In June 1948 the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks bringing hundreds of passengers from the Caribbean who were hoping for a new life in Britain. During the Second World War, thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited to serve in the armed forces. Some had been to England during the war years and then returned home, only to find there was no work for them. So, when the Windrush stopped in Jamaica to pick up servicemen who were on leave from their units, many of their former comrades decided to make the trip, some wanting to rejoin the RAF, others keen to discover ‘the mother country’ they had heard so much about.
One man reported that he had to sell three cows to get the money together for the fare – £28 and ten shillings – before embarking on a journey of more than twenty days – plenty of time to dream of all he hoped to find on his arrival.
Among the passengers were men skilled in many trades – mechanics, carpenters, tailors, engineers, welders and musicians. Britain needed rebuilding after the devastation of the war years, so there was no shortage of jobs, not just in the building trades, but the railways, the buses, postal services, and food production.
The passengers arriving all held British passports as a result of the brand new British Nationality Act of 1948, which established that all subjects connected to Britain or a British colony were legally entitled to live and work in Britain. Sadly, the idealised view they had of a country ready to welcome them with open arms did not match the experience of some. There was already a desperate housing shortage, as a result of the damage inflicted during the wartime bombing, as well as slum clearance. So, accommodation was hard to find, sometimes almost impossible, with landlords and landladies sticking notices in their windows announcing, ‘No blacks, No dogs, No Irish’ and often ‘No children’. As a result many of the new arrivals ended up in overpriced, overcrowded homes in run-down areas.
The wonderful book by Andrea Levy, Small Island, highlights some of the prejudice that many encountered. Here’s a snapshot…
Queenie Bligh’s neighbours don’t approve when she agrees to take in Jamaican lodgers, but with her husband, Bernard, not back from the war, she has little choice in the matter.
Gilbert Joseph was one of the many Jamaican men who joined the RAF to fight Hitler. But when he returns to England as a civilian he doesn’t receive the welcome he was expecting, and it’s desperation that drives him to knock at Queenie’s door. Gilbert’s wife Hortense, who for years has longer for a better life in England, soon joins him. But London is far from the golden city of her dreams, and even Gilbert is not the man she thought he was.
Small Island explores a point in England’s past when the country began to change. In this delicately wrought and profoundly moving novel, Andrea Levy handles the weighty themes of empire, prejudice, war and love, with a superb lightness of touch and generosity of spirit.
The influence of the Caribbean filtered through into so many aspects of British life. The music enjoyed by Caribbean communities was in itself influenced by music from Latin America, Africa and Asia. And so at a time when the music scene in London was primarily swing-based and dance bands, Caribbean musicians who could play jazz, blues, gospel music, and Latin music created a cultural transformation that can still be heard in the music of today.
Jamaican clothing styles and colours also crept into British fashion, along with Caribbean foods and flavours. Then by the mid 1960s the first Notting Hill Carnival was held – an explosion of colour and music that still attracts thousands to the streets of Notting Hill.
Many of the passengers who arrived on the Empire Windrush in 1948 struggled with the realities of life in Britain, but with the support of their own communities went on to settle permanently.
Sadly, in recent years, events now known as the ‘Windrush scandal’ came to light, referring not just to those who arrived on the Empire Windrush, but also people arriving from the Caribbean during the 1950s and 1960s. Legislation brought in during the early 2000s meant that immigrants had to prove their status and their right to remain in the UK. Back in 1948 and the years following, little was thought about in terms of paperwork, and what did exist was now difficult, if not impossible, to track down. The harsh treatment of those affected led to a scheme of ‘redress’ for the victims, but by late 2021 many had died without receiving compensation and only an estimated five percent of Windrush victims had received compensation.
A sad ending to what began for many as a journey of hope.