This was the year that the title took to the high seas. The manner in which Carron Duncan took the contest by storm was almost piratical. There was a fear that the contest would be without a home when Spencer Williams and Trevor Russell moved on from Spots Club at the Podium but we found that we had had discovered a home with which Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth would long continued to be associated – even a generation and more after the anchor had been weighed for the final time. The format which had been evolved over the previous years transferred easily to the St Nicholas on its route between Harwich and the Hook of Holland. It was getting to the quayside, and back again, that posed the problems. By now the title-holders had such drawing-power in themselves that the contest did not need to engage celebrities to boost publicity and sales.
Brian Ashton, the ebullient marketing manager of Sealink, invited Clayton Goodwin into his office close by Euston railway station to compliment him for the exposure the sponsorship of Lucia Charlery and Carron Duncan to St Quentin, and Hadda Haye and Georgia Robinson to Holland, had brought to his company. He saw no problem in there being no obvious venue for the show. Why not stage the contest on the ship? When Ashton had an idea he acted on it quickly. A couple of swift and persuasive phone-calls later and Clayton was on his way to meet Phil Parker, the sales/marketing man on the spot, at Harwich. Nobody had the temerity to suggest to Brian that they didn’t have the slightest idea of how to go about it. We just got on and learned along the way.
This summer of 1985 there was a nationwide craze for younger contestants. Teenagers swept the board in the preliminary heats until they came up against the formidable trio of former participants Carron Duncan, Ruby Palmer and Margarette Kyei in the last heat held, appropriately, as a farewell appearance at Spots. Although Margarette had to withdraw from the final – for this year at least – due to work commitments, the youngsters soon realised that they would have a fight on their hands. Three years earlier Carron, herself, had been a nervous novice when she came runner-up to Collette Gordon. After sitting out the next two shows she felt that now her time had come. Would her rivals could see it the same way?
Mrs Etty Kerr, promoter of Miss Elegance, came to Clayton’s rescue as he tried to work out how to project the promotion to a public who had no experience of entertainment “on the water” and, by and large, had no knowledge of where Harwich was situated. She pointed out that they did know the location of Finsbury Park, Brixton, Harlesden and Clapton, and that he should issue a combined ticket to cover coach, cruise and much else. Ever afterwards Clayton referred to Mrs Kerr as his “promotional god-mother”. Then on the afternoon before departure the coach company raised their hire- prizes. Goodwin walked out in disgust and soon realised that he had a couple of hundred paying passengers and no transport. Fortunately the offices of Grey-Green coaches in Stamford Hill were still open, and willing to assist, so he raced across London from his home at Barnehurst to clinch the deal before they closed for the day.
The participants in the promotion gelled harmoniously into an effective team. In addition to her advice, Mrs Kerr, who was a dressmaker, presented a fashion show to entertain the public on the outward journey – the contest was held at night on the return – and had recommended several of the contestants. Well-known Trinidadian painter Horace de Bourg not only provided an exhibition of his work but undertook to obtain landing visas for all his compatriots who needed them. Phil Parker was an exceptional man. He was amiable though business-like and his word was his bond – there was no need for a written contract. Years later, when events and people had moved on, Clayton returned through the Hook of Holland from a private visit and mentioned to the Sealink representative there that he had known Phil and worked with him. “Then you are a lucky man” the Dutch official declared. “Mr Parker is a gentleman and a credit to the company and his country”.
Unfortunately Phil could not accompany the first trip. His deputy David Warner invited the promoters, contestants and outgoing title-holder to dinner onboard. Clayton thought that he heard something drip into the soup and saw that Hadda sitting next to him appeared to be crying at having to give up her title. “Why?” he asked. “It is not as if you got any money or major prize (apart from the overseas trips) out of it”. “Yes, but the title has given me memories” she said. That said all there was to know why this title was so different. Clayton added that his eyes, too, were moist. At the turn-round in port Warner took the contest judges and promoters to a nearby inn where the elderly landlord and landlady celebrated their presence by sticking miniature Union Jack flags to the sausage-rolls and other snacks. These were indeed friendly times.
Carron Duncan dominated the contest as much by her character as by her beauty. Contestants approached the stage from a descending flight of stairs. Dressed in a flame-orange dress and then a tiger-skin swimsuit the young East Londoner of a Jamaican family did not routinely follow the preceding competitor but waited in full view at the top of the stairs until her number was called – and the attention of the whole house was on her. Runner-up Ruby Palmer, a Jamaican from North-west London, yielded nothing in beauty. However her nerves in coming to terms with the environment told against her. Ruby eventually conquered her nerves and was still winning contests into middle-age when all of her contemporaries had given up. The other runners-up were Anna Benjamin of Antiguan/Italian heritage from Wandsworth, who had a strong physical resemblance to Carron, and Angela Knight, another Jamaican, from Lewisham.
Carron had an active reign. Mayor George Shaw presented her with a history of the borough when she visited the Dagenham & Barking civic office, and H.E. Herbert Walker welcomed her and her Jamaican deputies at the High Commission. Carron pushed the boundaries even further by visiting geriatric patients at a local hospital and travelling to Manchester to take part in judging the St Kitts & Nevis UK beauty contest promoted by Basil Gumbs. This was the peak celebrity time for the title – Carron was the last holder to be known as the Page 5 Girl – as newspapers such as the West Indian World and the UK Weekly Gleaner could not get (and publish) enough news. Deputy Anna Benjamin was received by the Antiguan High Commissioner and the Italian Consul-General, the former offering her a post as his secretary which she accepted.
Ms Duncan (and her deputies) cemented the efforts of her predecessor by making an official trip to Utrecht as guest of the Dutch city’s carnival committee. Torrential rain forced the carnival off the streets and into a massive aircraft-hangar hall. It did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of the evening. The entertainment was headed by Cecilia Cruz and Tito Puente, the stellar performers of African-Caribbean / Latin jazz and Salsa. Carron’s other principal trip was to Jamaica, the island-home of her parents. With Hadda’s visit to Berlin, and now this link to the Netherlands, the future Miss Caribbean & Commonwealth title had achieved international recognition beyond that of any of its competitors. It was soon called upon to withstand the challenges of nature as well as that of the market.