On 21 June 1948, HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in Essex. It was the final stop of a journey that had begun a month earlier in Trinidad. Among the 1,027 travellers on board the ship were over 800 people from the Caribbean – predominantly Jamaican, but also Trinidadian, Bermudan, and Guyanese – who had chosen to migrate to the UK in search of work.
It is now 72 years since these first arrivals of what would become known as the Windrush generation arrived on the Thames Estuary. To honour them, and the many thousands more who arrived in the UK in subsequent years, and their collective contribution to British Society, on Monday we celebrate Windrush Day. But we’ll come to that. First, a little more as to what brought people to this country from the Caribbean.
The people aboard Empire Windrush, and the thousands who would follow on subsequent vessels, came from the Commonwealth countries of the West Indies, encouraged to travel to Britain to help fuel the country’s recovery from the Second World War. There was much work to be found in the UK at the time – in industry, British Transport, public transport, and the National Health Service – and successive governments looked to entice West Indians to these roles through immigration campaigns. And for a lot of people in the Caribbean, that prospect of prosperity in the UK was too good to turn down.
Many of those disembarking at Tilbury were former servicemen who had fought for Britain in the Second World War. Among them was Harry Wilmot, a cabinet maker and former RAF pilot, who, six years later, would father the singer, actor and performer Gary Wilmot. Also onboard the Empire Windrush was the Trinidadian calypso singer Aldwyn Roberts, better known by his stage name Lord Kitchener. Prior to leaving the boat, both were interviewed by a Pathé News reporter, with Roberts, giving an impromptu performance of his song ‘London is the Place for Me’.
But once they left the boat, many found that the vision of a better life promoted by the UK government was often at odds with the reality they faced. The new arrivals, whether settling in London, or other cities across the UK, including Birmingham, Bristol and Liverpool, experienced prejudice, and intolerance on a daily basis. Racism would affect every facet of their life, from denial of housing and employment, to barring of entry to pubs, clubs and even churches.
Between the arrival of the Empire Windrush and the enactment of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act in 1962, which would restrict entry to the UK, it is estimated that the number of people in Britain born in the West Indies rose from the low thousands to around 172,000. And despite the barriers, and discrimination they faced, the Windrush generation emphatically contributed, and would continue to contribute, to British society in almost every field.
When they first arrived in the UK, the Windrush generation, as they were Commonwealth citizens, neither needed, nor were given any, documents. They had a right to permanently remain and, even after changes to immigration laws in the early 1970s, many were never given, or asked to provide, documentary evidence of their right to be in the UK. And so for four decades those who arrived as part of the Windrush generation lived and worked and studied and retired in the UK, believing themselves to be British citizens. And why wouldn’t they? What worth was an extra piece of paper, when they’d already contributed so much to the country in which they lived?
But then in 2012, the government introduced its hostile environment policy. This set of administrative and legislative measures had been designed to make staying in Britain as difficult as possible for those perceived to be here illegally. There was suddenly greater pressure on people born overseas to prove their right to be in the UK. And, having never been provided with documentation to support their UK residency, the Windrush generation now found themselves at risk of, and threatened with, deportation. This included many people who had spent their entire lives in Britain, and now faced being made to ‘return’ to countries they had never visited.
What would become known as ‘the Windrush scandal’ came to a head in 2018, with increasing pressure from the press, politicians, and campaign groups forcing a halt to deportations. But this was not before many people from the Windrush generation had lost their jobs or homes, been denied medical care, or even been detained or wrongly deported, as a result of the policy.
In late 2018, ‘the Windrush scandal’ was the focus of Violet Nights, the Southbank Centre’s real-life forum for online conversations. Chaired by Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff, Deputy Editor at gal-dem magazine and author of the book Mother Country: Real Stories of the Windrush Children, the discussion featured Grime MC Marci Phonix and artist Rachelle Romeo.
In this podcast of the event, the trio discuss the real-life stories behind the headlines, from their own experiences and those of their families, including Romeo’s father who was threatened with deportation despite having lived in the UK since 1959, when he arrived as a four-year-old.
The London Borough of Lambeth – the borough in which the Southbank Centre sits – has strong connection with the Windrush generation, with over 200 of those first arrivals in 1948 initially temporarily housed at Clapham South deep shelter. They were given a reception – the only one they received – by the Mayor of Lambeth; when they went to find work, it was to the employment office on Coldharbour Lane, Brixton they turned. And once they found work, many of them set up home in the area.
On Monday 22 June, 2020, Lambeth Council is asking everyone to celebrate Windrush Day, by joining in unity to sing a universally loved song in honour of the Windrush generation. At 10.27am (the time chosen to represent the 1,027 people on board the Empire Windrush) join us and the people of Lambeth in singing this year’s Song for Windrush, ‘You Can Get It If You Really Want’, written by Jimmy Cliff – who would’ve been joining us for Meltdown festival this month – and performed by Desmond Dekker.
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