Faithful and true: Welcome to Oxfordshire's latest British Citizens
Each week people from all corners of the globe descend on County Hall in Oxford with excitement etched on their faces and hope in their hearts.
As if it were a wedding or summer garden party, they come dressed in their finery – some wearing beautiful African traditional costume, some in kilts fashioned from ancestral tartan and others wearing the smartest Italian designer suits.
For them this unlikely looking gathering marks the end of a long, often difficult and expensive journey – but it also heralds the start of fresh beginnings.
They all have one thing in common that unites them and that is they are all about to become British Citizens.
The citizenship ceremonies are one of the duties performed by Oxfordshire County Council’s Registration Service. Since ceremonies began 14 years ago, 19,250 people have become fully-fledged Brits – bringing wide-ranging skills and acumen with them to enrich Oxfordshire’s thriving communities and economy.
Often there are scientists, nurses, doctors, surgeons, nannies, academics and business people among the changing weekly cohort – all vital in the running of our hospitals, universities and science industries.
Superintendent Registrar Alicja Gilroy, pictured, is one those who performs the ceremony in the Council Chamber each week at County Hall.
She said: “It’s one of the most uplifting, inspiring and privileged roles we carry out. Every individual has their own special reason for becoming a British citizen. They come from all over the world and some of their journeys have been quite harrowing. They help make this county such a vibrant and diverse place.”
This week under the watchful gaze of a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth, 20 soon-to-be Brits from 17 nations and their families eagerly filed into the Council Chamber to make an oath of allegiance (or an affirmation) and pledge to respect the rights, freedoms and laws of the UK.
They were welcomed by Felicity Dick, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Oxfordshire who was officially representing HM Queen. She told the crowd: “As a fellow citizen of Oxfordshire It is my privilege to formally welcome you into our community as a full citizen.
“In becoming a British citizen you are making a commitment to the local community; to Oxfordshire as well as the city, town or village in which you live.
“Britain has played many roles in the wider world and continues to do so. We have not always done so wisely or fairly, but I hope you will find this is remains a nation that has a bedrock of fairness, a strong respect for justice and the rule of law and a genuinely open and democratic system of government. We are a society in which free speech means what it says.
“We are a nation that allows people to express themselves and to better themselves. In the current situation of Brexit I don’t believe, and I very much hope, that the upheavals that might be caused won’t change these fundamental British traits.”
Each new citizen is presented with their naturalisation certificate and a specially commissioned book on Diverse Oxfordshire.
Once the formalities are over, it’s a chance for everyone to rouse to their feet and join in with the National Anthem. They belt it out with gusto and pride.
Among them was mum Sadia Gregory accompanied by her proud husband Tim, a Charlbury Primary School teacher, and eldest son Donel, 10, a Banbury United FC youth team player.
Zimbabwean-born Sadia, 35, came to the UK for a working holiday after completing a degree in Australia. She fell in love with Oxfordshire and her then husband-to-be and, with indefinite leave to remain status, never went back.
The Gregorys, who live in Banbury, are now blessed with three children and for Sadia becoming a British citizen is a dream come true. She said: “Britain is my home now and where we are raising our family.” And she joked: “Now I’ve done this my husband says I am more British than him now.”
Sadia and Tim, who planned to celebrate her new citizenship with a British traditional fish and chip supper, spent several thousand pounds navigating through a complex set of procedures on her citizenship journey.
Trips to Zimbabwe were required, a lawyer was hired, fees paid and the all-important Life In The UK test was studied for – and passed first time.
Everyone who applies to become a British Citizen must show their knowledge of the English language and of life in the UK in one of two ways. They can either take a special English for Speakers of Other Languages course, or they can take the Life in the UK test.
The test covers customs and traditions, history and the laws and political systems that govern the country. It is contains 24 multiple choice questions which are chosen at random by computer. People have 45 minutes to complete the test and the pass mark is around 75%.
Sadia said: “I studied at Banbury Library during the summer holidays when Tim was at home with the kids. For me the hardest part was the history behind the country. It wasn’t just recent history. I had to know all about the Stone Age and Iron Age, memorise all the Kings and Queens and know all Henry VIII’s wives in all the right order. It was tough, but I passed first time.”
Another ‘new’ citizen this week was New Zealander Gerald Sinclair, 75, accompanied by his wife Mary. Gerald, a former grammar school teacher and retired businessman arrived in England 69 years ago when he was just six years old.
“I came here in 1949 on my mother’s passport and have been living here on a NZ passport with the right to reside in the UK ever since.”
As a Commonwealth citizen Gerald, who lives in Oxford, applied for his British status through the Windrush Helpline –set up earlier this year after people were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation, and, in around 63 cases, wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office.
Many of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries as members of the Windrush generation.
Gerald said: “My decision was based on changes in attitude by the Home Office but also a feeling that It was time I took the plunge.”
American Bruce McNaughton, wife Cathryn, son Andrew and daughter Emily arrived in the UK from New England in 1982, initially settling in Shiplake.
Now living in Oxford, Bruce said: "The funny thing is we never said we were emigrating. We always thought we’d go back. I love the culture here. I grew up in California where the oldest thing was 1940. You walk round Oxford and it’s a different ball game. It’s amazing and a real honour to be able to live here. I think we hit the jackpot when we settled in Oxfordshire.”
Cathryn added: “Becoming a British citizen means a lot and I shed quite a few tears during the ceremony. We went for citizenship because we started feeling nervous.”
Son Andrew, grew up in Oxfordshire but now lives in Edinburgh and wore a McNaughton tartan kilt to the ceremony. He agrees that being a fully-fledged Brit means he now feels secure.
“It means our immigration status cannot be changed now. Although I grew up here I can now fully participate in British life and I’m looking forward to finally being able to vote.””
TAKE THE TEST
Do you have what it takes to pass the Life In The UK test. Try it for yourself. You’ll have 45 minutes to answer 24 questions about British traditions and customs.