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