The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dicks, Essex, in June 1948 was a pivotal moment in British History. The ship carried 1,027 passengers from several Caribbean countries.
The Empire Windrush was on its way from Australia to Britain when it docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave. The ship was not full, so an advertisement was placed in a Jamaican newspaper, offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to work in the UK.
The Empire Windrush left Jamaica on 24 May 1948 and arrived at Tilbury Dock on 21 June 1948. Passengers were not allowed to disembark until the following day, 22 June.
These passengers were not just from Jamaica; some came from Trinidad, British Guiana and Bermuda in the hopes of jobs and a better life. The economy of the Caribbean islands was seriously underdeveloped by Britain, which led to high levels of unemployment. Caribbean people were invited to Britain to help rebuild the British economy that had been weakened by World War Two. The 1948 British Nationality Act said that all Commonwealth citizens could have British passports and work in the UK.
Many of Empire Windrush’s passengers only intended to stay for a few years, but although a number did return home, most remained to settle permanently.
Many women found jobs as nurses in the recently formed National Health Service (NHS). The men found jobs on the railways and in construction. Despite coming from skilled employment in the Caribbean and having excellent qualifications, some could not find work in their specialised field for a variety of reasons, so had to take labouring jobs and jobs as cleaners and hospital porters.
Opportunities for promotion and access to better paid jobs with more responsibility were often limited for migrants due to discriminatory attitudes of employers.
Racism and bigotry
The Caribbean migrants believed that they were answering the call to arms of the ‘mother country’ during the war and later when it came to rebuilding Britain. Slavery was not so much of a distant memory, and coming from commonwealth countries that had yet to win independence, everything they had learned in school had led them to believe that they, too, were English men and women.
It was a shock for them, therefore, to be met with racism and bigotry from the white population. Racism presented itself not just in the search for jobs but also in the search for somewhere to live. With signs saying “No coloureds, no Irish, no dogs”, Black migrants were left to the mercy of unscrupulous landlords such as Peter Rachman.
Rachman was a Polish landlord notorious for his exploitation of his tenants and his sharp housing practices.
Rachman bought up many run-down old houses in Paddington and North Kensington. To maximise his profits, he wanted to get rid of sitting tenants and relet the properties at much higher rents. He developed an effective three-step approach to dealing with “unprofitable tenants”.
- he offered tenants a modest sum to leave
- tenants’ lives were made intolerable with all night music and parties in the rooms next door
- Rachman’s henchmen would go in and cut off electricity and water and break locks and lavatories
It was an effective strategy. The new tenants were usually immigrant families from the West Indies who had nowhere else to go and had to pay extortionate rents for tiny, squalid rooms.
The settlers also faced discriminatory practices from banks. Unable to open a bank account or secure a loan or mortgage, Jamaicans shared the partner or ‘pardna’ draw system that they had used back home to help their community.
This was a trust system where a group of people would pool their money together. Each week they save a set amount of money and hand it to a person who acts as a banker. This person is responsible for the pool and runs the draw, ensuring that each week one person receives all the money from the pool. Everyone is trusted to stay in the pool until everyone has had their turn to receive a draw. This practice of saving together helped our parents to buy their own homes.
The Windrush Generation
The arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 marked the beginning of a period of migration that would eventually see over 500,000 Commonwealth citizens settle in Britain between 1948 and 1971. Although many migrants arrived in the UK by various means after 1948, this group of migrants became known as the Windrush Generation.
Prior to the Empire Windrush’s arrival, two other ships landed carrying a much smaller number of Caribbean migrants – while they never received the same fanfare or public recognition – the SS Ormonde, which arrived in March 1947, and the SS Almanzora, which arrived at the Southampton dock on 21 December 1947 – six months before Windrush, were equally important to this pattern of migration.
Following the 1948 arrival of the Windrush, other ships such as the SS Orbita, the SS Georgic, the SS Reina del Pacifico and the SS Sorento, to name a few, also played their part in this history. The SS Auriga similarly left Jamaica on August 2, 1955, carrying approximately 1,100 passengers, and was followed about two days later by the SS Castle Verde, which carried another full shipload.
Initially, the number of migrants from the Caribbean was relatively low, but by 1952 the numbers picked up. Throughout the 1950s, there were many ships sailing from the Caribbean to Britain. By 1960, migrants started travelling by plane to the UK, making the journey much shorter and easier.
As the UK economy picked up and then boomed in the late 1950s and 1960s, migrants from Nigeria, Ghana, India, East and West Pakistan, Cyprus and many other Commonwealth countries came to work in the textile factories of the North of England and the engineering factories of the Midlands. As a result, Britain’s cities became increasingly multicultural. However, as this was also a period of large-scale emigration of Britons leaving to live elsewhere (such as the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand), the number of people leaving the country was higher than the number coming in.
Migration slowed down with the introduction of the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1962, which aimed to restrict numbers. This Act controlled the immigration of all Commonwealth passport holders (except those who held UK passports). Prospective immigrants now needed to apply for a work voucher, graded according to the applicant’s employment prospects.
This law backfired. Many men who were working here at the time had intended to return to their families eventually, but when they realised that they may not be readmitted if they left the UK, they brought their families to join them and decided to settle permanently in the UK instead.
The Conservative Enoch Powell and his associates campaigned for tighter controls. Powell gave a speech that polarised public opinion, and the number of people expressing anti-immigrant views increased.
“It almost passes belief that at this moment 20 or 30 additional immigrant children are arriving from overseas in Wolverhampton alone every week – and that means 15 or 20 additional families a decade or two hence. Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad. We must be mad, literally mad, as a nation to be permitting the annual inflow of some 50,000 dependants, who are for the most part the material of the future growth of the immigrant-descended population. It is like watching a nation busily engaged in heaping up its own funeral pyre.”Enoch Powell, 20 April 1968, Conservative Association meeting
The Labour government responded with the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1968. This Act restricted entry only to those with a father or grandfather born in the UK.
The Conservative government announced the Immigration Act of 1971. The act replaced employment vouchers with work permits, allowing only temporary residence. Those with close UK associations were exempted from the act. It also tightened the immigration control administration and made some provisions for assisting voluntary repatriation.
In 2012, under the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government, the Hostile Environment policy came into place. The policy was designed to deter irregular migrants from settling in the UK and to make life as difficult as possible for immigrants living in the UK without leave to remain, hoping that they would leave voluntarily.
Unfortunately, the Windrush Generation were severely impacted by this policy resulting in many people who had lived in the UK for decades being detained and deported.
The Windrush Years documentary
The Windrush Years is a documentary that explores UK Black history from the time Caribbean people came to the UK on the ship Empire Windrush in 1948 to fill post-war labour shortages to the time when Stephen Lawrence was killed in 1993.
This documentary looks at how the black community has helped to shape Britain. Learn about the Notting Hill riots and the making of Michael X, the man who used to be the muscle for Peter Rachman but eventually became a media made supporter of black rights. The documentary also covers the 60s, which saw the start of the National Party and the famous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech by Enoch Powell.
How much has changed? Racism still persists, albeit more covertly and despite the riots of 1981 and 1985, police still stop and search more black people than any other nationality, and Britain’s institutions have proven to be institutionally racist time and again.