I served 22 years in the British army but some people still said 'p*** off back to where you came from'

Bernard Steele at home in Southport with his Certificate of Registration as a British citizen
-Credit: (Image: Liverpool Echo)


Bernie Steele is 81 years old and describes himself as a proud British citizen, but there were times in his life when he was told "p*** off back to where you came from."

Bernie has lived in England for the last 64 years and served in the British army for two decades. He has raised a family here and is a proud father and grandfather who enjoys regular family visits to his home in Southport.

To understand the circumstances around why Bernie was told he didn't "belong'" it's necessary to explore one of the most significant periods in modern British history.

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Bernie was born in Saint Catherine, Jamaica in 1943 when it was still a British colony and describes a difficult time with limited opportunities. His mother left as part of the first cohort of the Windrush generation during the 1950s so Bernie was raised by his grandmother.

By 1961, Bernie was 17 years old and actively looking for work. Before he could make a plan of action, the decision was taken out of his hands when his grandmother told him he was leaving for England - something he calls the 'best news I'd ever had'. However, at the time, he says Jamaica had run out of passports so he was given a small piece of paper which allowed him to travel.

Bernie arrived in England in February 1961, just a month short of his 18th birthday, and had 10 shillings in his pocket. An hour after arriving he took a taxi to his mother's residence and was charged 10 Shillings. He joked "I was wiped out before I even got started."

For a young man raised in the Jamaican bush, Bernie was unaccustomed to the trappings of life in post-war Britain. He had never seen a television before and describes being shocked by the weather. He said: "I remember opening the door two days after being in England and there was all this white stuff. I'd never seen snow before and I didn't want anything to do with it so I slammed the door shut."

Like many people of his generation, Bernie was invited to England by the British state to help fill post-war labour shortages and rebuild the economy. During the 1950s and 1960s, Caribbean countries were struggling economically and job vacancies in the UK offered new opportunities.

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Between 1948 and 1971, it is estimated more than 500,000 people migrated to Britain from the Caribbean as part of the Windrush generation. Many of those who came were offered jobs as manual workers, drivers, nurses and doctors and are credited for building up the newly-established National Health Service.

28th March 1954:  The British liner 'Empire Windrush' at port.  (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
28th March 1954: The British liner 'Empire Windrush' at port. (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images) -Credit:Getty Images

However, when people from the Caribbean arrived in Britain, their experience was far from what they expected. Bernie said: "It was a lonely feeling. Whites and Blacks didn't mix that much and we were not allowed into places like pubs and cafes. It was hard and it took me a long time to get my bearings."

Despite promises of a warm welcome, many people faced racist discrimination, violence and harassment. They were also excluded from housing because of the colour of their skin and often had to accept menial jobs for which they were overqualified.

This was certainly true in Bernie's case. He recalls being offered a job in a boarding school near Harrow and it sounded like a good opportunity. However, when he arrived, he was told his job would be to clean the rugby boots of the students. It was something which Bernie could not accept so he refused the offer, walked out and resolved to join the British army.

After failing two aptitude tests he finally passed on the third time of asking after he visited a new recruiting office. Bernie was told by an officer later in his career he would have 'failed' the first two tests because the army only accepted a limited number of black people. Diane Abbott MP later revealed the British army had a "strict quota limiting the number of black recruits" which ran throughout the 1960s.

Bernard Steele in East Berlin when he was serving in the British Army
Bernard Steele in East Berlin when he was serving in the British Army -Credit:Liverpool ECHO

For Bernie, this confirmed a long-held suspicion. He said: "Before I came here, I never thought about racism and never went looking for it. I'd never heard the word 'racism' because I was like a drowning man just trying to survive. I just wanted to get on with life.

"So it was upsetting to realise what happened because it made me lose confidence in myself."

However, Bernie said there was an equality between his fellow soldiers and credits the army with changing his life. In total, he served 22 years and was cited for "exemplary conduct" during his service. He said: "To coin a phrase, 'I was born in Jamaica, but I was made in the British army'. It was a place [where] I was able to create some roots."

One of the main reasons Bernie is grateful for his time in the armed forces has to do with the birth of his first child. He was stationed in Germany at the time and wanted to register his daughter's birth, but was was told to contact the Jamaican embassy because he "wasn't British."

The intervention of an embassy official - outraged by Bernie's treatment - who managed the administrative process resulted in him receiving a Certificate of Registration as a Citizen of the United Kingdom in 1974.

In context of what happened with the Windrush scandal, it is difficult to overestimate the importance of this document for Bernie and his family. It allowed him to register his daughter as a British citizen and made it possible for Bernie to successfully apply for a British passport in later life. Fifty years after receiving the certificate, it is still in pristine condition among Bernie's possessions.

The Immigration Act of the 1970s gave Commonwealth citizens the chance to apply for indefinite and permanent right to live and work in the UK. This was a cause for much relief, particularly to people who had travelled to the UK on their parents' passports or (those like Bernie) who were just given a slip of paper to get them through immigration control.

Nonetheless, in 2018 the Windrush scandal broke in the news after it was revealed the UK Home Office had kept no records of those granted permission to stay, nor issued the paperwork needed to confirm their status. It had also destroyed landing cards belonging to Windrush migrants, in 2010. Those affected were unable to prove they were in the country legally and (in many cases) had their access to healthcare, work and housing completely revoked.

Bernard Steele at home in Southport
Bernard Steele at home in Southport -Credit:Liverpool Echo

The administrative failure spoke to a deeper, more personal issue which was about "belonging" - many people, including British army veteran Bernie, asked themselves what they had to do to be considered British as opposed to 'others'. Despite living in England for 64 years, it is still a question Bernie wrangles with today. He said: "In my old age now, I find myself with time to reflect and I do think of how people like me were treated.

"We all started with an innocence because they wanted us here. We were needed.

"When I heard people telling me to 'p*** off and go back to where you came from'. I can't help but think how much I've contributed to this country regardless of whether I was born here.

"If we don't try to change things and make amends for past mistakes, it will continue indefinitely. I class myself as lucky because a lot of the people who came here didn't have the same experiences as me and suffered through the [Windrush scandal] situation."

Bernie is supportive of organisations like the Liverpool Advocates for Windrush (LAW) which was established in 2023 and is a voluntary organisation working to address the injustices caused by government policies which caused "untold misery" to some of the Windrush generation and their families. Again, at the heart of this campaign is the concept of "belonging" and its importance in people's lives - questioning who gets to decide who "belongs" and on what terms.

When asked where he belongs and whether he considers himself British or Jamaican, Bernie is unequivocal: "I am British and this is my home. Good or bad, whatever life I am living now, I've earned it here."

Next month June 22 will be the 76th anniversary of the arrival of the passengers of the Empire Windrush in the UK. The day celebrates the contribution and achievements of the Windrush generation and their descendants.

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