Bound for Britain: your guide to the arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush

The arrival of HMT Empire Windrush on 21 June 1948 marked the start of an immigration boom that would change the face of Britain forever. Colin Grant charts this remarkable story…

HMT Empire Windrush arrives at Tilbury Docks

In 1947, after serving in the RAF, Sam King returned to Jamaica on board the SS Almanzora. Along with thousands of Caribbean people, he’d volunteered to do his bit for king and country in the fight against Nazi Germany. Though he’d only been absent for a few years, half a mile out from Kingston Harbour, King was shocked when reminded of the depth of poverty on the island: “There were young men diving into the sea to fetch coins thrown overboard by tourists as they came in on the big cruise ships.” He recalled the desperation that forced Jamaicans to risk their lives for pennies and shillings: “Pitiful, yes. But for the tourists it was entertainment.”

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The same sentiment is expressed by all West Indians who reflect on that time. There’s a catch in their voices – of sadness and bewilderment as they remember their younger selves, roaming the streets proudly clutching their certificates looking for a non-existent ‘position’. The future looked bleak.

When, soon after his return, King saw an advert in the local paper, The Daily Gleaner, for passengers to travel to England for the special price of £28 10s on the HMT Empire Windrush in May 1948, the former engineer was adamant that he had to take the opportunity and get away from Jamaica. “We had to sell three cows for the fare but I said to myself ‘I am going to London.'”

Former Windrush passenger Sam King
Passenger Sam King was one of the founders of Notting Hill Carnival. (Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

Britain needs you

There were jobs to be had in Britain. After the destruction caused by World War II, with its bombed out cities and mountains of rubble, the country needed rebuilding. Added to which there was a shortage of labour, in part fuelled by the outward migration of Britons – some several hundred thousand in the aftermath of the war. In 1947, Winston Churchill implored the more than half a million “lively and active citizens in the prime of life” who had applied to emigrate to mostly white Commonwealth countries – Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa – not to desert Britain. “We cannot spare you!” he warned.

After the destruction of WWII, Britain needed rebuilding

But such pleas fell on deaf ears. Over the next two decades Irish, Indian, displaced European and West Indian people would take their place. They could readily live and work in Britain because they held British passports, and because of the British Nationality Act of 1948, which established that all subjects connected to Britain or a British colony were legally entitled to live there as British citizens. The focus on the arrival of the Windrush on 21 June of that year, almost as a foundation story, is in part explained by the fact of it being the first ship to arrive carrying migrants after the passing of this new Act.

Workers cut sugarcane in postwar Jamaica
Postwar Jamaica was a hard place to make a living. (Photo by Earl Leaf/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The attention given to passengers on the Windrush must have been both bewildering and reassuring. During the peak of migration, various booklets were published and sent to the Caribbean to give would-be adventurers an idea of what would be in store for them when they arrived. The BBC’s handy little pamphlet – Going to Britain? – was one such guide. “In the shop or in the store, wherever you go you will most likely find people standing one behind the other waiting for service,” readers were told. “They call this line a queue, and your place in this ‘Q’ is Z – that is at the end of the line.” They were also warned: “Do not put on your best clothes for landing.”

The average age of Caribbean passengers on the Windrush was 24

But the travellers, like those captured on Pathé News disembarking from the Windrush at Tilbury Docks in Essex, clearly ignored the advice; they were dressed to a point beyond distinction. Their glamour has been preserved forever, as well as their youth – the average age of Caribbean passengers on the Windrush was 24.

But the imagery of the Windrush has obscured other stories – not least those of women, overlooked by newspapers that reported the arrival of Jamaican men as “500 pairs of willing hands.” Notwithstanding that the majority of passengers, including other islanders like the Trinidad musician Lord Kitchener, were men, there were also more than 250 women on board. Among them was a stowaway whose plight moved Lord Kitchener and the Blues singer Mona Baptiste. They and other musicians on board staged a concert to raise money for her fare, so she wouldn’t be arrested when the Windrush docked at Tilbury.


Listen: Colin Grant discusses tells the stories of postwar immigrants to Britain from the Caribbean on the HistoryExtra podcast


Arrival in England

For many, arriving in England was a kind of homecoming. Almost all of the elders I interviewed for Homecoming, my oral history of Caribbean migration, fundamentally considered themselves to be British. They knew how to fold the Union Jack; all of the history and poetry they learned by rote at school was British – Kipling, Keats, Shelley and Wordsworth were particular favourites.

George Mangar recalls the obligatory standing for the British national anthem at the end of any film screening when he was growing up in British Guiana (now Guyana). On arrival in Britain, he was disturbed to witness that when he went to a cinema, all of the audience apart from him remained in their seats as the credits rolled.

For many, arriving in England was a kind of homecoming

Nevertheless, gleaning an understanding of British culture through Noel Coward dramas and Ealing comedies was reassuring, recalls Viv Adams. “When our plane landed in Gatwick, which was like a little village in the early 60s, we drove down country lanes and the first person we saw was a uniformed nurse upright on her bicycle, and I said to my brother, ‘Look, Hattie Jaques!’”

Of course, for the new arrivals, Britain had only really been known in the abstract, so the thrill of being able to visit Oxford Circus and myriad iconic landmarks of screen and literature was unending. They eagerly took snapshots and sent postcards back home charting their adventure. Wallace Collins remembers: “As I stood beside the fountain in Trafalgar Square, a pigeon came and perched on top of my head and shit on it, and I was undaunted and proud and wrote home to my mother that I am making history.”

An immigrant to Britain unpacks in a shelter in Clapham
A newly arrived immigrant unpacks at a shelter in Clapham. (Photo by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

Today there’s much talk of the introduction of the government’s hostile environment policy in 2012, which saw some black Britons, decades after their arrival, deported ‘back home’ to the Caribbean. But a hostile environment was present from the very beginning, especially when it came to finding employment and accomodation. There were no race relations laws to break, and landlords shamelessly placed notices in their windows, such as ‘No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks’, expressing their preference for tenants.

Waveney Bushell went as far as forewarning prospective landlords about her colour to save herself from the expected rejection. “There were all these little cards in shops that said, ‘No blacks’. And up to now, after 50 odd years in this country, I would be apprehensive going up to anybody’s step in case the person who owns that house is white – up to now.”

Fraternisation was one of white Britons’ biggest concerns

West Indians, though, were remarkable for tempering their anger, for taking knocks on the chin, pulling up the collar of their coats and walking on. Mr Johnson’s approach towards prejudiced employers was not atypical: “I started to walk on me own, looking out for big black buildings which I use’ to take as markers for factories. All those days I never come across any colour discrimination from anybody. They were all nice when they told me that they had nothing for me. Sometimes they would have taken me on, but as it was, I was just a few hours too late. Boy, the Englishman can be the nicest man out when he is telling you no.”

Fears of fraternisation

It’s remarkable how well the negative tropes held up. But it’s clear now, even if it wasn’t so explicit then, that fraternisation was one of white Britons’ biggest concerns. This had been obvious from the 1940s, when single men from the West Indies, Poland and Ireland were lodged cheek-by-jowl in forbidding hostels, then vented their frustrations with each other over a beer or three at Saturday night dances. A Ministry of Labour internal memo drew attention to resentment over the fact that “the white girls all too frequently seem to prefer dancing with the black men [who] are probably better dancers!”

Dancing was bad enough, but the notion of where it might lead, namely that black men could forge longer lasting relationships with white women, was of greater concern to the wider public. That jeopardy was spelled out in a headline in Picture Post, May 1954: “Would you let your daughter marry a Negro?”

You can’t legislate for love, but Carlton Gaskin claims that some risked the opprobrium for practical reasons. “Those were the days, if you wanted to get married, your wife got to be white. Because who else can you marry? But the funny thing is those girls who did decide to form any relationship with us, they suffered because even their family gave them a hard time. I mean some got married and their brothers wouldn’t even accept the fact that their brother-in-law was black.”

The liaisons were certainly unheralded and unusual. Dorothy Leigh recalls that there was nobody about when she went into the registry office to marry a Jamaican man in the 1950s. “[But] when we came out there was just people everywhere [about 200] looking! It was surprising how the word got round. The police had to come and move them away so we could get out.”

A Jamaican foundry worker sits with his wife and children in their one-room flat in Birmingham.
A Jamaican foundry worker sits with his wife and children in their one-room flat in Birmingham. (Photo by Hulton-Deutsch/Hulton-Deutsch Collection/Corbis via Getty Images)

Marriage, children and improving prospects complicated West Indians’ plans to return to their birthplaces. The plan, such as there was one, was usually couched in five year terms. But the five years slipped into 10, 10 into 15 and one day the children, who were born here, might wake up to the sight of their parents changing the wallpaper. It was a signal they were here to stay.

Back in the 1950s and 60s, so many young people in the West Indies were swept up by the fever of leaving the islands to go to ‘the Motherland’ that a joke arose: would the last one out turn off all the lights? The Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennett composed a poem heralding the huge transformations in British culture wrought by West Indians “colonizin Englan in Reverse”.

The Windrush scandal – which saw elderly people who’d arrived here in the 1960s wrongly classified 50 years later as illegal immigrants – has to a degree soured the story of this great adventure. But it has also forced a reckoning with Britain’s imperial and colonial past.

Sam King went on to help found the Notting Hill Carnival and become the Mayor of Southwark, but he was just one of the 300,000 pioneers who emigrated to Britain, and whose presence ensured that this country and its former colonies in the West Indies were (and are) inextricably linked.

And as the Jamaican scholar Carolyn Cooper says: “The British government, the police, all of those institutions of authority, they just need to accept that black people have a right to be here. As Ambalavaner Sivanandan’s famous quip goes: ‘We are here because you were there.’”

Colin Grant is a historian, Associate Fellow in the Yesu Persaud Centre for Caribbean Studies at the University of Warwick and the author of five books. His latest work, Homecoming: Voices of the Windrush Generation (Jonathan Cape, 2019) was a BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week. You can listen to a discussion with Colin on the HistoryExtra podcast

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This article was first published in the January 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed