Part of the Monro family collection

Marianne Monro

Extracts of a recorded conversation with Marianne Monro from Smethwick. Marianne shared  some of her family photographs and tells us a little about her life growing up in London and Smethwick. 

Marianne (left) with her mother and sister Vee in London in the 1960s.
Marianne and her sister with her father in London in the 1960s. 'This is when we lived in 101 Highfield Road in London, we privately rented a room and it was a time when black African Caribbean and Asian people shared houses.'

My dad's name was Kenneth Mayor Monro and my mum's name is Meena Monro, but actually her name before she came here was Minnaxi Patwardhan. My mum married someone below her caste. Her views and the way she thought was very much about treating people with respect and it doesn't matter what colour you are, it doesn't matter what class you are. So she was a rebel in her own right in India. There’s always been a bit of a rebellious streak in me and my sister Vee because of how we were brought up.

She came to England because she was married, she'd got two children in India. The man she married wanted to come over to England to look at nursing and she came with him. He came here with her, but he left her and went to America, leaving my mum stranded here in England. My mum couldn’t speak very much English but then she met my dad and she managed to get a job. I don't know how she managed it, I mean if you think about this was in the sixties and basically, my mum got a job in Marks and Spencers on the fish counter. If you understood the racism that was going on around that time, well I don't know how mum got that job. 

Studio shot of Marianne (left) and her sister Vee, taken in the early 1960s

We didn't have any money but the fact that they spent money to take photos like these studio says something. They're not like normal old fashioned photographs where you sit there and everything's got to be pristine. They're not like that.  These are photographs of naturalness.

Marrianne's father Kenneth Mayor Monro. Taken in Calcutta, 1948.

My dad was in the Indian Air Force as a gunner during the war, and after that, he was a police officer in Calcutta. When the British Empire collapsed and the Anglo- Indians were leaving, he came over to England, to London.  He was living in Chelsea and his first job was to get a job at Fulham Baths as a swimming pool attendant. It was a big transformation. If you think about all those changes in jobs, from a pilot and a police officer in India then coming over to England as lifeguard attendant. From there we moved up to Birmingham, to Smethwick, where he got a job in a factory called IMI in Perry Barr as a sheet metal worker. There was an opportunity for better work in the Midlands, there was a lot of industry going on here.

If you look at that picture and you look at my son, well he's got the same frame. My son is going to take his pilot exam, and he is also a casual lifeguard attendant for Sandwell Leisure Trust. He didn't know my dad really, I find it really interesting how the two things connect. nature or nurture.

My dad was the youngest boy out of his family. Looking back, I think he was quite a soft boy, quite sensitive. He had to toughen up, and I think he toughened up to the point that he became something that wasn’t really him. He joined the Calcutta Police and that made him quite a hard sort of person, but actually, this wasn’t really his nature. As he got older he mellowed.

Kenneth Mayor Monro as pilot during WW11
Marianne's dad while serving in the Calcuta Police, taken in the early 1950s

My dad used to sing this song ‘Get the fire brigade, fetch the fire brigade’ and it used to make us laugh. He used to get his toes and pinch us on our legs with his toes and they really hurt but he used to do that.  And I always remember that I was greedy and my dad used to eat really slowly. I used to finish my food and then just stand next to him and wait for him to give me some food. He used to give me half of his food and that carried on until we were quite older.

How much we loved our dad. He was born in 1926 and came over when he was about 38 or 39. My dad was charming. I can just see him walking around the house with his boxer shorts on. Although he came from India and with it's heat, when he came here I can remember it being something like 68 degrees and he was saying "oh it's too hot".

Marianne's mother taken in the 1980s

My mum was a Brahmin by birth. She was always a rebel even when she was in India, so she married someone of a lower caste . She was quite a socialistic person. Her view was you treat people with respect and doesn’t matter what colour you are, doesn’t matter what class you are. So she was a rebel in her own right.

We were close and my mum was always loving, she was a loving person. My mum was a character. She was so clever, I don't mean clever as in getting degrees although she was at Bombay university when she was younger, my mum was really clever. Clever in a way that was about people. She'd got a charm about her as well.

Although she was a Hindu she had a side that was quite westernised. So she'd have her Indian days and her English days. So her Indian days would be that she'd be wearing a sari and she'd be cooking Marathi food. And then she'd have her English days where she'd be wearing trousers and she'd speak English. She'd go to Smethwick Library and go and get the maximum books she could get at that time. Five of them would be English books, a combination of Catherine Cookson and Mills and Boon. The Indian books would be a combination of Bengali, Marathi, Urdu, and Hindi. So there was a split. I think that when people came over here they're trying to be identified with this country, but then they got those other things they want to hold on to.

My father could speak a little bit of Urdu but it was pidgeon Urdu, he couldn't really speak a lot. He was always of the opinion that 'when in Rome, do as the Romans do' so that you don't want to teach your children any other languages. So although my mum could speak five languages, we couldn't speak any because of my dad's views. But then it got mixed up because when mom would take me my sister to the Indian Picturehouse, the Punjabi Picturehouse,  we'd sit and watch a Punjabi film which was invariably all the same. Good guy - bad guy, romance, or something like that. And we sit in the pictures without understanding the words but we would understand the storylines are always the same.

early school photography of Marianne's sister Vee
A school photograph of Marianne

By the time we were at the age of eight and ten, our parents had separated. The fact that you love both parents but one's more vulnerable than the other, you move more towards the parent that's got more stability. You're aching for the other person too, and you still want to see them. 

At six o’clock on a Friday my mum would go off and then come back on Sunday and so me and my sister would be on our own in between. She went off. She came back on Monday for work. But she would equip us with everything, we weren't left with nothing, we were left with food and everything but it was Vee who was the one that would sort everything out, she looked after both of us. So it was a really big responsibility at a young age. By the time she reached fourteen or fifteen, the teenage years, she sort of went off the rails a little she left school with 8 GCSEs and then took her A-levels. She then went to university to study law and then started at the bar. It was really quite difficult for her, being from her class and race. She worked in a law centre for some time up in Newcastle and then after that she went on to become a barrister. It was a huge achievement. I am really proud of my sister, what she has done is amazing.

In Smethwick, we lived in Murdoch Place, one of the blocks on the estate. If you ask people about those blocks - Bolton and Murdock Place -  people would say to you that there were a lot of rough kids living there. But actually, people looked after each other. Parents, whether they be white, black or whatever, parents would either be going out to work most of the time.  So you'd end up with people coming together on the play equipment in the middle of the estate, although the play equipment was rubbish at the time it looked like it was really good. People would come together and play.  And you'd be out all day.  Either there's nothing to do in your house or you hadn't got anything to eat, but there were no boundaries between people because there everybody was the same.

You didn't generally find Asian people living in blocks of flats.  So we had a bit of turmoil to deal with. They’d call us 'curry buns' and Vee - she was smaller than me - well everybody was scared of Vee. She beat up one of the local trouble makes because they kept calling us curry buns, and actually, after that, we'd made our mark because nobody touched me, because of Vee.  I used to say ‘do you know who my sister is?’  So then we were accepted to be like everybody else.  So the curry bun name stopped because now we'd got an identity.

View of Murdoch Place and Boulton Place. Two 11-storey blocks containing 128 dwellings, built 1954, now demolished.

I think there was a bad name to those blocks from the beginning. We didn't know at the time but if you lived in Murdock and Bolton place you were the lowest of the low. But people just mixed. People just played together, and there was no childcare. You went out of your house from early in the day,  and you were making the most of it. You would be mixing with different people playing and talking, just making games.

You did find one difference though because if people came to my house,  or they went to any black people's flats they would always be included to have something to eat. But if we went to visit white people they would say - "you can't come in because I am havin' my tea".  So that was a bit of a shock - culturally there was a big difference there. So when I talk about my own family beings strands of English and strands of Indian, when it comes to food I've definitely got the Asian mentality. So if my son brings his friends round I am feeding him because that's what you do.

Marriane and Sandra.

This is me and my best friend Sandra, she grew up like me. She lived in a terraced house in Smethwick and they used to have goats in the back. The dad used to cook for the Caribbean club and you'd go in the backyard in this pre-1919 house where the billy goats were kept. And he'd have all the cow's feet lined up because he's cooking them.

We used to have to walk the billy goats out of the house, down the road to Corbett Street to the old gardens to feed them. We were about 15 at the and we were interested in boys by then. And she'd have a stocking on her head. We'd walk down the road with these billy goats and somebody would walk past that we'd fancied and it's like, “oh god, we've got the billy goats, and you've got your stocking on your head!”

She was wearing a stocking because a lot of black people in those days wanted to straighten their hair so they used a hot comb. But in order to keep her hair flat because it would go all over the place, she'd flatten it with a stocking to keep it in place after she'd straightened it.

Marianne and Vee in Smethwick in the 1980s
Marianne and her parents at Vee's wedding.
Marianne at her home in Smethwick with part of her family photographic collection.

I think I'm happy. I worked in Liverpool for a year and came back to Smethwick and I've traveled all around the world but I've always come back to Smethwick. I just like living here.

I don't think I could move far from Smethwick because I like living here. I like living around the chaos and people and shops within shops. Walking on the streets and there are crates all over the road and chaos, and people talking in different languages. 

Marianne with her son Akeem on holiday in Brixham.

Thirty years on I just feel comfortable, I feel at ease. I feel there's a different mix of people now. There are still people from the Asian, black, and white communities. But there's a lot of newer communities that have now come in. But to me, it's the same really. It's just a different group of people and that gives you more breadth of cultures and languages and food - the same mix that we had in Bolton and Murdoch Place, people coming together. It's not all positive, but to me, the mix of culture, people, and languages is really what makes Smethwick so unique. I feel definitely belong here.

Get the latest updates