Jamaica – Harold Woodrow Willacey
In my occasional series where I delve into my archive, I bring you the story Harold Woodrow Willacey, Jamaican street-scribe. Taken from my time living in Kingston, Jamaica, these photos were shot in 2003. I am not sure if Harold Willacey is still alive… Perhaps my Jamaican friends who follow the blog might be able to tell help me out with that bit of information. What follows is a short piece I wrote at the time, to go with the photos. I hope you enjoy it.
If you dally along Barry Street in the heart of downtown Kingston, Jamaica, you might come across Harold Woodrow Willacey. Born in 1927, Manchester, Jamaica, Harold sits patiently for his next customer. Amidst these chaotic and dangerous streets. Harold quietly types away on his German made vintage classic Olympia typewriter; letters, Resémé’s, applications, and pretty much anything that people bring to Harold’s attention.. and all this for the same cost of a cup coffee back in London. Harold has been quietly plying his trade downtown since the 1960s. Harold was in the RAF during the Second World War, based in England. Shortly after the war he sustained an injury while working in a bike factory, damaging his neck so severely that he decided on a doctors recommendation to go back to Jamaica, to a warmer climate.
Harold has fond memories of England, despite never receiving compensation for his injuries. He remembers playing football and “winning the respect of the English men”-due to his ball playing skills-”scoring a goal and getting lots of whistles and cheers.” He was still only a teenager then and still remembers it well. Harold goes on to say, “black people were not considered to know anything in those days”.
Harold recounted a story for me of the day, while working in London after the war he went to the Wimbledon dog track and his old friend Tommy an English workmate. Tommy had asked Harold to place some bets for him; on the first race, the third and the fifth. Instead of following Tommy’s instructions to the full and putting all remaining cash on in the sixth race-he didn’t fancy it as it as was odds-on favourite. The dog lost anyway, so Harold carried all the money onto the final race and the dog he picked went on to win Tommy met Harold off the train at Victoria and took him in for a pint to commiserate, thinking he had lost all his money, on the six race. “Oh socks! better luck next time”, Harold recalls Tommy saying, as he had already learnt the results. Harold remembers, “I had on my flashy overcoat that I had bought from Cecil G. I went down into the pocket and fetched up a handful of money and told Tommy I’d not done the bet as the dog went down, so here’s the money. Oh boy wasn’t he glad and we both walked away really glad after a couple more pints”. With sadness in his eyes he turned to me and said, “Tommy must be an old man now like me, if he is still alive he might read this and confirm this story.”
Harold’s mother died when he was 10 years old, his father who was working at the army camp doing odd jobs could not cope with 5 children and he and his brother were taken to Alfa boy’s school, a Catholic orphanage that has been responsible for producing a lot of Jamaica’s musical talent over the years. His brother went on to be a Band leader and study in England and Harold learnt the Pitmans typing and shorthand course taught by a Nun called Sister Mother Mary Ignatious. Mary taught many boys at Alfa who went to be big Jamaican international. Mary sadly past away in 2003-Harold had just come from Mary’s funeral when I fist met him on Barry Street. So it was typing that Harold turned to after trying several jobs, on his return to Jamaica.
One of Harold’s fondest memories though, is of delivering a letter to Marcus Garvey from his school headmaster and being offered pepper-pot soup, a Jamaican speciality. He also mentioned that he had written to Bill Clinton, when he was President, warning him of the alarming incidence of Prostrate problems suffered by men, urging him to do something, he says that he never got a reply.
Mr. Willacey waits patiently seven days a week on the streets of downtown Kingston for his next customer. Sitting faithfully beside a battered old typewriter- he has had several- the current one being given him by a lady who got it from a local church. The keys were stuck and he cleaned it up and it has been working fine ever since.
The dangers are apparent and everywhere you look in down town Kingston-with Army, police patrols and constant roadblocks, in an attempt to keep a lid on the daily killings and robberies that occur in the downtown area.
Harold Woodrow Willacey, proud, frail, impeccably dressed, remembers downtown Kingston’s heyday-a time when there was a thriving prosperous downtown Kingston. The spacious bar Harold took me to for a drink of his favourite white rum tipple on the corner of water lane, knew better days too but still had the remains of Spanish tiles on the floor, but the rest of the street looked pretty derelict like it had been hit by a bomb.. The Kingston Harold knew has changed but he remains, a constant reminder, a sentinel keeping watch and tap, tap, tapping away on his classic Olympia typewriter-an island of calm in a sea of chaos…