When Black men and women began migrating from across the Caribbean to Britain between 1948 and 1971 — The Windrush Generation — they were told to bring a selection of afro hair products and tools such as “pressing combs”, because there would be absolutely no hair salons able to cater for their hair. As my grandmother, who travelled to Manchester from Antigua in the 1950s, remembers it, when she first arrived on British soil the cold weather was so shock-inducing it reduced her to tears. Her head of long coily brown hair (her much-beloved crown) was never the same again and wigs styled in ways popular with white women became her saving grace. It’s a common story. According to The National Archives, it was so difficult to manage afro hair in Britain, some Caribbean women would simply cut their hair off.
It was in 1955, as Black women struggled to live up to white beauty standards, when entrepreneur Carmen Maingot opened what’s believed to be Britain’s first salon in London’s North Kensington, offering hair-straightening services to Black women. A few years later, Winifred Atwell, a renowned pianist from Trinidad, set up The Winifred Atwell salon in Brixton, South London — an area with the highest population of Caribbean people in the country.
Atwell, born in 1914, was already raking in accomplishments after moving to England from Tuna Puna, Trinidad, via the US, in 1946. As Refinery29 detailed for Black History Month, Atwell, also a trained pharmacist, followed her musical passions to prestigious The Royal Academy of Music, where she was discovered when singing in London clubs. Atwell soon released a series of boogie-woogie and ragtime hits, becoming the first Black musician on UK charts, selling over 20 million records. And in 1952, her recording of "Black And White Rag" propelled her to stardom. In total, she had 11 UK top 10 hits including "Britannia Rag", "Let's Have Another Party" and "The Poor People of Paris".
It was during the height of her fame and glamorous TV performances, that Atwell’s Black fans would reportedly send her letters asking her where she got her hair done in the UK. Canadian actress Isabelle Lucas, who played Norman Beaton’s wife in the hit Black British TV series The Fosters and featured in longstanding soap Eastenders, was among the Black women looking for hair guidance. Per various archives, Lucas wrote, “In those days there were no Black salons for Black women in this country. Black women styled their hair in their kitchens. I needed advice on how to straighten and style my hair, but I didn’t know any Black women in Britain. I had only heard about Winifred Atwell.” After looking Winifred up in London’s directory, Lucas was invited to the star’s home in Hampstead where she gifted hair straightening irons.
Atwell identified the lack of Black hairdressing in England (after reportedly experiencing a botched hairstyle herself) and opened her salon in South London where she had “business connections.” The salon was a luxurious space near to Brixton railway station that caught the eye of the local press. Atwell taught English hairdressers how to treat Black hair, and reportedly, using her pharmaceutical background helped design new treatments for Black haircare, as well as makeup that matched Black skin tones.
The Winifred Atwell salon caught fire during the Brixton riots in 1981, and Atwell passed away in 1983 shortly after her move to Sydney. Today, a plaque remembering both Winifred Atwell’s achievements and services to her community remains in the salon’s place, and Brixton is a hot spot for Black hairdressers and services. Researchers suggest that Atwell’s salon was a catalyst in the move from amateur domestic hairdressing to public Black salons in the area and across England. As of 2021, the UK only has 314 afro-hairdressing salons out of almost 45,000 registered hair and beauty salons and Black women’s calls for better services for Black hair types still ring out across the United Kingdom. Still, the legacy of Black British hairstyling and entrepreneurship has long continued through the UK's African braiders and modern hair stylists, who make sure our hair is catered for.