Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE Interview

Eunice McGhie Belgrave

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave MBE

Eunice McGhie-Belgrave is nothing short of extraordinary. With a spirit and energy which are immediately apparent, she has helped countless people, and in so doing has received an MBE, a Pride of Britain Award, a Queen’s Jubilee Award, and many others; she owns a trophy cabinet which I couldn’t help quipping resembles that of an Olympic sprinter (well, she does also originate from Jamaica…) She has recently become one of the ‘faces’ of the new Library of Birmingham, which will open in 2013.

Now close to 80 years old, it’s hard to imagine that Eunice’s energy could have decreased with age. Along with her senses of humour and of purpose, it’s of vast proportions. When I met her, she had just come from her ‘sewing group with Asian ladies’, mostly mothers from the local school where she is involved. They were embroidering cushion covers for the Queen’s Jubilee, preparing them to send to the queen. She has inspired generations of local children, along with their parents and teachers.

Hailing from the Jamaican countryside, from a family she describes as being, “Poor, but decent, loved by the neighbours,” the enduring emphasis seems to have been on education and hard work. Her grandmother, a midwife, was the first to instil those tenets, as Eunice says, “From the age of three, I could recite you the scripture passages from the Bible.” At five she was moved up a year at school; at 11, she was top of the class. So much importance was placed on education in her home that they took in weekly boarders, students who lived too far away to travel to school each day. Eunice attributes her temperament to her mother and her grandmother. “They are the ones that put me in the position that I am now: stable, consistent, hard-working.” Some, however, might argue that her innate strength of character has something to do with it, too.

Eunice was working from the age of seven. For two hours each day after school, she would read, dictating for a teacher, who also had a government job, so she could type. That must have been tough for a small child, but Eunice just says that it helped with her learning, and then, with the first belly laugh of many over the next 90 minutes, “She paid for it, but I didn’t see any money. My parents did – and that was that!” Then she would go home and do her chores, including looking after the cattle, digging the earth for planting, and looking after her four younger siblings.

At 16, Eunice left home for a job in the city. But she’d already met her husband-to-be, an RAF airman with her uncle spent time at her house. She knew him and his wealthy family, who employed many in the area and even had businesses in the US. But after both his parents died, he wanted to return to the UK of his RAF days. He unwillingly left alone, but kept up correspondence with Eunice, continuing to ask her to join him. She was, unsurprisingly, reluctant: “I said, ‘You told me that England is cold, and I’m not living in any cold place, and you told me that the people are horrible, and I’m not coming anywhere like that.'” Finally, in 1957, there was a letter to her parents stating that this would be his final attempt to get her to follow him – and the ultimatum worked.

Eunice thought she might be able to help her family, touched by that common preconception that, in England, ‘the streets are paved with gold’. But of course, things were not as she imagined. “I could not believe that there could be a white person who does not own a home for themselves, or have a house to live in,” she said, illustrating she shock she felt when faced with the poverty, even homelessness in Britain. It would be hard not to notice how often Eunice speaks of “the struggle” that she was faced with upon coming to the UK, and one is very much aware that that is not coming from someone fainthearted. I asked her if there was anything at all that was positive about her arrival here, and the response – with accompanying laughter – was, “I came in the month of February. When frost was on the ground, when all the pipes are being burst open, and the sewer is overflowing. What was positive about that? Nothing.” We agreed that the coming of spring might have brought the first buds of hope.

Having brought with her references from Jamaica, it didn’t take Eunice long to find a job, in a ‘mental home’, where she worked alternating day and night shifts. She got married, and swiftly became pregnant. But whilst on maternity leave, she realised that, unlike back home, she didn’t have immediate family with whom she could leave the baby while she went to work, and she remembered her grandmother’s words: “If you have a child, it’s your responsibility, regardless of what’s going to happen, you should always look after your own children.” So that was that; Eunice stayed at home in Handsworth and looked after her children – of whom there were soon several more. “But I’m glad I did. I’m glad I did, for this purpose: I had no problem with them going out in the community and doing funny things and having this police problem or welfare problems or anything. They took their education, they get their education, and they’re still in their jobs now, aren’t they; even in these hard times, they’re working.” Her four children are now all in their late forties.

Whilst the children were young, Eunice managed by taking in sewing, being a tailor and a draper, working from home. And there was a lot to manage, as her husband, “Couldn’t face up to the responsibility any more”, and she, “Let him go” in 1971. So there she was, a lone mother of four, trying to make ends meet and pay a mortgage. But she trudged on, and there was time for humour despite tough times. She describes how, once a month, she would bring each child’s dinner on a tray and ‘turn the tables on them, declaring that it was their time to criticise her (within reason!) She would take comments – breakfast requests, behaviour criticisms, even comments on her attire about the house – and often act upon them.

After many years of this existence – during which time she was of course an active member of her community, involved in parent / teacher organisations, local committees and the like – the children were old enough, and Eunice began working for social services again, this time with older people. Her first son got a place at university but, despite her urgings, didn’t want to live in halls as he felt that he shared the responsibility of looking after his younger siblings.

Shortly after the riots took place in Handsworth, some of the white ladies in the street (“It was as street full of white ladies, really”) came and knocked on the door. They were confused, they didn’t understand what had instigated the riots and wanted to, and they felt that their exemplary neighbour was the person to ask. And, of course, they were right. Eunice, by then working for the probation service (she’s now on the board and gives talks there), was more than happy to help, clearly sensing a good opportunity for community-building and mutual understanding. She asked her employers for a space that she could use, and so began the coffee mornings – the seed from which ‘Shades of Black’ grew.

Coffee mornings for 50 grew into Christmas dinners for the elderly and Easter bonnets for the children; then into outings. And then Eunice decided to go a step further and, “Teach children how healthy living lifestyles would go, and to teach them to work hard.” By now a group leader in the Parent / Teacher Association, she sent letters to several schools; eight signed up, and so began her work with children in the allotments, teaching them to plant and grow food, then to prepare it. It is unlikely when she started the project that she expected it to win her invitations to meet and be honoured by the queen – but that was to come.

As a school governor, Eunice saw a problem – idle children congregating by the school gates – and as usual came up with a solution – a sewing group. There was no one else to run it, and so began four years of her teaching sewing to the sixth form, a project which continues to run now. And Eunice is now a stewardess at the Ryton Gardens organic garden in Coventry, which ties in with her allotment work with local children and gives her access to those who can come and talk to the children on topics such as growing organically, or exotic vegetables, for instance; she understands the value of injecting the fresh and different to keep the children inspired.

And then she, “Took on the railway station”. People kept on coming to her and moaning about the local railway station’s lack of disabled access. Eunice being Eunice, didn’t do what the vast majority of us do and leave it for someone else to deal with. She took action. “So I had a newspaper down, and the councillors down, and I had the children researching and writing letters about the railway station – so I think they’re going to do something. They start cleaning it up, and they’re going to do something about it in 2014.”

There was the memorial project: a First World War statuette just up the road from her house, right in front of the school, wasn’t recognisable as a memorial, and this incensed Eunice. Or, to put it in her words, “I couldn’t take it, man” – so she applied to the Heritage Lottery Fund for money, got it cleaned up, and had a plaque added. And she says, “Well, I don’t know if I’m a campaigner or not, but the thing is, if you live in a community, and you want the community to be improved, you got to do something about it. You can’t keep on talking about it but do nothing about it.”

Eunice has never been back to Jamaica. She didn’t have the means – or the time. And now, she still doesn’t have the time, though clearly her children would provide should she express any desire to go. But she’s not really interested, saying the only thing she has left to see there now is her mother’s grave, but that she’s, “Not really a travelling person” (though it’s all to England’s benefit that she once, just once, was.) She’s documented in Jamaica, though, by an article in the Jamaica Gleaner written by a cleric visiting the UK, so her fame has preceded her. I asked Eunice if she has a picture of what her life might have been like had she remained there. “I think I would still be working hard. The question has been asked before, ‘If I was in Jamaica would I have any medals?’ I would say exactly the same thing: if I worked as hard as I worked in England, and did the same things, I think it would happen.”

At one point Eunice was involved with Birmingham’s Ikon Gallery and, not surprisingly, was the one who rose to a challenge from them to write a story. She penned what became a booklet: A Journey from Paradise to Reality. “It’s just a small little thing, explaining some of the lifestyle in England, and I’ve written [in it] about racism.” Later, in the early nineties, she included section of it in an essay as part of a community and advice work course (which she completed in half the allotted time), and encountered opposition – from a tutor who demanded that she change it. Her response: “Every student comes, they have a right to write what they want to write, so if you want to fail me, fail me. And if you don’t want to fail me, you leave me alone.” She passed. The booklet is now held in libraries as reference material.

And that leads us to her latest venture; representing the Library of Birmingham. As a lifelong exemplary champion of education, she was an ideal candidate when she responded to the library’s call for ‘faces’, instigated as part of their marketing push for their extraordinary new structure which is due to open in September 2013. Over the years, the existing library has been integral to her work with Shades of Black, advertising it, exhibiting, and providing research material for the children.

Eunice is an astonishing combination of modesty, whilst well aware of her contribution; quick to take advantage of opportunities to help, but not easy to take advantage of. “Well, a reporter came in to see me once, and he said, ‘To tell you the truth, you don’t know how good you are.’ I said, ‘Well, I wasn’t thinking about that, I was just doing something when somebody ask.’ I think that’s the other side of the story; I can be called immediately upon to do something, and it’s still within the boundaries and the reach of what people wants. Because of how I work and think about things. And I know when I’m in this position I’m going to be called upon, so I’ve always make myself ready for that situation, and if I’m called upon, I’m going to do it.”

Her four children are asking her – I asked her – when she’ll retire. But, to be honest, while asking question I can’t imagine it could happen. Eunice might, I suppose, get as far as saying that she was retiring, but as soon as an opportunity paraded past her eyes where something should, or even just could, be done to help people, she’d be off again. So her response was no surprise: “I can’t see it meself yet. Because even if I retire from out there, I’ll be doing something inside, that is beneficial to people outside. Even if I’m sitting down, I will be doing something quietly for the people outside.”

So, then, her plans for the future? She has no plans to scale down anything that she’s currently involved in, and is still, “Constantly on the lookout for ways of keeping the project going, and keeping the children inspired and learning” – and is about to take on a new governorship at the local Stechford Primary School. She’s also, under a little duress, trying to write an autobiography. Other than that, “The plan for my future, the good Lord knows. He might tell me one of these days – and he might not.”

After meeting the lady in person, Shakespeare’s line came to mind: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them.” Well, Eunice McGhie-Belgrave actively seeks ways to help people, jumps upon those opportunities when they arise, and yet nothing is thrust upon her that she does not wish. Her achievements are proof of her greatness.

Library of Birmingham