Today is the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain on 22 June 1948. The ship brought migrants from the Caribbean to help rebuild the country following WWII. To mark the occasion, a soldier tells the story of his family’s links to Jamaica.
Sergeant Matthew Thresher, aged 37, is a Troop Sergeant in 57 Training Squadron, 3 Royal School of Military Engineering Regiment (3 RSME) at Gibraltar Barracks, Camberley.
He joined the Army twenty years ago to learn a plumbing trade after being expelled from The Royal School Wolverhampton.
Matthew, known as ‘Fresh’, then followed his father, Nicholas, around the world as his dad served for nearly three decades as an Army Medic.
Fresh’s mother’s family is from Jamaica. He takes up the story:
“My nan, Alice Anderson, was born in 1932 in Portland, Jamaica. She was the ninth of eleven children.
“Her mother, my great grandmother, was of mixed heritage and remembers her grandfather being a white man who had to go to Cuba to marry his black wife. During this time, despite slavery coming to an end, inter-racial marriages were outlawed.
After being expelled from school, I wanted to become a plumber. My dad suggested I joined the Royal Engineers after talking to an Engineer who said you can become a plumber through the Army. Sergeant Matthew Thresher,
57 Training Squadron
3 Royal School of Military Engineering Regiment
“Aged 17, my nan met my grandad, Arthur Thomas, who was from the village of St Thomas in Jamaica. He was a bit of a lady’s man and they clicked immediately.
“But my nan didn’t know that my granddad was seeing another local girl who became pregnant at the same time as my nan.
“Even worse was to come because my granddad asked the two women to fight it out after both babies were born. As my nan won the fight, my granddad chose her.
“In 1960 Arthur decided he wanted to move to England to begin a new life, but my nan didn’t want to move because she had four kids.
“My granddad arrived in England the following year and Alice followed him a few months later, leaving her children with their grandparents in Jamaica.
“She and Arthur lived with family and friends in the West Midlands and worked in factories until their fifth child, my mother, Susan, was born in 1964.
“My grandparents worked very hard and had two more children.
“In 1971 they were given a council house. They both carried on working and 25 years later they bought their council house and became homeowners for the first time.
“Arthur worked in a foundry for over 40 years until he died of cancer in 2017. Alice carried on working and enjoying life until two years ago when she was also struck down by cancer and died.
“My maternal grandparents left behind seven children, 15 grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
“My dad served in the Royal Army Medical Corps for 29 years, retiring as a Late Entry Major in 2009.
“He served in the Falklands in 1982 and I spotted him on the Sir Galahad ship during a Channel 5 documentary about the war.
“After being expelled from school, I wanted to become a plumber. I also wanted to be paid more than £50 a week.
“My dad suggested I joined the Royal Engineers after talking to an Engineer, while he was deployed to Iraq, who said you can become a plumber through the Army.”
Fresh lives in Andover with his wife Hayley and children Mia, 16, and Leon, 12.
He says what has most surprised him about the Army is the kindness and support shown by colleagues and senior officers for family life.
Fresh has completed tours of Northern Ireland (Operation Banner) in 2006 and Afghanistan (Operation Herrick 12) in 2010.
He says the deployment to Afghanistan was the biggest challenge, mentally and physically, of his Army career so far.
Fresh says the highlight of his military career was the time he spent with 21 Engineer Regiment’s 1 Squadron, known as ‘Dog Squadron’, from 2005 to 2012, “a great squadron with even better personnel”.
On Saturday (24 June), Fresh will be following part of the journey his grandparents made over 60 years ago in reverse. He will be a Royal Engineers crew member on a Challenger 72 Yacht which will sail from Dover to Lanzarote as part of Exercise Atlantic Quest.