Eric’s Story

I came to London from Jamaica aged 25. England felt like the mother country to me – I knew all about it. In Jamaica, the only language my family spoke was English; our lifestyle felt English. On my first night in the UK, in September 1954, I remember getting a cab from London Waterloo to my new home in Hackney, and bursting into tears. My emotions were so full. It had the romance of a film.

In Jamaica I had been a poster designer. When I came to London, I did a few years at the Central School of Arts, and then spent nearly 15 years working for publishers, doing graphic design and typography for magazines. It was fabulous and had a real air of glamour about it. As someone with a creative approach to life, that job suited me so well.

My career switched to social policy in 1970. I was invited to design some literature for a race relations organisation, and they then asked me to join their management committee. I had no training in social policy, but I knew this was the career for me.

I’m a people person and this gave me the opportunity to meet people. I really fell on my feet.

I bought a house in south west London, near where I live now, and ended up becoming a landlord for Black students who came to the UK through the British Council to study. That was how I got into the politics of housing and race. I became an active person dealing with housing and homelessness.

50 Voices Eric Wandsworth

In the 70s, Wandsworth Council invited me to explore how Black people were being housed in the borough, to see if they were getting fair treatment. I did a research project and concluded that white people were being housed in the nicer areas like Putney and Wandsworth Common, while Black people were housed in not so attractive areas. There was a difference in quality.

The council examined their policies on the issue in greater detail than ever before, and I was asked to become the Race Policy Officer to carry out my recommendations. It was the first job of its kind in the country.

I remember a newspaper wrote horrible things about me - saying I was a parasite coming to the UK and moaning that the policies were wrong - but I didn’t mind. After all, I was still getting paid a salary! It did me a great deal of good, helping to make the housing in the borough benefit everyone.

50 Voices Eric Wandsworth

I became known as a man who knew a lot about housing and Black issues and was asked to join a lot of management committees. I got involved with the charity NACRO, exploring the link between Black people, housing and offending, and, in 1991, ended up writing a book - Black people's experience of criminal justice.

It’s easy to see the thread – one thing led to another. I was the happiest person in the world. Despite working across the country with NACRO, it all came back to Wandsworth.

Eric - a few years back!

There was an organisation in the borough called the Black Elderly Project, and they approached me to become their Chairman. I didn’t want to at first as I was at the age where I was thinking about retirement. But in the end, I thought this would be one last way that I could help other Black people.

That was 25 years ago now! Over time, the service changed to become what is now known as the Age Activity Centre (AAC). When the service started becoming financially unviable, we needed to merge with a charity.

I was responsible for the final decision of which charity to merge with. We held a day where organisations came to us and pitched why they wanted to run the AAC. I remember it was the last presentation of the day, and a lady came in, and I recognised her immediately. I had worked alongside her at NACRO and admired her greatly. It felt like fate.

She was working for Hestia and told me all about the organisation. I chose them to merge with us. The organisation embodied the same values and philosophy of the Age Activity Centre. Hestia’s concern for well-being was palpable.

The AAC is somewhere for older people to go for activities and good food. The culturally specific element of the service is still there though. We celebrate things like Black History Month; it’s an opportunity to delve into the history and culture of people from the Caribbean.

50 Voices Eric Wandsworth

Many of the members are in their seventies and eighties. Some of their partners have died; their children have grown up and gone. It’s not easy to meet new people at that age. The centre provides these people, who would otherwise be very lonely, with an opportunity to communicate with others and share their experiences.

There’s a social benefit but it is helpful on medical grounds – physical and mentally. The members are happier; they are healthier.

My role is interesting. I partake in both sides – I am an ambassador for the service, but I also get involved as a member. We all take part in the choir together, have lunch together. At Christmas, the place is so full – everyone is dressed up to the nines and the atmosphere is electric. It’s a party; age doesn’t mean a thing to anyone there.

The centre is my lifeline now. You can’t hear yourself think for the fun we have sometimes. We are one big, lively family. I can’t tell you how much I miss it during the pandemic.

My life has been a rollercoaster. I have had some absolutely fabulous times which put the wind in my wings for decades, but I still feel there is work to be done. Housing is always at the end of my fingertips and I would still like to create further change for people.

My next step? I want to become a fully-fledged volunteer for Hestia. I might be 91 now, but I’ve still got more to give.