It’s seventy years since the Empire Windrush arrived in Britain, carrying hundreds of West Indian immigrants, and the event has come to symbolize the start of the first wave Commonwealth migration to the United Kingdom.
How did it all start?
The Empire Windrush was a troopship, commandeered from the Germans at the end of WW2. In mid 1948 it was carrying home a number of British servicemen from Australia via Mexico and various stops in the Caribbean. It stopped at Jamaica to fetch West Indian Servicemen home from leave when the Captiain, realising he had a lot of empty births, put an advert in a local paper offering passage to Britain for half the usual price.
When the Windrush docked at Tillbury in Essex on 21st June 1948, there were 1027 passengers on board, 802 of them from the Caribbean, mostly Jamaica, and about half of these were migrants, 492 being the figure which is usually cited. Many of these were ex-RAF servicemen who had been stationed in Britain during the war, who came to take advantage of the better work and employment opportunities in the U.K.
A mixed reception in the U.K.
The Windrush wasn’t the first ship to bring numbers of Caribbean migrants to the U.K, the Ormonde and Almanzora had arrived the previous year carrying smaller numbers), and there were also already settled communities of West Indians and Indians in Britain’s larger port cities, but this was an unprecedented ‘one-off’ influx of non-white immigration in terms of scale.
The press appeared very welcoming, with headlines such as ‘Welcome home to the sons of Empire’ (The London Evening Standard) and ‘Cheers for the men of Jamaica’ (The Daily Mail), with reportage focusing on the positive contribution Caribbean immigrants were making to help build postwar Britain, which seems fair enough given that a high proportion were skilled tradesmen with highly marketable employment skills.
However, Clement Attlee’s government was thrown into something of a panic: and officials even examined the possibility of turning the ship back! There were letters of opposition to allowing the ship to dock, but Attlee defended the decision and the principle that colonial subjects of whatever race or colour should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom’.
The reality on the ground wasn’t especially welcoming:
Sam King, who was later to become the first black mayor of Southwark, foud that he was longer treated with the same respect that he received while serving in the R.A.F. during the war: ‘What you come back here for?’ The War’s over.’ He remembered.
Migrants also found housing and employment barred to them: ‘They tell you it is the mother country, you’re all welcome, you all British…[but] when you come here, you realise you’re a foreigner and that’s all there is to it.
Where did the Migrants settle?
Mainly around Clapham and Brixton, which have since become centers of black British culture.
What is the legacy of the Windrush?
The ‘Windrush Generation’ has become synonymous with the ‘first wave’ of Commonwealth migration to the U.K, but it has only been celebrated since the 50th anniversary when it became a widely recognized symbol of multicultural Britain.