– to join Wales’ oldest multi-cultural community
THIS YEAR marks 75 years since the Empire Windrush landed in Tilbury from Jamaica bringing what became known as the Windrush generation that made such a significant impact on the social and economic life of this country. Its anniversary was widely celebrated in the summer.
But Cardiff had its own multi-ethic community for a century before Windrush, built around the families of seamen from more than 50 countries who settled in Tiger Bay. The oldest multi-ethic community in Wales, it continued to grow before and after Windrush. And – although it happened in the Windrush era – it was to this community that City URC’s Errol Alexis came to join his family already settled here.
Errol was born on the island of St Vincent in the West Indies in 1936. St Vincent was then a British colony and in school Errol was brought up with tales of great British heroes and singing Rule Britannia every morning.
His father was a Merchant Navy seaman – but his ship never traded in the West Indies, meaning he was away for long periods of time. Cardiff was his home port – so, like so many seamen from around the world, that’s where he decided to move his family.
First over were Errol’s mother and the two youngest of seven children. Money was a problem but after a few years, his father had saved enough money for Errol and the other two older boys to join the family. His two older sisters showed no interest.
Errol arrived in Cardiff in 1956 when he was about 20 and was successful in gaining a position as an apprentice plumber – three days working and two days in college. His mother was extremely proud of him – the first of the family to go to college. But it didn’t work out.
Life was so different in this country – Errol had never seen a train or a double-decker bus. And that was his downfall. It was so much easier to hop on a bus and go anywhere to see this wonderful new world that Errol missed far too much college.
Eventually he was called in and lost his college place and apprenticeship. He felt he had let his family down and was too ashamed to tell them – so he went and joined the British Army, hoping it would spirit him away immediately. But then there was basic training at Maindy Barracks, and he had to tell the family all about it, anyway.
So, although he didn’t really want to join the Army, there he was, a member of the Welch Regiment. In a colourful six years in the Army, Errol served first in Libya as Gaddafi, still then a major, was coming to prominence but was hastily posted to Cypress when civil war broke out between the Turks and Greeks – a highly dangerous time. His last tour was to Berlin, at the height of the Cold War, where he was a member of the international guard responsible for safeguarding the notorious Rudolf Hess in Spandau Prison.
It was the Army that got Errol – well known for his incredible fitness in the age of 87! – into athletics, an interest that has stayed with him all his life. He represented the Battalion in swimming, running and the high jump. Back home in Cardiff, he worked for the railways, mainly as a driver, for some 20 years and soon joined Cardiff Athletic Club, where he distinguished himself across the board.
In 1989, Errol represented the Welsh Triathlon Association in a major Triathlon competition; and in 2002 he set a new record for the Welsh Amateur Swimming Association in his veteran class. He also got to know the well-known, popular Labour leader Rhodri Morgan. They trained and raced together for years and became good friends.
The railway job came to an end with the privatisations of Margaret Thatcher that saw Errol made redundant. He then worked for a disability charity now called Scope, where he met and married Jackie, who was also working there. Jackie was member of City URC, Errol joined her there and it was in City URC that they were married.
His friendship with Rhodri Morgan came in handy when, a few years after the marriage, when he was told that – although he had then lived here for more than 30 years – there was trouble with his passport!
Errol was terrified. ‘I was married, with a mortgage, and Jackie was a British citizen,’ he said. ‘I would have been a stranger back in my own country.’ That was when Rhodri, then a Member of Parliament for Cardiff, stepped in to help Errol sort it and all ended well.
Errol is still involved in running. These days it’s the Park Run rather than competitive running – which he gave up only a few years ago! Usually among the runners, a bour of sciatica has reduced him to marshalling at the Park Run for the last couple of months but he hopes to be running again soon.
Errol’s father died in a tragic accident on board when his ship was docked in Scotland and his mother returned to the West Indies a few years later. Since then, Errol has outlived all his brothers and sisters in Cardiff and the West Indies but he and Jackie are still in touch with family in the West Indies and have visited the islands a couple of times, once with their son Matthew, now aged 26.
Errol is used to be interviewed about his life. He was interviewed by St Fagans Museum’s oral history series Windrush Cymru, Our Voices, Our Stories – though he made it clear his family connections with Cardiff came from a much older tradition – and has been interviewed by the BBC, S4C, Red Dragon and the British Legion, among others.