0 Empire Windrush: To the land of milk and honey? Not really...
Close
Empire Windrush: To the land of milk and honey? Not really…

In the News

Empire Windrush: To the land of milk and honey? Not really…

When you look back to the unrecorded, anonymous years of the black presence in Britain (from 1948 to 1958), it is difficult to believe that the country had a substantial, and increasing, black population. Until the current debate on the plight of Empire Windrush “settlers” one could be tempted to think it was all sweetness and harmony in those early years. Not so, reports Clayton Goodwin.

Historians refer to the time in Western civilisation between the fall of the Roman Empire (476 CE) and the revival of learning several centuries later as the “Dark Ages”. These were the years in which there were few, if any, written records and about which little is known. For the Caribbean and African communities in the UK, there is a similar period between the much-hyped arrival of the SS Empire Windrush in 1948 and the watershed of the disturbances at Notting Hill in London a decade later. Little of substance has been recorded in-between.

The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 with 492 passengers from Jamaica has been granted iconic status in recent years. But it was not the beginning of large-scale Commonwealth immigration, and not necessarily the most significant, although it provided the foundation for the fable. The arrivals included the celebrated Trinidadian calypsonians Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, who marked the event for posterity, and many of their peers were housed in a shelter on Clapham Common in South London, left vacant from the Second World War which had ended three years earlier. The site was conveniently on hand for the immigrants to register for work in the neighbouring district of Brixton, which has since become synonymous with the UK’s Jamaican population. The newcomers to Britain had answered the country’s “call” for manual labour to re-build its towns and cities – particularly in construction, transport and nursing – after the wartime devastation.

The arrival of the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 with 492 passengers. The arrivals included the celebrated Trinidadian calypsonians Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner, who marked the event for posterity, and many of their peers were housed in a shelter on Clapham Common in South London, left vacant from the Second World War which had ended three years earlier. 

They were also needed to provide the manpower for the nationalised industries and the National Health Service which had been set up by the new Labour government. They did not expect to stay on much longer after the initial task had been completed.

Hitherto, Jamaicans had provided the bulk of the labour force for the building of the Panama Canal and opening up of the Cuban cane fields. Why should this time be any different? Because only a short sojourn was expected, the newcomers did not see the point of putting down social and commercial roots, or to keep a record of their daily, often drab, existence.

Few native Britons were aware of their presence – unless they happened to live in the same neighbourhood – and despite the insulting “no Irish, no coloureds, no dogs” signs on accommodation, there was comparatively little organised opposition – why resist if “these people” were “going home” soon anyway?

Nevertheless there was a spotlight on West Indians, a sporting one. From 29 July 1948 – barely a month after the Empire Windrush had landed – London played host to the Olympic Games. It was the first celebration of the Games since the notorious “Nazi” Olympics in Berlin in 1936, and it gave Britain, and the world, its first real chance to throw off wartime restraint. Although entry was restricted (by modern standards) due to the international situation, Britons were astounded by the vista of the competing races and nationalities. It was their one chance of seeing “up close” African-Americans, whom they had hitherto “known” only from the grotesque portrayals in popular films such as Gone With The Wind.

But it was the Jamaicans Herb McKenley, Dr Arthur Wint (who went on to become his country’s high commissioner to the UK), George Rhoden and Leslie Laing who offset the cutting edge of the American sprinters and quarter-milers. Wint and McKenley battled each other for the 400 metres gold medal, which went to Wint. The quartet might well have won the 4×100 metres if Wint had not pulled out with a torn muscle. The loss, though, merely put off the inevitable: the Jamaicans won the gold medal in a record time at the next Olympic Games in Helsinki four years later.

In 1950, the victorious West Indies cricket team built on the favourable image that their Jamaican compatriots had established on the track. The thrill, harmony and enjoyment of that series are enshrined in the celebrated calypso “Cricket, lovely cricket”. If only all of life were just a cricket field! It took a long time for the new arrivals from the Commonwealth to realise that it would be many years, if ever, before they would return to the (is)lands of their birth. Jamaicans – I base my summary on Jamaicans because they were the largest contingent and because my own wife’s parents were in that number – found that what appeared to have been a good living wage from the viewpoint of their own country was anything but good, or a living wage, in Britain.

And the experience of the other communities would have been similar. Life “back home” had been comparatively simple. A man – and here I use the word as generic for “mankind” and not just to denote a male person – could walk from his home to his place of work, obtain fruit and vegetables on the way, and, because shirts and trousers could be washed and left out to dry in the sunshine overnight, needed little more than one change of clothes and a suit of “Sunday best”.

Despite the insulting ‘no Irish, no coloureds, no dogs’ signs on accommodation, there was comparatively little organised opposition – why resist if ‘these people’ were ‘going home’ soon anyway?

He and his family used the natural light to go to sleep when the sun went down and got up again when it rose. His workmates, his neighbours and his relatives were often the same people, who shared the same taste in music which was played for the enjoyment of all in their homes and in the open. The drab, dark cities of post-war Britain were nothing like that. A man had to pay, quite a lot, to travel from his home to a workplace that might be on the other side of the city, or beyond. He could not get his food “along the way”, but had to buy it in shops or restaurants with the attendant charges for “overheads” and packaging – it cost a lot more if he wanted to eat his own Jamaican food, flown in from the island at considerable cost.

The Caribbean and African community went “underground” – unseen and unrecorded. It remained unremarked even when community/race relations became the talking points.

One change of clothes was not enough as they could not be left out to dry overnight. Besides, several layers of clothes were necessary to keep out the cold. Life was not dictated by the availability of sunlight, and there were stiff payments for electric light and for the heating of cold, dank rooms.

As for entertainment, British people did not encourage the playing of music loudly in the house (even for their own people). There were special venues for that sort of thing, which could be rented at a high price but were often already booked for years in advance by local (white) organisations. In additions, there was the regular money a “successful” man in Britain was expected to send “home” to his relatives. But there wasn’t much left out of that “living” wage, and certainly not enough to save for the return passage.

The Caribbean and African community went “underground” – unseen and unrecorded. It remained unremarked even when community/race relations became the talking points of international current affairs from the confrontation at Little Rock, Arkansas, and the move towards desegregation in the USA, to the confrontation of apartheid in South Africa.

British popular opinion was generally in favour of the black citizens of those countries – they had had experience of the brash, bossy white Americans and South Africans and didn’t think very much of them. They reasoned: “we don’t have that sort of problem here”.

When you look back to the unrecorded, anonymous years from 1948 to 1958 – the lack of reported personalities and the lack of events – it is difficult to believe that Britain had a substantial, and increasing, black population, except that the statistics showed it to be so.

However, 1958, the year of revelation, opened, as usual, on the field of sport. At the cusp of February/March, Garry Sobers, the quiet, Barbadian left-handed batsman who had impressed in England the summer before, set a new record for the most individual runs scored in a Test Match innings by hitting 365 against Pakistan at Sabina Park in Kingston, Jamaica. Over the next 15 years (Sir) Garry Sobers went on to prove himself to be the most talented all-round cricketer who ever lived. Then from 8-29 June 1958, the Brazilians dominated the football World Cup played in Sweden. The star of their side, the hitherto unknown 18-year-old Pele, was the sensation of the competition. He did not come into the team until towards the end of the preliminary group matches, but he scored the only goal to beat Wales in the quarter-final, hammered a hat-trick against France in the semi-final, and dominated the final against Sweden by scoring two goals. Was there a Sobers or Pele here in England, it was wondered. And did that excellence have to be confined to sport? Events would take a very nasty turn before those questions could be addressed.

entertainment? British people did not encourage the playing of music loudly in the house as in Jamaica. There were special venues for that… Today, will.i.am from the Black eyed Peas holds adoring Britons spellbound at Wembley Stadium

The pretence that all was “sweetness and harmony” in race relations was blown away in the latter part of August 1958, and below the fractured facade the UK saw for the first time the extent of its vulnerable black population. After a fortnight of fractiousness in Nottingham in the East Midlands, the incendiary spark struck the tinderbox of Notting Hill, which was then a run-down area of West London. It was on these same streets just five years earlier that the serial killer John (Reginald) Christie obtained his victims from the homeless (often prostitute) women. It was a morass of the dispossessed and lonely.

The racist Fascist party, spearheaded by Sir Oswald Mosley, a prominent politician of an earlier generation, sought to benefit from the pent-up frustration and resentment to launch themselves back onto the national political scene – and, as usual, the press could not resist “a story”.

It is alleged that the incident which set off the riots was the reaction of a group of young white hooligans, then known as “Teddy Boys” (because of their affectation of a clothing style popular during the reign of King Edward VII), to a domestic altercation between a black Jamaican man and his white Swedish wife on 20 August 1958.

In the cliché of such situations “something had to be done”. The immigrants from the Caribbean and Commonwealth realised that they were not just itinerant immigrants – they were in Britain to stay, with the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

That may well have been so – though having got to know both participants several years after the events in question, I understand that the origin of the dispute was not as it is portrayed in popular myth. Nevertheless once the riot started, it spread like wildfire. Gangs of white youths armed with make-shift weapons “went hunting” for black victims. And, not unnaturally, the black community armed themselves with whatever they could lay their hands on for self-defence. The tension, which shocked the nation, lasted until 5 September.

But it did not end there. The country did not really face up to the situation until Kelso Cochrane, a young Antiguan, was stabbed to death by a gang in broad daylight as he walked home from hospital on 19 May 1959. It is said the framework of the future was fashioned among the mourners at his funeral. That was it – after the Notting Hill riots, and the killing of Kelso Cochrane, nothing would be the same again. Britons would not look again to the disturbances in the USA and South Africa with smug self-satisfaction.

In the cliché of such situations “something had to be done”. The immigrants from the Caribbean and Commonwealth realised that they were not just itinerant immigrants – they were in Britain to stay, with the rights and responsibilities of citizens.

Whether they liked it or not, there were elements in the surrounding society that would not allow them to remain “invisible”. From now on they would establish a social presence, set up commercial enterprises, and come out of the shadows. They would be harassed and rejected, they would be admired and accepted – but, above all, they would be recorded. Their “dark ages” were over.

The story of Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush was a ship that is an important part of the history of multiracialism in the United Kingdom. She arrived at Tilbury on 22 June 1948, carrying 492 passengers from Jamaica who wanted to start a new life in the UK. The passengers were the first large group of West Indian immigrants to the UK after the Second World War. At that time, there were no immigration restrictions from citizens of one part of the British Empire moving to another part. The arrival of the ship with the Caribbeans immediately sparked complaints from some members of the British parliament, but legislation controlling immigration was not passed until 1962. Their arrival and the image of the Caribbeans filing off the vessel has become an important landmark in the history of modern Britain. It has also become a symbol of the beginning of modern, multicultural relations in the British society and in the process, has transformed important aspects of British life.

But in 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war. Life was tough for many Britons. Housing, for example, was a huge problem. But although there was plenty of work for the Caribbeans they soon began to clash with native Britons over the issue of accommodation. Soon it became apparent that the “visitors” were being excluded from much of the social and economic life around them. As for Empire Windrush herself, she continued to be used as a British troopship after 1948, but sank in the Mediterranean Sea in March 1954 after a sudden and catastrophic fire in her engine room. Before 1948, Empire Windrush had been used for cruises in pre-war Germany, and then as a German troopship, before being captured by the British and taken as a war prize.

 

Related Posts