The winner of the 2018 Pollard Prize for the best paper given to an IHR seminar by a post-graduate or early career researcher was Anna Maguire for ‘”You Wouldn’t Want Your Daughter Marrying One”: Parental Intervention into Mixed Race Relationships in Post-War Britain’, delivered at the Life Cycles Seminar.

The Pollard panel commended the paper for its searching analysis of interracial relationships in post-war Britain which breaks new ground while simultaneously critiquing a range of existing scholarship, with which it engages deeply. Particular strengths include the author’s focus on the ‘everydayness’ of mixed-race relations, her examination of the role of families in shaping couples’ outlooks and the reception of their relationships, her emphasis on real-life stories of acceptance in the context of dominant narratives of hostility, her re-reading of touchstone social surveys to rediscover a plurality of perspectives, and her deft interweaving of multiple sociocultural sources.

Here we give an extract from the paper which will be published in full in the IHR’s journal Historical Research:

Parental Consent for Mixed Race Marriage

In ‘A Problem of Today’, published in the agony aunt page ‘Ask Evelyn Home’ in the magazine Woman in 1960, a 17 year old described how she had fallen love with a ‘coloured’ widower in his early thirties, whom she had met at church, and how she feared her family’s response: ‘My parents know nothing of our association and I am afraid to tell them because I am certain they will disapprove of it’. In response, ‘Evelyn Home’ (a.k.a. Peggy Makins) advised the girl: ‘Why not be brave and tell your parents now? You will have to if you hope to marry soon, because you are still under age and would need their consent’.

Mixed race relationships and ‘miscegenation’, particularly between men of colour and white women became the central issue for white perceptions of race in post-war and post-Windrush Britain. While ‘race-relations’ discourse described the ‘dark strangers in our midst’, concerns about the ‘new’ presence of black, predominantly West Indian, men manifested most sharply when it threatened to move from the streets into the familial home. Parental condemnation and outrage resound very clearly in positioning mixed race relationships as a societal problem, as clearly demonstrated in the question ‘Would you want your daughter marrying a Negro?’, designed, as Wendy Webster remarks, to test the limits of white liberal credentials.

Yet, there was a much more varied response by parents, both within white communities and communities of colour, to their children’s relationships across ethnic lines, which could, significantly, change over time. Further still, class and its associations with those slippery terms ‘respectability’ and ‘decency’ was crucial to interracial relationships and how parents felt they needed to intervene. My research has identified parental response on a spectrum and as a process – from the anxieties and apprehensions of children at telling their parents about their relationship, to parental warnings and early intervention, through exclusion and defiance, to reconciliation.

Film poster from Flame in the Streets (1961) which explored mixed-race relationships

One of the most significant features of these cases is the resistance and defiance of children to their parents’ views. Marriage was often a point of conflict for families, indicating permanency and the suggestion of mixed-race children. White parents were concerned about their daughters’ (and it was usually daughters) long term security. In a series for the Daily Herald in April 1956, Victor Anant (an Indian journalist) published a series of articles about mixed marriages including one on ‘parent troubles’, where he interviewed parents about their reasons for opposition. Mrs Lindsay, from Lambeth, ‘naturally’ refused permission to her daughter Katie when she asked to marry her West Indian boyfriend: ‘If it’s a boy from our parts I can check up, go and talk to his parents, find out for myself’.  In the same article, a man from Birmingham who worked as a railway porter talked about his daughter Jennie’s marriage to Henry, a black bus driver: ‘Supposing Henry just vanishes one day, back where he came from? Who’s going to chase him thousands of miles?’ Men of colour were unknown and unfamiliar in multiple ways; their transnational mobility a disadvantage in the eyes of parents who wanted to be reassured of the long-term success of marriage.

As a result, when permission for marriage was refused, private familial disagreements about a relationship might move into the public sphere as young women and their partners demonstrated their desire for agency over their relationships and sought permission from magistrates to marry. In November 1954, the case of Myra Holt, aged 18, and Abdul Ahmed, a 22-year old from Pakistan who had lived in Britain for a number of years, was reported in the Daily Herald. Myra and Abdul met during a lunch break when working in the same factory and had come to court to seek permission to marry. Her father Benjamin, who had refused to speak to Abdul, gave his reasons for opposition as ‘the poverty and degradation that so often follows mixed marriages’. But Myra’s mother, unnamed in the article, disagreed and had given her consent because of how happy the couple were: ‘Ahmed is a decent hard-working chap and he makes Myra happy’. In court Abdul used the money he had saved for a house deposit – a further symbol of respectability and ability to provide for his future wife and family –  as evidence of his commitment. This influenced the magistrates who told the couple they could marry and that it was up to them to make a success of it.

The Yorkshire Post in 1960 recorded a similar case in Bradford:

‘We wish you the best of luck’ the chairman of the Bradford bench said when he gave a 19 year old white girl permission to marry a 28 year old West African labourer. Her parents opposed the application mainly because the fiancé was coloured. The African asked the girl’s father: ‘Do you think that [because] I am black that I am not a human being?’

In July 1958 a 17-year-old London girl eloped with her West Indian boyfriend to Gretna Green as the girl’s parents did not approve of her marrying a ‘coloured’ man. This defiance of ‘forbidden love’, as it was reported in both the Daily Herald and the Scottish Daily Mail, had a degree of sensationalism but indicated that in some cases children were able to challenge and escape their parents’ control and that their love was recognized as valid and legitimate. Such stories remain an important testament to everyday ground-level agency and autonomy, in the lived experience of mixed-race relationships.

Anna is a Teaching Fellow in Twentieth Century British History at King’s College London. Her work explores colonial and post-colonial encounters in Britain and the British Empire. Her doctoral research examined the encounters of colonial troops from New Zealand, South Africa and the West Indies during the First World War. She is also interested in the memory and commemoration of colonial participation. Her current research is investigating mixed-race relationships in Britain in the post-war period.