Empire Windrush is the name of that well known ship that transported Caribbean people migrating to Britain in June 1948. The ship was a former German vessel named MV Monte Rosa which was taken by Britain in 1945 as a prize of war.
Empire Windrush on route from Australia to England travelled via the Atlantic Ocean and docked in Kingston Jamaica in 1948. It was to transport ex service men on leave from their units but had room for additional passengers.
In 1948 The British Nationality Act was passed giving the status of Citizenship of the United Kingdom to people from the colonies (CUKC status). The British Empire comprised of colonies, protectorates or territories ruled or administered by the United Kingdom. These colonies contributed to the British economy by supplying raw materials, workers and by paying taxes to Britain.
After the Second World War the British economy experienced employment shortage to fill new state run services like the NHS and London Transport.
An advert was placed in a Jamaican Newspaper offering cheap travel on Empire Windrush to anyone who wanted to work in the United Kingdom. Many former service men took the opportunity to return to Britain answering the call to help rebuild the mother country, while others were offered the promised of a better more prosperous life working in Britain. Among the ship passengers was Sam Beaver King who served in England in the RAF, who later founded the Notting Hill Carnival and became the first black Mayor of Southwark; also Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Lord Woodbine and Mona Baptiste. Lord Kitchener was asked to perform a few lines from his new song “London is the place to be.” They came as skilled workers, mechanics, carpenters, tailors, engineers, painters, artist and nurses. They got jobs as cleaners, transport workers, NHS workers, labourers, farmers, post office workers and factory workers.
Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Port in Essex with its cargo of 1027 passengers; of the 1027 passengers, 538 were from Jamaica, 139 Bermuda, 119 England, 73 Trinidad, 66 Mexico, 44 British Guiana, 7 from other Caribbean Islands and 40 from Non Caribbean countries. This marked the start of post-war immigration in Britain. The people who travelled on the ship from the Caribbean to Britain, their children and grandchildren became known as the Windrush generation. (BBC quoting from British Archives)
No preparation was made for Britain’s new citizens many of whom landed with nowhere to live. The Colonial Office a department responsible for overseeing the affairs of the British government appointed Baron Baker a WWII RAF serviceman from Jamaica living in Britain, to help the passengers. Baker arranged temporary accommodation at Clapham South deep shelter in South West London. It was a struggle for him to get those in authority to open the shelter for this purpose but a decision was made at the last moment which led to the culturally diverse city that London would become. The shelter was less than a mile from Coldharbour Lane Employment Exchange in Brixton that helped many of the new citizens find employment.
Even before the ship left the Caribbean shores controversy started in Britain. Prime Minister Clement Attlee had examined the possibility of preventing Empire Windrush from docking or diverting it to East Africa. The Colonial Secretary Arthur Creech Jones is said to have reassured the cabinet that they should be allowed to land as they have British passports but they should not worry because the passengers would not last one winter in England.
He clearly underestimated the resilience of the Caribbean people. Ministers began to consider how they might revoke the citizenship status given by the 1948 Act. The architects of the Act imagined it would benefit citizens of Canada Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. A fall in international travel cost meant more people from other colonies were able to travel.
In 1950 Cabinet committee formed to look at strategies they might adopt to check immigration of Black people into this country. 1951 It was felt that there was no need to restrict immigration as there was plenty of work in post war Britain. Active recruitment took place in Jamaica and Barbados for NHS and transport workers. Many face prejudices and racism in areas of employment and housing. Signs greeted them saying “No Blacks, No Irish and No Dogs.” Trade unions would often not help the Caribbean workers. Clubs, pubs and churches operated colour bar.
1960 – 1963 Enoch Powell invited women from the Caribbean to come to Britain to train as Nurses. Powell a conservative Shadow Defence Secretary later became known for his “River of Blood” speech criticising mass immigration in the UK from the new commonwealth.
The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 was the start of restricting entry to the UK from the new commonwealth countries of anyone without a government issued employment voucher and those not born in the UK and not having a British passport issued by the UK government.. Labour leader of the opposition in parliament, Hugh Gaitskell called the Act “cruel and brutal anti colour legislation.” The Immigrants Act 1972 further elaborated the definition of “partial” migrants of those born in the UK and those who have lived there for the previous five years or long. It also gave help to those wishing to return abroad. More recently we have heard about the plight of members of the Windrush generation who were wrongly removed from Britain or have faced deportation under the former Home Secretary Theresa May‘s Hostile Environment Policy 2010. A policy aimed at making life difficult for those without a right to remain in the UK in the hope that they will voluntarily leave which was implemented to include residents of windrush generation.
Despite the ongoing struggles we face we have achieved much and have made great contributions to life in the UK in whatever roles we have had. 70 years on we must celebration those early pioneers.