Phyllis Sylvester

Phyllis Sylvester, 1961

Growing up

"I am the eldest of four children. I was brought up by my Grandmother and my aunt.
I had a very happy childhood, we had plenty food, maybe not material stuff, such as money and clothes, but we had a farm, so we had a lot of food vegetables, fresh fruits and fun, we used to have a lot of fun, playing in the fields. No toys, but we make our own toys, and we find our own fun playing, or climbing trees, play with animals, lovely sunshine.

My mother is the youngest of ten children, and I was the first child. In our society really, grandmothers play a big role in our life; they normally take probably the first, or the last kid from daughters or son. And so being as my mum was fairly young, and the last child, my Grandmother took over. My mother wasn't there, it was my aunt and my Grandmother, because we live in a family home with my aunt and my uncles still at home, and my Grandfather, it was a fairly normal arrangement.

My mother come visiting and we all call her Aunt, yes but I never see her as a my mother, she was just an aunt visiting. I really don't know much about my mother until very late, and that probably was too late. My Dad too, live in the city, but he live in Kingston, my Mum and Dad wasn't married, and he lived in Kingston and he visited sometimes."

Family life


Phyllis Sylvester and her daughter, Bradgate Road, Catford, 1967

"We used to have a "Pardoner" which we used to throw weekly. If there's twenty people in it, you'd throw for twenty weeks, and somebody would get the draw every week. You'd throw £10 a week per person, and at the end of the twenty weeks you would get the whole twenty hand. Two of that, and you could put a deposit down on a house. Because in those days, you needed £400 - £500 for a deposit.

A woman couldn't buy a house on her own, so we used to have to get a Pardoner together. You could get the loan from the bank, although it was very difficult. And houses were £6000, £7000 per house, so people were always able to buy a house. Really, that was when the boom of selling houses started, because black people were really buying, because you have to. If you don't and you come here and you end up having children, and you have to get out of the one-room system, so everybody's aim was to buy their own house! The only people who was buying houses then was black people anyway.

And so a friend of mine was living in South East London, and they said to me the houses were much cheaper in South East London. So we moved to South East London, and we bought a house in Catford.

I remember I went to Woolworth's to start to decorate my house, because we didn't have any furniture, so we got furniture for most of the rooms. And for the living room I went and bought a settee. And in those days, you get the little centre table which used to be a picture of a big bird, or a woman or something, and I went and bought one in Woolworth's. And on my way back I bought my magazine and a vase with flowers, and I was very proud to think, you are setting up your own house."


Phyllis Sylvester and her sister with the little ones at home, 1965

"I found it very hard. Because you used to get help, there would be so much help for me, if I had been at home in Jamaica. But I had to do it on my own, no help, so it was hard.

Men in our generation is "We go out to work and bring in the food; you stay home and look after the children and the house". So there was no coming and helping me to bath them and things, that's my job, so it was hard, to me it was hard. You don't even expect it you know, from the time he gets home from work, you have everything done because that's what was expected of you. I be up in the morning take Richard to school, I'll be back for the others. Once they gone to sleep I will do the housework, clean, wash, iron, cook, and shopping done at night.

At the time there was a supermarket in Catford that opened late. It was a joy for me! I used to take washing to the laundrette, and that have to be done during the day because my husband hate me to go out of the house at all once he was in, I must be there."

Daily Life


Sylvester family, Catford, 1977

"I always tell my children, don't sit down and worry about colour. You are who you are, and you are the best! And you are going to go out there, and nothing is going to be handed down to you on a plate, and you are going to fight.

And whatever those teachers are telling the white kids in the school, make sure you listen and do the same thing. And you make sure you come out of that class tops. And don't worry about the colour of your skin because you are who you are, you going to get there. It might be slow, but you are going to get there if you want to get there.
And my children really hold that, they never think anyone is better than them. And they go to school and they put everything into their education. Education is something to get through this colour thing and also to make them a better person."

"You pass the street, and they never advertised so much, it was mostly on a board, and you would see on the board, "No Irish, no dogs and no Blacks", even the dogs come before. "Room for rent. No Irish, no dogs and no Blacks" and that was all over the place.

A friend of mine was living in South East London, and they said to me the houses were much cheaper in South East London. So we moved to South East London, and we bought a house in Catford. We find that where you come from in Jamaica, people tend to stay together. So where I was from, there was people from my parish there, but when we moved to South East London, there was another set of people from another parish, but we all get on really."

Free time


Phyllis Sylvester, with her children and grandchildren, celebrating a birthday, Forest Hill, 2000

"I have lovely little grandchildren and I love them with all my heart. I am very proud of my children, and my grandchildren. I couldn't tie myself down with bringing them up, like my Grandmother did, but I love for them to be around me, see them regularly, buy clothes for them and I just love them to pieces.

I am at the point where I am happy and contented. I have done my bit, I work hard, I think I have made a good life for myself and my children. What I would like now in life, which I am doing, is to just have an easy life and travel, I love travelling. And so I try to get away as much as I can. My children are very independent, they've done well, and I make sure that in my own life I can afford to keep myself and look after myself without the help of my children. They have done well for themselves, and I have done well for myself too."

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