MAKING HISTORY: A photograph of passengers reading a newspaper whilst waiting to disembark from the ‘Empire Windrush’, having sailed from Jamaica
ON MAY 27, 1948, the Empire Windrush sailed from Jamaica for Trinidad before setting its sights on England, the colonial ‘motherland.’ Almost a month later, on June 22, the former troop-carrying steamship made its way up the Thames and docked at Tilbury in London. Four hundred and ninety-two official passengers (and several stowaways) disembarked, taking their first steps towards what they hoped would be a brighter future.
The Windrush was not the only ship to arrive in Britain with Caribbean immigrants after the Second World War, but being the first, it was given the lion’s share of the publicity at the time.
NOT A BED OF ROSES
The arrival of this first wave of West Indian immigrants marked the first wave of large-scale immigration in Britain’s post-war drive to recruit labour from the Commonwealth to cover employment shortages in state-run services. Hundreds of Jamaicans responded to newspaper advertisements for available berths aboard the Windrush to sail to England, but the colonial administration at the time tried to warn them that Britain was unlikely to be the bed of roses they perhaps envisioned. A government statement, published in The Gleaner on May, 1948, warned that ‘the prospects of employment in England for unskilled labourers are very slight.’ Yet, undaunted, nearly 400 people paid their £28 for the passage and made their way into the unknown.
THE NATIONALITY ACT
A number of Caribbean nationals had fought for Britain in World War 2 and several of those veterans chose to return to England on the Windrush. However, it was the 1948 Nationality Act that encouraged the migration, allowing Commonwealth citizens – British subjects – the right of entry to England as citizens of ‘the United Kingdom and Colonies’.
Upon arrival in England, the immigrants found that conditions were not what they might have been expecting. The country was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war, so housing was a major issue and continued to be a problem for a number of years. To compound the shortage, the immigrants also faced racism and other discrimination challenges. At one point, the Colonial Office opened the deep air-raid shelter under Clapham Common, which would become a temporary home to about 230 of the new arrivals. The facility had been used as a bomb shelter and to house prisoners of war. Brixton was the nearest place for work and socialising, and the Mayor was welcoming of the new immigrants.
Although many of the Windrush’s passengers eventually found employment elsewhere in the country, many also remained in London, settling in Brixton, which is now home to one of Britain’s largest West Indian communities.
THE BEGINNINGS OF A NEW BRITISH IDENTITY
Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, the immigrants began to recreate the institutions they were used to back home, including churches, and actively participated in the few organisations that opened their doors to them, such as trade unions, local councils and professional and staff associations.
By the 1970s, West Indians had become an integral part of the fabric of British society, influencing and impacting on everything from culture to politics. Culturally, few things bring the people of London together like the Notting Hill Carnival, which was the brainchild of Trinidadian activist and journalist, Claudia Jones. She envisioned a community Mardi Gras as a unifying force and it was first staged in January 1959, in response to the vicious North London race riots that had taken place throughout the summer of 1958.
Politically, names like Sam King, Dawn Butler and Dianne Abbott evoke a feeling of pride amongst Britons of Jamaican descent. King, a World War 2 veteran, Windrush passenger and founding member of the Windrush Foundation, became Southwark’s first black mayor in 1983. Years later, Butler and Abbott raised the bar as the only two black female members of the British Parliament.
Additionally, numerous athletes of Jamaican heritage have represented the UK on the international stage. Among them are Olympic and world sprint legend Linford Christie and current darling of the heptathlon, Jessica Ennis.