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Mrs Muriel Wharton

Muriel Wharton was born in Basseterre, Saint Kitts in 1940. She joined her husband-to-be in Newport in 1961 and went on to become the first Black foster carer in the city in 1993.

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A childhood in St Kitts

Muriel grew up in the Newtown area of Basseterre, the youngest of four children.

Her father James was a sanitary inspector and her mother Lara worked in a crèche. James rode a motorcycle to work and he’d often take Muriel out for a ride on Sunday afternoons. One of her favourite trips was to the airport to watch the planes taking off and landing.

It was a close-knit community and Muriel and her siblings – Mabel, Daisy and Edgar – got on really well. Edgar especially would look out for Muriel.

The family often walked to the beach where they would swim in the sea. 

James and Lara believed in obedience and regularly told their offspring: ‘children should be seen, speak when they’re spoken to and answer when they’re called’.

Joining in adult conversation was definitely not allowed.

School and education

Muriel went to school in Newtown, then attended the Village School and went up to the Girls’ High School when she was eleven. 

In those days, there wasn’t much money for books so the children wrote on a slate and did mental arithmetic – Muriel’s favourite subject.

Their teacher would say: ‘Your mother would send you to the shop with say $5 and you buy 10 oranges at so much’ and the children would have to work out in their heads how much change they would take back to their parents.

At other times, the teacher would read out a poem at a normal speaking pace and the children would have to write it down quickly and correctly.

There were more books at high school – but that also meant homework. Muriel left school at fifteen and went to work in a drugstore but she hated the work so went to work in a shop instead.

Church and religion

Most people in the Newtown community were deeply religious.

Muriel’s family attended the Moravian Church and the children went to Sunday school and enjoyed the singing afterwards. Muriel herself was received and confirmed in the Moravian Church and continued to go to church for as long as she could.

Her family prayed together, the children encouraged by their parents.

Travelling to the UK

Muriel’s uncle was the first member of her family to make his home in the UK. She recalls how he wrote home saying how cold it was; however, at the time, she didn’t really believe him.

Muriel was twenty-one when she left St Kitts to join her husband-to-be who was already living in Newport.

She had mixed feelings about leaving – she had two small children who she could not bring with her but she also wanted to be with the man she loved.

She remembers it being Prince Charles’ birthday (November 14) when she left St Kitts on the SS Montserrat.

She enjoyed the fifteen-day sea passage to the UK. There was plenty to eat on board and good entertainment. Most of the passengers were from Jamaica and St Lucia, or were English people returning to the UK.

Muriel shared a cabin with five other women, mostly from St Lucia and she remembers how excited they all were and how they wondered if the UK was really as cold as they’d been told.

Unfortunately, it was. Muriel believes she might have frozen had her boyfriend not brought along a coat when he came to meet her at Southampton – a coat he threw to her as she walked through customs.

Early days in Newport

Muriel and her boyfriend arrived in Newport on Friday 1 December 1961.

At first they lived in one room at the top of a house in Alexandra Road.

Muriel started working at Crompton Batteries the following Tuesday – the only Black person on the assembly line. Her boyfriend worked there too – in the pasting department – but relationships in the factory were frowned upon so the couple were barely able to acknowledge one another at work.

The couple were married at St Stephen’s Church in Pill on 17 March 1962 and their wedding reception was held at the home of Egerton Bassett [a Jamaican man who was also interviewed for the Back-a-Yard oral history project].

In 1966, they moved to St Mary Street and were able to send for their children. The couple later had three more children.

Racism in Newport

Muriel and her husband just wanted to get on with their lives in Newport; however, they were occasionally the targets of racist behaviour.

When the family moved to Ringland [a large council estate in Newport], they were the only Black people in their block and it was then that the racism got really bad with name-calling in the street and on the local bus.

Muriel recalls how one man would regularly call out racial abuse on the bus, saying things like ‘Get back to your own country’. Muriel would usually respond with ‘Let me be’; however, on occasion, she gave back as good as the racists gave.

Fostering

Muriel loved her own family dearly, but they were growing up and having their own families.

When she saw an advertisement for foster carers on the television, she wanted to do something to help. Muriel was approved as a foster carer in June 1993.

Six months later, she was asked to provide respite care for a family of four, including a baby boy on a night-time monitor. She kept the baby’s cot next to her all night for fear he might die.

Muriel loved fostering and has stayed in touch with many of the children she has cared for over the years. One boy now lives in America and has phoned Muriel from there.

She mostly looked after mixed race children, but has also cared for White children.

 

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