Children uncover borough’s cultural tales

Children from Henry Maynard Primary School display their family history discoveries
Children from Henry Maynard Primary School display their family history discoveries

A school project has helped reveal the incredible backstories of Waltham Forest families, writes Linsey Wynton

To me Waltham Forest is more than a borough of culture – it’s a borough of multi-culture.

Two-thirds of residents are from minority ethnic backgrounds and 40% were born outside the UK. Locals come from every inhabited continent on the globe and many young people growing up here have otherwise unlikely dual heritage.

For my project ‘Our Borough of Multi-Culture’ I encouraged year-five pupils from Henry Maynard Primary School to interview a relative about their life at another time or in another place. I knew they’d produce some great stories with Waltham Forest being such a diverse place, but I could not have imagined the hundred-or-so biographies they submitted recounting tales of actors, midwives and zookeepers with lives that began as far away as Mauritius, Japan and Jamaica.

There were stories of grandparents who’d had to walk miles to get to school in South Africa, others who’d been evacuated to the countryside during the Second World War, and many who’d arrived after the war to fill staff shortages.

Some stories were incredibly moving, including that of a great granny who lost her husband to conflict in Algeria when they were in their 20s, leaving her to bring up her young daughters alone. Now in her 80s, she said: “I remember the war like it was yesterday.”

A grandfather, who’d escaped the war in Somalia, was asked what his proudest achievement was. He replied: “Bringing my family to safety in Britain… Seeing my grandchildren smiling and playing every day is all I need.”

There were heroic tales; a Polish dad who’d been a United Nations peacekeeper in Lebanon, meeting Kofi Annan. And there were adventurers; a mum who’d backpacked round the globe, a grandfather who’d been an engineer in Saudi Arabia’s oilfields, and one boy’s story of his great, great grandfather who’d been on Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition!

There were remarkable interviews including that of a British-born dad who migrated with his family by car to Pakistan as a child, travelling through nine countries including Iran, just after its revolution. He told his daughter: “We did not last a year in Pakistan, it was too different in ways of life in the 1980s and I missed my friends, my favourite TV shows, and fish and chips – so we moved back to England!”

There were also funny anecdotes like the grandmother who had a tantrum as a toddler, rolling in a cow-pat, and the mum who stole her brother’s chocolates and denied all knowledge – despite a face covered in evidence! Many ended with a word of advice, including: “No matter what life throws at you, there’s always a light to guide you.”

Our Borough of Multi-Culture is now on display in Wood Street Library and will be in Walthamstow Central Library next month.

If your school would like to participate in a similar heritage interview project: