Win­drush revo­lu­tion

How the first wave of Caribbean im­mi­grants crossed the At­lantic and over­came prej­u­dice to help re­build and re­shape war-torn Britain

All About History - - CONTENTS - Writ­ten by Saf­fron Alexan­der

How Caribbean im­mi­grants helped re­build and re­shape war-torn Britain

In April 1948, an advertisement was placed in a news­pa­per in Ja­maica that would for­ever change the United King­dom. Taken out in The Daily Gleaner, it of­fered is­lan­ders the op­por­tu­nity of a life­time – safe pas­sage to Britain in or­der to work. The dock­ing of MV Em­pire Win­drush in Tilbury in Es­sex, Eng­land, on 22 June that year, bring­ing hun­dreds of Caribbean men and women to Britain, marked the be­gin­ning of an un­de­ni­able cul­tural shift.

On pa­per, the idea seemed like the per­fect way to solve two dire prob­lems. Ja­maica was still re­cov­er­ing from the dev­as­tat­ing 1944 At­lantic hur­ri­cane sea­son, which caused se­vere dam­age to the is­land. Mean­while, post­war Britain was strug­gling to fill much-needed gaps in in­te­gral state-run ser­vices such as the brand-new Na­tional Health Ser­vice (NHS) and Lon­don Trans­port due

to the tremen­dous loss of life in the war. As part of the Com­mon­wealth, a loose as­so­ci­a­tion of states that once be­longed to the fad­ing Bri­tish Em­pire, ci­ti­zens of Ja­maica and other coun­tries around the Caribbean were af­forded the right to live and work in other Com­mon­wealth coun­tries thanks to the Bri­tish Na­tion­al­ity Act 1948.

All around the Com­mon­wealth, tales of Britain’s mag­nif­i­cence and ex­cel­lence were touted in news­pa­pers, pre­sent­ing an ide­alised ver­sion of Britain to mil­lions around the world. Ci­ti­zens liv­ing in Com­mon­wealth coun­tries were promised a bet­ter qual­ity of life and the op­por­tu­nity to earn higher wages if they left their home for Britain, and hun­dreds jumped at the idea.

Num­bers game

While most Caribbean ci­ti­zens who ar­rived on Em­pire Win­drush in June were Ja­maican men, ac­cord­ing to the pas­sen­ger logs, many also came from smaller, neigh­bour­ing is­lands such as the Ba­hamas, Trinidad and Gre­nada. Ad­di­tion­ally, 66 Pol­ish peo­ple who had been stranded in

Mex­ico as refugees since World War II also made the jour­ney across the At­lantic, hop­ing to restart their lives in Eu­rope.

‘492’ has his­tor­i­cally been the num­ber that ac­com­pa­nies sto­ries about the Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion, but a look at the pas­sen­ger list shows that this only ac­counts for Ja­maican men. Women and other Caribbean pas­sen­gers, both male and fe­male, who boarded at Trinidad or Bermuda were not counted and, as such, have found them­selves re­moved from the Win­drush nar­ra­tive. Caribbean women have tra­di­tion­ally not been in­cluded in Win­drush pas­sen­ger sta­tis­tics, pos­si­bly be­cause it was largely as­sumed they were of less eco­nomic im­por­tance, trav­el­ling as com­pan­ions to their men­folk. How­ever, the ma­jor­ity of women on the ship were trav­el­ling alone, look­ing to carve a new path for them­selves in Eng­land. If these for­got­ten pas­sen­gers are in­cluded, the num­ber of Caribbean men and women that ar­rived in Tilbury that fate­ful June is much higher. They would un­know­ingly lay down the foun­da­tion for a gen­er­a­tion of Caribbean im­mi­grants to ar­rive in Britain and shape the coun­try – es­pe­cially its cap­i­tal – into be­com­ing the mul­ti­cul­tural hub it is to­day.

Many of the pas­sen­gers on Win­drush were skilled work­ers, ea­ger and ready. Pas­sen­ger lists show that there were elec­tri­cians, plumbers, bar­ris­ters, seam­stresses and me­chan­ics on board. How­ever, most of the im­mi­grants were also ex-ser­vice­men who had fought for Britain dur­ing World War II and de­vel­oped skills dur­ing the time that would now

“The fee for a ticket on Em­pire Win­drush wasn’t cheap”

be ben­e­fi­cial to Britain. Of these ex-ser­vice­men was Sam King, the man who would be­come the first black mayor of South­wark in 1983.

King passed away in 2016 but dur­ing his 68 years liv­ing in Britain, his con­tri­bu­tions to the coun­try, his lo­cal area and the Caribbean com­mu­nity in Lon­don made him some­thing of a fig­ure­head for the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion. He had served in the Royal Air Force dur­ing the war but wasn’t granted per­mis­sion to stay once it had ended. At a loss af­ter given the op­tions of mar­ry­ing an English girl or find­ing him­self ac­cepted into the home of a ‘coloniser’, King re­turned home to Ja­maica af­ter the war, but found life there un­sat­is­fac­tory.

Af­ter spend­ing time in Eng­land and see­ing the dif­fer­ences in the qual­ity of ed­u­ca­tion be­tween the two coun­tries, he de­cided to re­turn. Though many Ja­maicans were ea­ger to go to Bri­tian, and UK it­self was in des­per­ate need of work­ers, the fee for a ticket on Em­pire Win­drush wasn’t cheap. To pay the £28.10 fare (roughly £900 to­day), King’s fam­ily sold three cows.

Ac­counts of the jour­ney from the Caribbean to Britain are few and far be­tween, but it seems to have been a fairly pleas­ant and un­event­ful one. Stow­aways were re­ported, such as Aver­illy Wau­chope, a dress­maker from Kingston who was dis­cov­ered seven days into the trip. In­stead of send­ing Wau­chope back or pun­ish­ing her for her trans­gres­sion, a whip-round was set up and her fel­low pas­sen­gers not only raised enough money to pay her fare to Eng­land but also a few ex­tra pounds for when she got there.

Some (un­for­tu­nately un­sub­stan­ti­ated) ac­counts also at­test to Wau­chope catch­ing the eye of Nancy Cu­nard aboard the ship, heiress to the Cu­nard ship­ping for­tune. Cu­nard, on her way home from Trinidad, al­legedly “took a fancy to her” and “in­tended on look­ing af­ter her”, though it’s un­known if this came to fruition – just one of the many Win­drush-re­lated anec­dotes that have been lost to his­tory over the years.

As the ship drew closer to Tilbury, the at­mos­phere on board be­gan to change. Ex­cite­ment mor­phed into ap­pre­hen­sion as the pas­sen­gers be­gan to re­alise they were head­ing into un­charted ter­ri­tory and didn’t know what to ex­pect. Re­flect­ing on the ex­pe­ri­ence, King re­called in Forty Win­ters On that many be­gan to fear the gov­ern­ment would change their mind and the ship would be turned back.

Un­for­tu­nately, their fears weren’t en­tirely un­founded. King him­self re­called stand­ing out­side the ship’s ra­dio room and hear­ing peo­ple on the ra­dio ques­tion­ing why they were com­ing. Arthur Creech Jones, Labour’s colo­nial sec­re­tary at the time, was recorded de­fend­ing them on the BBC say­ing, “These peo­ple have Bri­tish pass­ports, they must be al­lowed to land.” But he did add that it wouldn’t mat­ter any­way be­cause he doubted that they would last one cold win­ter in Eng­land.

Aware that there was a pos­si­bil­ity ten­sions could be high once they docked in Tilbury and de­ter­mined to keep morale high on the ship and quash any po­ten­tial neg­a­tiv­ity from brew­ing among the Caribbeans and their soon-to-be Bri­tish neigh­bours, King went around and told ev­ery­one, “Even if a man steps on your foot, you don’t hit back. It’s all about peace and love.”

Go­ing un­der­ground

“WEL­COME HOME… 400 Sons of the Em­pire,” de­clared The Evening Stan­dard news­pa­per, meet­ing the Win­drush at Tilbury with a plane fly­ing a ban­ner em­bossed with this ju­bi­lant slo­gan. “500 Pairs of Will­ing Hands,” ex­claimed The Daily Worker. While the press gave the Caribbean im­mi­grants a warm wel­come, the same could not be said for the gov­ern­ment or the av­er­age Bri­tish cit­i­zen.

No less than three gov­ern­ment of­fices, in­clud­ing the now-de­funct Colo­nial Of­fice and the Home Of­fice, could not de­cide who would be re­spon­si­ble for the in­com­ing im­mi­grants. 11 Labour MPS had writ­ten to prime min­is­ter Cle­ment At­tlee

ex­press­ing con­cerns about the num­ber of

“coloured im­mi­grants” who might “im­pair the har­mony, strength and co­he­sion of our pub­lic and so­cial life and to cause dis­cord and un­hap­pi­ness among all con­cerned”. At­tlee re­sponded two weeks later in de­fence of the pas­sen­gers who had ar­rived on the Win­drush: “It would there­fore be a great mis­take to re­gard these peo­ple as un­de­sir­ables or un­em­ploy­ables. The ma­jor­ity of them are hon­est work­ers, who can make a gen­uine con­tri­bu­tion to our labour dif­fi­cul­ties at the present time.”

How­ever, even while de­fend­ing them, At­tlee ac­knowl­edged their main fear – that the dock­ing of Em­pire Win­drush would lead to more “un­de­sir­ables” ar­riv­ing in the coun­try – and he at­tempted to as­suage them. “They may well find it very dif­fi­cult to make ad­e­quate re­mit­tances to their de­pen­dants in Ja­maica as well as main­tain­ing them­selves over here,” he said. “On the whole, there­fore, I doubt whether there is likely to be a sim­i­lar large in­flux.”

With Win­drush on its doorstep, the Colo­nial Of­fice was forced to step in and a deep air raid shel­ter in Clapham Com­mon was re­luc­tantly opened to house roughly 230 of the pas­sen­gers. Ac­cord­ing to a Daily Ex­press clip­ping from 23 June 1948, the first meal given to the pas­sen­gers lucky enough to re­ceive ac­com­mo­da­tion there was roast beef, pota­toes, veg­eta­bles, York­shire pud­ding suet and a pud­ding with cur­rants and cus­tard. A bed and three hot meals at the shel­ter cost them around 33 pence a day, and most of the res­i­dents pos­sessed about £5 to last them un­til they were able to find work.

Those un­able to stay at the shel­ter were left to fend for them­selves and or­gan­ise their own ac­com­mo­da­tion, which proved dif­fi­cult in a city that, at best, was wary of their sud­den pres­ence. Un­of­fi­cial ‘colour bars’ were in­tro­duced, deny­ing the new im­mi­grants ac­cess to the ba­sic fa­cil­i­ties they needed to start a life in Britain. The now in­fa­mous “NO BLACKS. NO DOGS. NO IR­ISH.” signs were com­mon­place around the city, and many land­lords specif­i­cally be­gan ex­clud­ing black peo­ple and chil­dren from rent­ing their prop­er­ties, mak­ing it par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult for the Caribbean im­mi­grants to ac­cess suit­able hous­ing.

Find­ing ad­e­quate hous­ing wasn’t the only block­ade the Win­drush pas­sen­gers came across ei­ther. A 1949 re­port into the con­di­tions of “coloured peo­ple” in Step­ney, East Lon­don,

“Many … found it dif­fi­cult to find jobs that suited them”

de­scribed their leisure fa­cil­i­ties as “very poor in­deed”: “There are only one or two clubs; the Colo­nial, which I un­der­stand is very lim­ited. There is a club in Ca­ble Street run by some Fran­cis­can Broth­ers. Al­though it is a very fine ef­fort made by these Broth­ers, the place is sit­u­ated in rather a bad area, and the sur­round­ings are not ideal. An­other club is the Ja­maican Club – this is more of a danc­ing place with drinks. In other words, there is no prop­erly or­gan­ised way in which these peo­ple could spend their leisure. To break the monotony of their very bad liv­ing rooms, there is the street with cafes, and in the evenings the pubs, or when they have the money, cinema, or to the West End to dance halls.”

Build­ing a new life

De­spite be­ing in­vited to Britain to work, many Win­drush pas­sen­gers found it dif­fi­cult to find jobs that suited them. These were highly skilled men and women, many of whom were ex-ser­vice­men and had been trained by the Bri­tish Armed Forces, who were de­nied high-pay­ing jobs in their fields sim­ply be­cause they were black. For many of the im­mi­grants who had left good jobs in Ja­maica to come to Britain, this was in­cred­i­bly dis­heart­en­ing.

In an in­ter­view about the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion, Jack Howard Drake, an em­ployee of the Home Of­fice be­tween 1965 and 1972, said of the dis­crim­i­na­tion: “We were quite happy to em­ploy coloured peo­ple, pro­vid­ing they weren’t vis­i­ble. In other words, if they worked in the kitchens, that was al­right, but em­ploy­ers felt that shop­pers wouldn’t like to see coloured hands han­dling food. They thought that ladies wouldn’t be happy to buy their un­der­wear from coloured girls.”

It wasn’t all bad, though, and things soon be­gan to pick up. Three weeks af­ter ar­riv­ing in Britain, a re­port found that of the men and women who came on Em­pire Win­drush, 76 found work in fac­to­ries, 15 in the rail­way in­dus­try, 15 as labour­ers, 15 as farm work­ers and ten as elec­tri­cians. Oth­ers were said to have gone into cler­i­cal work in other in­dus­tries. State-run in­dus­tries be­gan hir­ing al­most ex­clu­sively from Caribbean im­mi­grants, es­pe­cially the NHS and Lon­don Trans­port. The lat­ter found this method of hir­ing so suc­cess­ful that they con­tin­ued di­rectly re­cruit­ing peo­ple from the Caribbean un­til 1970, by which time they had hired over 4,000 work­ers in this man­ner.

Un­for­tu­nately, dif­fi­cul­ties were not lim­ited to find­ing work. Many of the pas­sen­gers from Em­pire Win­drush had to deal with daily racism from their new Bri­tish neigh­bours. “Some were wel­com­ing,” King once said. “But oth­ers weren’t – they had an im­pe­ri­al­ist at­ti­tude. They thought peo­ple from the colonies should be plant­ing ba­nanas and choco­late. Peo­ple were more ag­gres­sive, they were try­ing to say that we shouldn’t be here.” Some, King ad­mit­ted, were a lit­tle kin­der. “Oth­ers, it didn’t re­ally mat­ter for them. And the rest? They were just nice, or­di­nary peo­ple.”

But the Caribbean im­mi­grants who first made Britain their home in 1948, and the ones who fol­lowed im­me­di­ately in their wake, were a strong group. They knew they had to sup­port one an­other to sur­vive in a coun­try that both needed them but didn’t want them. In or­der to pur­chase suit­able homes, they be­gan us­ing the ‘pard­ner’ scheme, a tra­di­tional Caribbean money-sav­ing and man­age­ment method that sees a group of peo­ple agree to put in a cer­tain amount of money each month. Each mem­ber of the group then takes out money at pre­vi­ously agreed in­ter­vals, un­til each mem­ber has re­moved a lump sum and paid in the same amount. This al­lows peo­ple to make ex­pen­sive pur­chases quicker and more eas­ily.

They es­tab­lished stores, restau­rants, clubs, churches and or­gan­i­sa­tions within their com­mu­nity as well, such as the Not­ting Hill Car­ni­val, cre­at­ing a space for the Caribbean im­mi­grant com­mu­nity for years to come – a space for cul­tural ex­pres­sion that still en­dures to this day.

While to­day the ar­rival of Em­pire Win­drush is con­sid­ered by many to be one of the key mo­ments, if not the in­te­gral mo­ment, that kick-started Caribbean im­mi­gra­tion to Britain (cul­mi­nat­ing in over 1 mil­lion peo­ple con­sid­er­ing them­selves of Caribbean her­itage cur­rently liv­ing in Britain ac­cord­ing to the 2011 Cen­sus), in­for­ma­tion about the ship it­self and the men and women it car­ried is dif­fi­cult to come by. The era­sure of black his­tory is noth­ing new in Britain – a 2016 pe­ti­tion to have black his­tory of­fi­cially added to the UK pri­mary school cur­ricu­lum failed to gar­ner enough sig­na­tures for any changes to be made – but that Em­pire Win­drush and its pas­sen­gers aren’t well doc­u­mented and more vis­i­ble is sur­pris­ing.

The Win­drush Gen­er­a­tion who ar­rived on 22 June 1948 suf­fered many hard­ships, but im­mensely aided in build­ing a post­war Britain back up to its for­mer glory. They were also trail­blaz­ers that have be­come an em­blem for the mul­ti­cul­tural na­tion, mark­ing the be­gin­ning of an era of mass mi­gra­tion to Great Britain. With the 70th an­niver­sary of the ship’s land­ing hav­ing been over­shad­owed by po­lit­i­cal scan­dal, it’s all the more im­por­tant that their con­tri­bu­tion to Bri­tish his­tory is ac­knowl­edged.

Im­mi­grant fam­i­lies were of­ten packed into cramped liv­ing quar­ters

Many women went to work in fac­to­ries

Men, women and chil­dren were all aboard Em­pire Win­drush

Land­lords would of­ten refuse to rent to peo­ple of colour

Bri­tish-caribbean shop­pers stock up their cup­boards at Brix­ton Mar­ket, a cen­tre for world foods and goods

A black im­mi­grant, pos­si­bly a mem­ber of the Win­drush gen­er­a­tion, at work in a Le­ices­ter shoe fac­tory

A di­verse mu­si­cal out­fit, known as the Ir­win Cle­ment Caribbean steel band, pro­vides the sound­track to a limbo game

Win­drush pas­sen­gers, in­clud­ing Sam King (third from left), at the Im­pe­rial War Mu­seum in 2008

Newly ar­rived im­mi­grants un­pack their lug­gage in a shared dorm room in a Bri­tish hos­tel

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