George Saunders at the Back to Backs
One of the last businesses to leave Court 15, the story of George Saunders is inextricably linked with that of the Back to Backs in Birmingham. His story is an important part of the black history of the city.
George Saunders came to the UK in 1958. He was one of the thousands to answer the call sent out by the British Government to help fill the labour shortage that the country suffered after the loss of life in the Second World War.
Benefiting from the British Nationality Act 1948 which gave them the right of abode, people came from across the Commonwealth from places like India, Pakistan and the Caribbean. Many had already served Britain during the war and had come with the hopes of resuming their war time positions or making a better life for themselves in the “motherland”.
Very little was done to prepare the new arrivals or indeed the rest of the population of Britain for what it would be like and the white population of the country didn’t take to their new neighbours. Racism, prejudice and violence were rife and George suffered it first hand.
George was born in St Kitts in the Caribbean and learnt how to be a tailor from his father. In 1958 he applied for a job at a tailor’s in Birmingham and travelled to the city after he received a very positive invitation to an interview. Despite dressing smartly and showing off his skill as a tailor, upon arrival, the manager took one look at him and he was immediately dismissed from the shop, being told the post had already been filled. It was just one instance of the poor treatment George and many thousands of Afro-Caribbean and Asian migrants suffered.
Not all racist remarks were malicious. Upon being asked if the colour of his skin under his overall was the same as his arms and face, George joked that actually his skin was “Green underneath” to which the person asking the question replied “Is it?!”. Most ordinary people in white Britain hadn’t met people of different ethnicities at this point and there was a lot of naivety and lack of understanding.
Eventually George was able to set up his own successful business here at the Back to Backs and between 1974 and 2001 he made clothes for Birmingham celebrities like Pat Roach, Libyan school children and he received a prestigious order from the Queen’s Guards.
He was one of the last tenants to use Court 15 before it was taken over by the National Trust and turned into a museum. George donated some of his items and equipment to the Trust as a way of preserving some of the property’s history.
These items can still be seen when you visit as they form the setting for George Saunders’s shop, which is the last stop on the tour and you can learn more of George’s extraordinary life.