Empire Windrush

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Excerpt from Learn Our History | Vol. 21

On 21 June 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush dropped anchor at Tilbury Docks in Essex after a 32-day voyage that saw it journey to Trinidad, Jamaica, Cuba, Mexico and Bermuda before reaching the UK.

The history of the Empire Windrush starts in 1931. Originally known as the Monte Rosa, this German ship was captured by the British at the end of the Second World War and renamed the Empire Windrush in 1947.

A year later, the British Nationality Act of 1948 created a legal status that included Britons and ‘colonial’ British subjects under a single definition of British citizenship and established their right to enter the UK.

This endorsement of migration from Commonwealth countries would see over 500,000 Commonwealth citizens settle in Britain between 1948 and 1971.

The Empire Windrush brought with it 1027 passengers who ranged from servicemen, engineers, scholars, students, mechanics, tailors and musicians.

Despite the media fanfare that met the first Windrush arrivals - the Evening Standard published the front-page headline ‘Welcome Home’ to greet the arrivals - the ‘Windrush generation’ were dealt a difficult hand in trying to settle in the ‘mother country’.

Housing was a key issue; for many who did not have prearranged plans or contacts, accommodation was found in Clapham South Deep Shelter - a former air-raid shelter 15 storeys underground.

Predatory and discriminatory landlords were also a problem; new Black citizens were charged as much as double the rent of white residents.

New Commonwealth citizens also had to contend with violence from British gangs who indiscriminately attacked Black men in the streets. In 1959, 32-year-old Antiguan national Kelso Cochrane was set upon by a gang of white youths. Cochrane, who worked as a carpenter in Notting Hill whilst he saved to go to law school, was stabbed and killed.

Despite the obstacles, Commonwealth citizens persevered, forming communities, opening businesses and celebrating their culture. Across Britain, the Windrush generation helped rebuild the country from the devastation of the Second World War.

The shortage of labour in industries like British Rail and the National Health Service saw an influx of Caribbean workers into these industries.

However, Commonwealth citizens were still likely to face discrimination in employment. For example, Sam King (1926-2016), who was born in Jamaica and served in the British Air Force during WWII, explained how he applied to join the Metropolitan Police but was rejected due to his ethnicity.

In recent times, the Windrush generation has undergone even more difficulties. Despite living and working in the UK for decades, many were told they were there illegally because of a lack of official paperwork.

The Home Office kept no record of those granted leave to remain and issued no paperwork - making it difficult for Windrush arrivals to prove their legal status. In addition, in 2010, the Home Office destroyed hundreds of landing cards belonging to Windrush arrivals.

This lack of documentation left many of the Windrush generation, a generation who helped rebuild post-war Britain, with no access to employment, healthcare or citizenship.

A review of historical cases found that the British government had removed at least 83 individuals who had arrived before 1973.