South Asian Heritage Month: David Roper-Newman
It made me remember that in 1973, I was a young and very junior civil servant in the then Department of Health and Social Security (DHSS), based in Rhyl, North Wales, and I’d been working there for a year in my very first job.
I volunteered to go and work for a fortnight in what was then referred to as an ‘Asian Resettlement camp’, at a place called Tonfanau, near Towyn on the coast of mid-Wales. This was to help the Department support the people who had effectively been forced out of Uganda by the dictator Idi Amin in 1972. Tonfanau was an old Army camp left over from the War.
(Extract from Google):
The military authorities closed the camp in 1965. The camp reopened in 1972 to host 1,500 refugees after dictator Idi Amin expelled the established Asian population from Uganda. As they arrived at the station in their hundreds, local schoolchildren and army cadets carried their luggage and ushered them to the camp canteen for a meal of curried liver and vegetables.
I travelled down by train from Rhyl, via Chester and Shrewsbury and Machynlleth (a long journey even now) on 1 January 1973, which was the last year that we worked that day – the following year it became a bank holiday.
My job, as cashier, was to go every morning with a colleague and withdraw around £300 from the local bank – in Dolgellau – a lot of money in those days that I had never seen in my life before, put it into a sack and be driven to the camp. The ‘refugees’, were I recall, all UK passport holders, hence their arrival in the UK.
As cashier (in the former guard house) I used to personally pay individuals small amounts of social security benefit cash on the production of their passports and compare their signatures before payment. There were two other colleagues, an acting executive officer, (my supervisor), and an acting Higher Executive Officer – the manager.
I felt very sorry for the people from Uganda who I recall were very gentle, polite and well-spoken, because mid-Wales in January is extremely cold, and the place is very bleak, on a hillside, and I knew that these people had arrived from I assumed was a warm country. Many were wrapped up in thick coats, blankets and hats and must have wondered what on earth they had come to. I know that later many of these people went on to make a successful life in the UK and start prosperous businesses too.
My regular job was to walk out every morning to a shed which I think must have been an old toilet, to fill the kettle with water for cups of tea. It was usually frozen up too.
I do recall one incident, towards the end of a day, when a whole family turned up as I had inadvertently paid the father a 50p instead of a 10p, and they brought the coin back! Can you imagine anyone doing that these days. After all decimalisation had only occurred in 1971, and I am not sure whether the 50p coins were introduced then or shortly after, so I blame lack of familiarity with the coinage. You can imagine how grateful I was that they had kindly brought the coin back.
It was also the first time I smelt curry being cooked but didn’t get the opportunity to taste that speciality until some years later.
I stayed with a colleague at a small B&B in Dolgellau, and that’s not exactly a fun place in winter either.