It was the morning of Tuesday, the 22nd of June, 1948. The ship, MV Empire Windrush, arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex, officially carrying 492 Caribbean passengers from Kingston, Jamaica, who had made the decision to travel after having been promised a better and more prosperous life in the UK.
The Windrush, originally en route from Australia to England, docked in Kingston to collect British servicemen. The ship still had a great deal of room remaining afterwards, and so the Daily Gleaner (now more commonly known as the Jamaica Gleaner) put out a last minute advertisement to anybody who wished to buy a ticket to travel on the ship.
The cheapest tickets, which allowed travel on the troop deck, cost about £28, which would be the equivalent of about £934 today (inflation adjusted figure). With Jamaica being a part of the “Commonwealth”, the British Nationality Act of 1948 meant that all Jamaicans would have had the right to full British nationality and citizenship once they arrived in England. Despite most of the voyagers being from the island, there were others who hailed from neighbouring Caribbean countries too.
On this maiden journey of mass migration of West Indians to the UK were some very noteworthy passengers. Sam Beaver King, who was born in Portland, Jamaica in 1926, had previously served in the RAF in World War II, but after the war concluded, he was told by the British that there was no place for him in England, and he was ordered to return to Jamaica three years before the Windrush voyage. Following his second arrival in England, King went on to work tirelessly in the West Indian community in Britain; he assisted Claudia Jones in facilitating the running of the first ever Notting Hill Carnival in 1959 and the publication of the West Indian Gazette, and later became the first black Mayor of Southwark in 1983.
Also on board the ship were the legendary calypso artists from Trinidad: Mona Baptiste, Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, and Lord Woodbine. Lord Woodbine is also regarded as the musical mentor of The Beatles, who were commonly known as Woodbine’s Boys in their early days, but unfortunately, his role in their rise to fame as been downplayed or simply disregarded throughout the course of history.Sam King recounted in Stuart Hill’s 1988 compilation work, Forty Winters On, that he feared that the Windrush ship was going to be turned back as they neared British shores, as Parliament was not too thrilled with the prospect of hundreds of black immigrants coming into the country. While Arthur Screech Jones of the Colonial Office of the Labour government argued in favour of their landing on the day, by stating on BBC Radio that, “these people have British passports and they must be allowed to land,” he and many others did not see this as a cause for concern as they did not expect the passengers of Windrush to reside in the UK permanently; Jones facetiously added that he did not even envisage them lasting one English winter.
Despite the government not being best pleased about the prospect of housing these immigrants, they opened up the war-time deep shelter in Clapham South as temporary accommodation for the hundreds of new arrivals, stationed only a mile away from the Employment Exchange service in Coldharbour Lane in Brixton, through which many found their first jobs on English soil. This provides just one historical explanation for the large Caribbean presence in South West London in areas like Brixton.The influx of migration from the Caribbean to the UK in the decades which followed helped rebuild its infrastructure and economy, which was in ruins after World War II. Without the hundreds of black women who worked as nurses in those years, the beleaguered NHS would have certainly been doomed to a miserable fate. Without the hundreds of men to fill the jobs now vacated by servicemen seriously injured or killed in the war, any sort of meaningful recovery for Britain seemed gloomy.
The West Indian people who first arrived at Tilbury Docks in great numbers on this day in 1948 were the first in the long line of those who helped reshape, influence, and improve the course of development and history in the UK.
As a black man who is a grandchild of some of the first Caribbean immigrants, I feel very proud of my people’s history and all they went through to pave the way for black people like me to navigate this space much more easily than they would have all those decades ago. They sowed the seeds of revolution and pushed for this country to acknowledge our civil rights. They broke down barriers and shattered colour bars.
They are worthy of all of our utmost respect, and on this 69th anniversary of the Windrush landing, I would like to use this opportunity to honour them appropriately!