After serving in World War 2 (WW2), all those from the Caribbean who participated in the war returned back to their countries, however upon their return there was an economic downturn and shortage of jobs. Many experienced life in Europe and had the thirst to return back to Britain as they were fully aware of the damage caused to England during the war. During 1948, the British Government changed their immigration laws (1948 Nationality Act), which enabled anyone who was from the British Commonwealth to travel to the UK as British subjects with a British passport.
Some 500 people from Jamaica, Bermuda and Trinidad disembarked from the Empire Windrush ship at Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948. Britain suffered great damage during the war and due to the scale of damage to the UK infrastructure they did not have enough labour force within the UK to rebuild the country. The British Government placed an advert in the Jamaican newspaper the ‘Gleaner’ advertising places on the Empire Windrush which was travelling from Australia via Jamaica on route to Britain.
With the majority of people docking from Jamaica, they responded to the advert, which promised good jobs and a friendly welcome. Most of them had previously served in the armed forces during WW2 and was hoping to either re-join the RAF or resettle in the UK in the hope of securing a better future. They paid approximately £28 for their ticket and the spaces were filled in time for the Empire Windrush to depart from Kingston, Jamaica on 24 May 1948.
On arrival, some had already made arrangements for jobs and accommodation; but the majority had not and due to a housing shortage was temporarily rehoused in an air raid shelter in Clapham South for 2 shillings a night. Growing up, my parents told me about the struggles they faced when they first came to the UK, my father came to England in April 1961 and my mother followed a year later. My parents were relatively fortunate as my father had come to relatives who departed Jamaica ahead of him some years prior, therefore my dad was able to stay with them until he found his feet and sent for my mother. However, my parents, their relatives and friends were subjected to blatant racism and experienced the famous adverts ‘no blacks, no Irish and no dogs’ displayed on vacant property windows, recently this was discredited by historians even though it has been recalled countless times by both black and Irish people who lived in that era.
During these times, due to the fact that they had left their family back home many formed friendships with people within the community for support and unity. For example, when one person was fortunate to buy a home they would then rent rooms to other people from the Commonwealth until they were in positions to secure permanent housing. They would also use other forms of mechanism’s to save deposits to buy empty houses that was in need of repair through the pardner system (a Caribbean savings club). This caused distress to the white British people as they tried to object to the Windrush migrants buying homes in their areas by ostracising them from the community and speculating that the black migrants were dabbling in prostitution and racketeering stirring further resentment and jealousy from the white British community.
During the 1950s and 1960s the British economy was booming and there were many employment opportunities across the country and many Caribbean commonwealth people settled in numerous places across the UK, in particularly in Greater London, the West Midlands, Manchester, Merseyside and Yorkshire. They took up work in industries such as shipbuilding, coal mining, textiles, foundry work, transport, manufacturing (in all industries) and the Health Service. Many, who had left their country of birth gave up skilled and professional jobs back home and were only offered positions that were below the status they were accustomed to and less than their actual capabilities. This is something that I can relate with, as when I got older and started to engage in mature conversations with my parents, uncles, aunts and their friends they all had very distinguished jobs back home, some were mechanics, carpenters, tailors, engineers, welders and musicians. My father was a manager for an Ice company and others had jobs in the building trade such as painting and decorating, wielding and their own businesses etc. Their jobs in England never reflected the jobs they had ‘back home’. I realised that how many of the Windrush migrants lived in England was not the life they had back home, in fact for some their lives was better than their current circumstances.
Due to the demand of the labour required, organisations were recruiting directly from the Caribbean islands paying for peoples travel to come to the UK and later deducting this from their pay. The number of people who arrived from the Caribbean commonwealth rose from 15,000 in 1951 to 172,000 in 1961. The influx during the later years was due to the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962, which had tighter laws which restricted individuals from entering the UK to live and work. For many, once they were settled and established a foundation, they would then send for their loved ones (partners and children) to come to England, which would later cause immigration issues for some. Although the majority found employment, they still faced discrimination from the British people and institutions within their employment and schools. They were discriminated against within the workplace and few, if none at all would be promoted and/or achieve management status, simply because of the colour of their skin.
When the first set of settlers arrived they were treated as if they were novelties, whereby people were touching their skin to see if their colour would come off. Just as much as the white British were fascinated with their new ‘cousins’, the black Caribbean people were surprised about how the country looked (houses with chimneys), British customs, lack of courtesy, the blatant hostility and the environment in general. They were not only subjected to barefaced racism and disrespect, they were also confronted with violence by the notorious Teddy boys, who they clashed with each time they encountered one another. This was something the senior men I grew up around would talk about often when reminiscing about how they survived the racism and threats to their lives because of the colour of their skin when they first entered the country.
On a daily basis the Windrush generation were subjected to blatant racism and was often referred to as ‘darkies’ or ‘ni**a’s’, they were also spat at, assaulted, verbally abused or ignored. This was certainly not the normal behaviours they were accustomed to and through this they stuck together and started to form various institutions of their own such as clubs, Saturday schools and churches which helped them to be resistant towards such hostilities. During this period of time Kelso Cochrane was the first black man to be murdered because of the colour of his skin in Notting Hill, May 1959. This led to an outcry of frustration and vexation from the black community because the killer was never caught and they felt that they were not protected by the police. There were also a number of people from the white community who voiced their concerns because they felt that the hostilities was going too far, this resulted in the birth of Notting Hill Carnival in 1960 and the first Race Relations Act 1965.
Some may say that progress has been greatly achieved over the last 71 years as we have a number of legislations protecting individuals, making it difficult to be discriminated because of their race and now gender, age and disability to name a few. But, my question is how much change have we achieved over the years? Many may say we have come a long way, others may feel the opposite and really change can only be measured by the individuals it has impacted whether it is positive or negative.
What I do know is that our fore parents / grandparents have played a pivotal role in the development of the United Kingdom in terms of the economy, structure and culture, and I don’t believe that it has really been acknowledged or greatly appreciated. To me it is like their roles has been taken for granted and down played and the Windrush scandal in 2018 was a prime example of how much they were appreciated by the Government and some parts of society.
For a start, they were invited into the UK because they were much needed in order for the country to evolve into what it is today and secondly, the UK lured the cream of the crop from their homelands to advance themselves. Our parents moving to the UK has had an impact on their birth countries, many are struggling to even maintain a decent level of living standards today. Jamaica for one, who had the most migrants leave to go to England for a better future is only now developing their road infrastructure with the assistance of the Chinese (another topic in itself).
After the severe backlash of the Windrush scandal in 2018 and the celebration of the 70th year of when Empire Windrush docked Tilbury, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that going forwards the 22 June would be acknowledged as Windrush Day giving much overdue recognition to the contribution that they and their descendants have made to Great Britain. This was the second year of this annual festivity and there were a number of events which took place leading up to and after this date.
However, as a black British Woman who has a number of relatives that were a part of the Windrush generation, I believe that this should not be just designated to one day or month a year. It is our responsibility as adults to talk to our seniors about their pasts and to document their stories so that we can tell our children and many generations after about the amazing things their grandparents have done for us and this country, because if we leave it to others our children will feel that ‘we’ have not contributed much to Great Britain and the country we live in which is not true. We need to celebrate the great things the Windrush generation have done for us and more importantly instilled in us such as their strength, resilience, compassion, perseverance and unity as well as to continuously fight for our rights and equality because we deserve to be here and we deserve to be recognised for what we all have contributed to this country.
Let’s empower and increase each others knowledge through sharing our fore parents and grandparents’ experiences and stories during the Windrush era in the comments section below.