As part of Black History Month, NATALIE WALKER speaks to Sylius Toussaint who moved to Preston from Dominica almost 60 years ago.
When Sylius Toussaint moved to Preston from Dominica, he thought he was joining a land of opportunity.
But in reality, he ended up sharing a living room with a stranger, with a curtain on a piece of string separating the two.
Yet the 79-year-old still says moving to Preston was the highlight of his life and it wasn’t long before he changed his fortune as he became a property tycoon, owning five houses.
His first homeland is never far away from his thought, as he returns to the Caribbean every year, to support poorer communities and helped residents through the devastation of Hurricane Maria.
The father-of-nine admitted he loved growing up in Dominica as a child, saying ‘he would not swap it for anything.’
But he was given several signs that pushed him to move to Preston.
Here, he relives his story, from being brought up by his grandparents in St Joseph, in Dominica, following his dad’s death, to growing bananas which led to his departure.
He says: “My dad died when I was two years and nine months old. My grandparents became my guardians because my mum struggled to look after 10 children.
“I enjoyed living in Dominica. I have great memories of fishing with my grandad, cutting bamboo and making fishing pots. I would run up the hills to look after cattle.
“We had a simple diet in Dominica and ate a lot of bananas. I remember going around the village after school taking the banana peels, which were still green, for the cows.
“A lot of people knew my late father, Clarence Peter Toussaint, and they would hug me and accept me as one of their family.
“Most of my peers went to grammar school but my grandparents were not that well off. This is where poverty deprives you of so many things, so I was not able to pursue a secondary education which was disappointing.
“My grandad died when I was 15 and he was the breadwinner of the family.
“At the time, my uncle, Heywood Matthew, was in college in Trinidad, and as there was no-one to support him there, he came back.”
It was around this time that Sylius felt a calling to move to England.
He adds: “My aunt said to me ‘Sylius, all your peers are going to England - why don’t you see what it is like?’
“And then I also remember my grandmother had some posters on her wall. One said: ‘Britain is an opportunity for the land of youth.’
“It was all propaganda but it made me think.”
At the age of 17, Sylius and his uncle moved to the other side of the island, Wesley, to make more money.
They tried carpentry but then found a better trade in bananas.
Sylius, who has 20 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren, adds: “In under three years I was able to pay for my own passage to the UK and I left in May 1960, when I was aged 20.
"It was one of the best things in my life. My main highlights were moving to Wesley, moving to England, getting married and having children."
Sylius’s first taste of the UK was Ireland, before he travelled across to London, where he got a train to Preston.
He admits he was shocked when he landed in Preston, saying: “It was not the land of skyscrapers and three-storey buildings. The housing was a shock, as Preston had two up, two down houses. It’s not the size of the houses, but the fact there were three families in one house.
“I had come to Preston with my uncle and there was no room in his house, so he took me to a friend of his in Aughton Street.
“I was living in the front room with string across it and a curtain. There was no toilet, expect for outside, so sitting on a cold toilet in the winter months was not pleasant at all. I stayed there for a few months, living out of a suitcase.”
Sylius began working as a spinner at Courtaulds and within nine months he had enough money to pay for his sweetheart, Bridgette to move across.
They married three months later at Lune Street Methodist Church, in Preston.
He continued to work hard and over time, he bought several properties to rent out.
However, Sylius learnt a very valuable lesson when it came to the law and he lost his property portfolio when he was caught driving uninsured in the 1980s.
He reveals: “I went out driving on a Friday night and I was in a collision with two lads on a motorcycle.
“A man from the Motor Insurers’ Bureau came to my house and said I was being sued for £103,000 because I was uninsured. They knew I could afford it because I had all those properties.
“I had to sell three houses and remortgage my house.”
Never one to dwell on finances, Sylius, who is an active member of Preston Seventh Day Adventist Church, continued to work at Courtaulds and still had two houses to rent.
He adds: “As I had to remortgage my house, my mortgage went up from £50 a month to around £800. That stopped me making a profit, but I still had two other houses left.”
Sylius managed to make a decent living and uses his savings to fly back to the Caribbean every year, helping in poorer communities - something he has done since 2006.
He says: “I like going home - it is a different place completely.
“When I first went back, people didn’t know me but now, after more than 10 years, they accept me as part of the furniture.
“Back in 2015, I really got stuck in following the devastation of Tropical Storm Erika. I spent four months out there working on a big housing project.
“I also helped out after Hurricane Maria in 2017. I was lying in bed in Preston when I heard a man describing the effects of the hurricane on the news.
“I cried and when I saw the devastation, I knew I had to go back and help out.
“When I went back this year, I spent four-and-a-half months there, building two houses, two churches and one community centre.
“I am planning to go back next year and do other projects that need my help. As long as I have my health, I will keep going.”