The Windrush Generation

By Peter Parkin


Image caption: The Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES

On a cloudy Tuesday in June, 72 years ago, the HMT Empire Windrush (originally the MV Monte Rosa passenger liner and cruise ship) completed its 8,000 mile crossing from the Caribbean to finally dock at Tilbury in Essex. On board were young men and women eager to put much needed elbow grease into the British economy.

Britain, having lifted its head from the horrors of World War II, found itself with a serious labour shortage. These fine young West Indians (the term used at the time) were actively encouraged and indeed invited by the British Government to come to the UK and take up the overabundant job vacancies on offer that were not being filled.

It is accepted generally that the arrival of the 500 plus Caribbean's (men, women and children) in 1948 aboard the big ship Windrush was a landmark in time and core to the formation of cosmopolitan Britain that we all know today.

But the UK has been slow to remember the hundreds of thousands of men and women from former British Caribbean colonies who, when told "your country needs you", came forward, not once but twice, signing on the dotted line in defense of  Motherland England and ready to put the 'Great' back into Great Britain during both World Wars.

These heroic Caribbean's – some as young as 18 – volunteered to defend a King, a Queen, an Empire and an England they had never set eyes on and had only dreamed about but told they were part of.

Thousands were to lose life and limb in the effort to defeat Nazi Germany and yet, this ultimate sacrifice has been largely ignored or confined to the footnotes of history books. 

My dad, like so many other fine young men and women, would without hesitation leave Jamaica's sun and sea to enlist in the RAF and associated services ready to do their bit for the war effort. Even above this, Caribbean countries ramped up the production lines of food produce, supplies and amenities in support of the cause.

And so, when WW2 ended and Britain founding itself with a severe labour shortage, it would once again send out the call for Caribbean people to help put the 'Great' back into Great Britain.

With more jobs than people willing to do them, coupled with newly created National Health Service in 1948, the British Government stretched out its hand and invited the West Indians to leave the sun and sea for a new life. Many took up the invitation to work as nurses, midwifes, ancillary workers, cleaners, cooks, and porters, as well as factory labourers or employed in the bus, underground and rail services.

And because The British Nationality Act 1948 cemented the rights of settlement to everyone born in a British colony, nearly half a million people took up the offer of nationality between 1948 and 1970.

As Lord Kitchener memorably sang during his now famous Pathé News interview when disembarking the Windrush: "London is the place for me".

However a different song would soon be sung. And far from finding a welcome hand of friendship, the new arrivals were embraced with: "No blacks!", "No dogs!", "No Irish!" and many times "No children!" 

Places to live and rooms to rent were a scarce commodity. Living conditions were low in standards but high in rent. Many families were living cheek by jowl in one or two rooms, frequently having to double up to share beds depending on shift patterns and having to cook on landings. Houses were badly insulated, with no central heating, and only blue or pink paraffin heaters.

The name Rachman was just one example of the unscrupulous landlord. Slum housing was the norm and racial injustice commonplace. Being called a racial derogatory term was everyday and in normal language. It was even essential viewing on the telly. Remember Love thy Neighbor anyone? 

Little did this brave group of people realise that the 5-year term that they had hoped to stay in England for would, for most, extend a lot longer. As the 5 years passed the young Windrush generations' resilience to hostility only strengthened their resolve and hardened their endurance to work harder, settle, marry, buy houses and businesses and start the beginnings of permanency for the next generation of Black British children.

How ironic then, few would have predicted that 70 years in Mother England would decide to blow the whistle and call time. Treated like an unwelcomed house guest, the once friendly host of the British Government became frustrated, turned its back became hostile and told them it's time to leave.

From 2013 the Windrush generation started receiving letters claiming that they had no right to be in the UK. Some were treated as illegal immigrants. Some lost jobs, homes, benefits and access to the NHS. This was the very same NHS that in 1948 welcomed them because they did the jobs that others were not willing to do. To amplify this insult, legal citizens were placed in immigration detention centres and some deported. Those abroad on holiday were refused back into the only country they had ever known.

The Windrush had turned a slow full circle and and become a scandal!

Despite this volume of hostility upon the necks of the Windrush generation, the sheer will and determination to ride above injustice, inequality, poor living conditions and racist attitudes, would not deny these heroes. They left the slums behind to buy houses, start businesses and forge communities new and within wider society and make significant contributions at all levels of politics, television film and sports.

This Windrush generation would start up newspapers (West Indian World, The Voice) and introduce new musical tastes – ska, reggae, calypso, jazz funk, lovers rock and pop – and bring new styles of dress, colour and vibrancy to a younger, wider audience of British people.

The sound systems and the world famous Notting Hill carnival are now cemented into the fabric of this nation. Systems of lending money within the community continue till today (Susu/pardoner). Delicious fruit and foods such as rice and peas, jerk chicken, curry goat, roti and patties, excite the pallet. And all of this is flavored with Windrush love.