expenses. That left me with 10 shillings. On Saturday evenings I went to the cinema, the rest of the week was boring to say the least. I found the work too heavy and quit after a few weeks.

A few temporary and casual jobs followed such as at a dilapidated factory that renovated jerry cans for the US Army. Most of the people employed there were new immigrants. That employer I think broke every rule in health & safety regulations but the money was good, with overtime I was drawing about 17 a week, in those days that was a good wage. About mid 1954 I found employment as a clerk in the stationery department at Lyons Corner House, Coventry Street, a stones throw from Piccadilly Circus. The weekly wage was not great but 3 meals a day was provided even on off days.

In December 1955 I left for Denmark and in March of the following year I married a Danish girl who I had met in London. Our intention was to live in that country but that was not to be. My application for a work permit was refused. I came back to England on my own, found work and after about six months went back to Denmark thinking that I might be able to persuade the authorities there to let me stay. I made several more trips to England and back to Denmark and in spite of various people appealing on my behalf the permit was refused. My case was even taken up in the Ceylon Parliament. The Danish Justice Minister was responsible for granting foreigners residence visas; I got an interview with him and was told I would be allowed to stay if I had some special qualification such as a nuclear physicist!

I had to forget about living in Denmark. Back in London I found work as a commis waiter at an Indian restaurant in the West End. After a few days there I realised that conditions for the staff were Dickensian, we had no proper place to have our meal in what then was said to be the best Indian restaurant in the world outside of India. Our locker room was across the road in a dingy basement with poor washing facilities. There was one wash basin for over 30 of us including cooks and kitchen porters. To make matters worse our pooled tips were used by the proprietor to subsidise the wages of some employed there who were not waiters, that was not the usual custom where the tronc system operated. The owner of the restaurant occasionally called a staff meeting and he did most of the talking. During one of those meetings a waiter not long there pointed out to him that as a matter of principle what he was using some of the tips for was wrong. Pointing a finger at that man the boss said, "People like you cannot afford to have principles". The man who uttered those words was then a Conservative Member of Parliament.

After about a year I was promoted to waiter with a station of 5 tables and a commis to assist me. I canvassed the staff about joining a trade union in an attempt to improve conditions, all agreed. With their consent I formed a branch of the Municipal and General Workers Union. No sooner the proprietor heard about that he sacked me and a man who assisted me in running that union branch. We were told that our services were no longer required as we were inefficient. My assistant had been working there for about 10 years. Officials from the union tried to mediate on our behalf but were not successful. A withdrawal of labour was called in the winter of 1959 that I believe was the first official Asian catering workers strike in this country. The stoppage lasted about 7 weeks in bleak wintry conditions and we had to give up partly due to people who could have been members of a union not supporting us. Delivery men walked past our picket line to keep the restaurant supplied with food and drink. Most of the people who patronised that restaurant were not the sort who sympathised with trade unions, however there were a few who did not cross the picket and even gave us some money. Although we were defeated some good did come out of our efforts. Conditions for the people employed there did change for the better.

With that chapter in my life closed I secured a position with the Royal Mail where I worked for 18 years.

Soon after I reached these shores I met a man from the old country who had arrived in 1904 and two who had come to serve the King during World War One. It is now 51 years since I first set foot in this land, I don't think there can now be many from Sri Lanka who have resided in this country for as long as I have.


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