Windrush passenger, Alford Gardner, 95, reflects on 73rd anniversary and Covid-19

Today, 73 years after the arrival of the SS Empire Windrush from the Caribbean to the UK, 95-year-old Windrush passenger, Alford Gardner, tells the NHS Race and Health Observatory about his journey and how he has spent the past year in lockdown.

The nonagenarian who has lived in Leeds for seven decades, arriving first in 1944 as an RAF recruit and returning in 1948 on the Empire Windrush, also gives strong advice to all communities about the Covid-19 vaccine.

At just 22 years of age, Alford paid £28 to board the ship in Kingston, Jamaica, with his brother Gladstone and hundreds of migrants from the Caribbean, headed for Tilbury Docks in Essex.  All were set for a new life during the three-week journey, which involved entertainment, music, gambling and playing dominoes, to rebuild the country Alford has since made home.

Due to the extension of Covid-19 restrictions, Alford, who served in the RAF as an engineer, will mark this year’s celebration of the 73rd anniversary of Windrush day with a Zoom event in his honour.

“I normally get invitations to various events and just get a ticket and turn up. The lockdown has been extended until July,  I don’t exactly plan things, I’ve always been like that, you don’t know what might turn up.”

As someone who also had no hesitation in taking the Covid-19 vaccine, Alford says: “With Covid, you can’t see the virus, you can’t detect it, it is holding the whole world to ransom – all you have to do is follow the advice that the experts are giving  –  that  advice is for everyone. I’ve taken the vaccine and I am fine; I didn’t have any side effects.”

And when it comes to mandatory vaccinations, Alford Gardener is equally clear.   “Yes, I definitely think people should be forced if necessary. My advice for everybody is if they don’t get the vaccine and they catch Covid, the cycle can go on and on, this thing can go on a rampage.

“My advice is, follow the advice and get vaccinated. Vaccinate everybody. If you don’t know what to do, seek advice from the experts.  Everybody should be vaccinated, all communities, black and white.”

For Alford, his decision to choose a new life in the UK on June 22 1948, would not change, even if he had the choice to start over. Like many, he experienced racism and was subjected to incidences of discrimination but didn’t let that hold him back. “I was serving in the RAF, I’d settled in Leeds – I liked the place, I liked the weather, I liked the people, I got through it and survived the worse of the weather.”

That winter which Alford describes as the “absolute worse” was in 1947. He had arrived first as a teenage RAF recruit in 1944 where he met ‘some nice people’ whilst  training as an engineer, before temporarily returning to the Caribbean.

Whilst that winter was bitter and occurred during the summer month of June, during his RAF training period, in Filey in Yorkshire, Alford put his survival of it down to being “young and fit”.

“I’d never known a winter like it.  You know something, I am one of those people – I just don’t like the sun that much anyway,  anywhere where there is sun shining, I’m always in the shade, I’ll find a bit of shade even in the Caribbean – I am not a sun man at all.”

For Alford, the last year of lockdown has meant more time for gardening and less on going to bingo. “Since I was a boy, I have always liked gardening, flowers, everything and anything concerning being in nature.”

Alford turns 96 in January and loves to spend time with his large family – three sons, five daughters, 16 grandchildren, 21 great grandchildren and 1 great, great grandchild – listening to all types of music and genres – “as long as its playing, I will listen to everything”.

Currently Classic FM is on the radio dial. And when it comes to food, Alford is not a fussy eater. “As long as it is well-prepared, and edible, I’ll eat it. I don’t say no to food.”

“I’ve been home every day since lockdown, you don’t know what is happening but it hasn’t been bad at all, it’s just one of those things, I’ve been in my house.”

Talking to people about his life, spending time with family and bingo help keep up  energy and his positive outlook on life.

Now he is back doing the one thing he routinely likes to do,” I like to go to bingo every day, it’s a place to go, it’s what I like. I’m a born gambler  – I like playing bingo even though I do have lots of friends and socialise with everybody, I can also be a loner at times and prefer my own company.

“I haven’t won big but I am at the front, I am not losing.  I do like a gamble, I used to have a flutter on the horses but I’m not one for ordinary card games. “

While bingo is his top choice for entertainment, over the years he has tried other activities and sports, including boxing.  He used to train with the late Reg Park, who won both Mr Britain and Mr Universe competitions but curbed his interest after a few months, as he says, “I had a family to raise.”

He also set up a Caribbean Cricket Club with seven West Indian friends in Leeds,  which is still going but Alford is no longer actively involved. “I like sports  – I follow everything – football, boxing – I’ve dabbled in the past, I wasn’t particularly good at any but I played the lot – especially cricket. My dad was a good sprinter too.”

On some days, he picks random numbers on National Lottery draws. Like bingo, he hasn’t won big yet, but is ‘in front’.  “If I won, I would take the whole family away for a few weeks – Jamaica, Canada, America…”

“Oh gosh, the things I would do,  I have so many places to go,  I would go to America first.   When I go abroad, I don’t go to hotels, I always stay with family whether that be Kingston, Ohio, Georgia, Florida.  My last holiday was in 2019 to the states and Jamaica  – I’ve travelled to most of the Caribbean Islands but by far I prefer Tobago, it’s very pretty.”

India, Europe and Egypt are other destinations Alford has travelled to.

“I recall being in Goa in 2004 at the time of the Tsunami, this time I was in a hotel and came down to the dining room and was told about it by the hotel manager, it was the first time I heard the word ‘Tsunami’. I wasn’t affected or worried but my family was.”

Looking back, Alford doesn’t know if any of the original passengers are still around from the Empire Windrush, but on the Windrush scandal –  he is clear that it shouldn’t have happened.

“It should be sorted out and people affected compensated. They will sort it out but when it comes to these types of things, it all depends on what outcome is wanted, by whom and who people are dealing with – 95% of it is all about politics – I  keep away from politics.”

If he hadn’t chosen a career in the RAF, his other choice would have been a vocation in the medical field. “As a little boy I wanted to be a medical doctor but it took a lot of money to study, back then I was too busy playing cricket and worrying about girls. I would have been a doctor in anaesthetics, I always wanted to help people.”

Ironically, Alford’s last full-time job was as a first aid nurse at a tractor factory.

Today, gardening is on his mind. “I do my best,  I’m getting old and lazy now but I need to cut the hedges, they are getting out of hand.”