A Jamaican in Lincolnshire

Celebrating Local History Month: A Jamaican in Lincolnshire 

Article excerpted from Memoir written by Ralph Ottey, author of the book A Jamaican in Lincolnshire.

In 1948, fresh from 4 years’ service as a driver in the RAF, Jamaican-born Ralph Ottey finds himself in Boston, Lincolnshire looking a job… 

It was cold, damp and foggy, near the end of 1948. Getting up at 16 Fishtoft Road, Boston, was a far cry from waking up in Little London or on the Eros. Fortunately, I had a clear idea of what I wanted: to get a job, get married and settle down. I needed a job and if I did not get one very soon, then back to the RAF I would go. I went to the Labour Exchange in West Street and registered as unemployed.  

A gentleman of around fifty years of age interviewed me. He wanted to know what kind of employment I was seeking. I showed him my diploma in business studies and recommendation from Mr Harman at the County Commercial College and said I would like something clerical. He read the documents, then asked me if Mr Harman was a white man. I replied that Mr Harman looked like him. He then told me that he had nothing against me, but I would never get a job in Boston befitting my qualifications. ‘No Boston businessman will want you to keep his books and accounts and know his business,’ he declared. He suggested that since I had been a driver in the RAF, I would be better seeking work as one now.  

Ralph’s employment ticket, issued by a disbelieving Labour Exchange official, 1949.

That interview almost knocked the wind out of my sails; I had attended college because I did not want to earn a living driving trucks or buses. He did not offer any further help, or even suggest I take the civil service examination. He was happy to sign me on for unemployment benefit, something quite foreign to me. I left the Exchange feeling dejected. I had not expected that kind of treatment, even though I had been warned it was tough on civvy street.  

There was an advert in the Standard stating that Messrs G.N. Beaulah, Wholesale Grocers, Pump Square, Boston, required a bookkeeper/cashier, and to apply in writing. It looked good to me. So I applied for an interview and, within a day or two, received a letter offering me one. That is what I had been taught at college: don’t apply for the job, apply for an interview. I was over the first hurdle. The next hurdle was to be on time: as I had also been taught at college, it was better to be an hour early than a minute late. Also, that I should be well dressed but not overdone, be relaxed and feel confident.  

A proud captain of Carlton Cricket Club receives the Winners’ Shield from Alderman Bradley, President of the Boston and District Cricket League, early 1950s.

I turned up at the offices in Pump Square at three o’clock on a Thursday. The receptionist was expecting me and showed me in to Mr Beaulah, who introduced himself, as well as his brother-in-law, Mr Gus Isaac, and the company secretary, Mr George Sandall.  

Mr Beaulah did most of the talking. He put me at ease by asking about my boyhood more than anything else. Both he and Mr Isaac had served in the First World War. There were frequent smiles all round, which made me feel quite good. Then unexpectedly, Mr Beaulah said that in my application I had not stated that I was Jamaican. I smiled and replied, ‘Well, sir, you did not say you wanted a Jamaican.’ ‘Point taken’, he said, and there were further smiles.  

He asked to see the college diploma and letter of recommendation. They all examined them and handed them back to me. Mr Beaulah then asked to be excused and the three of them left the room. It can’t have been more than a few minutes but felt a very long time. When they returned, Mr Beaulah announced they were offering me the position at £5 per week. Needless to say, I accepted there and then. He asked when I could start and I said straight away.  

Ralph and his editor Heather Hughes celebrate the launch of his memoir, 2024.

I returned to the Labour Exchange to get signed off. The gentleman there seemed surprised to see me again and when I told him I had got a job as a bookkeeper/cashier at Beaulah’s, you could see the disbelief on his face. He gave me a ticket to the effect that I had gained employment. I never saw him again, but that ticket is a highly prized possession. He probably meant well but he had got it all wrong.  

Ralph Ottey went on to build a life in Boston with his wife Mavis. He became an important part of the local community, serving as captain of the cricket club and director of the chamber of commerce. In 2009 he received a Civic Pride Award in recognition of his efforts. 

This article is excerpted from Chapter 10 of Ralph Ottey’s memoir “A Jamaican in Lincolnshire: From the wartime RAF to a Life in Boston”, out now from Lincoln Record Society

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