The Empire Windrush is commonly believed to be the first boat to have brought post-war migrants from the Caribbean to Britain in 1948.  The first ships to carry large groups of African-Caribbean people from Jamaica to the United Kingdom were the SS Ormonde, which docked at Liverpool on 31 March 1947 with 241 passengers and the SS Almanzora, which arrived at Southampton on 21 December with 200 passengers. However, it was the voyage of HMT Empire Windrush in June the following year which was to become well-known, arriving at the port of Tilbury, near London, on 22 June 1948.  On board were more than 802 passengers from the Caribbean.  This moment was captured by the Pathé newsreel of the famous calypsonian Lord Kitchener, singing “London is the Place for Me”. 

Empire Windrush was a troopship en route from Australia to England via the Atlantic, docking in Kingston Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave.  An advertisement had appeared in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to travel to the United Kingdom. Many former servicemen took this opportunity to return to Britain with the hopes of rejoining the RAF, while others decided to make the journey just to see what England was like.  Unlike the previous two ships, the arrival of the Windrush received a great deal of media attention and was reported by newspaper reporters and Newsreel cameras.  The arrivals were temporarily housed in the Clapham South underground station’s deep shelter, in southwest London, about two miles away from Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. Many intended to stay in Britain for no more than a few years and a number did return home, but the majority remained to settle permanently.  


The arrival of these passengers has become an important landmark in the history of modern Britain.  The image of African-Caribbean people filing off the ship's gangplank has come to symbolise the beginning of modern British multicultural society.  Their arrival was not expected by the British government and not welcome.  George Isaacs, the Minister of Labour and National Service stated in Parliament that there would be no encouragement for others to follow their example.  In June 1948, 11 Labour Members wrote to British Prime Minister Clement Attlee complaining about excessive immigration, in the same month, Arthur Creech Jones, the Secretary of State for the Colonies noted in a Cabinet memorandum that the Jamaican Government could not legally prevent people from departing and the British government could not legally prevent them from landing. However, he stated the government was opposed to this immigration, and all possible steps would be taken by the Colonial Office and the Jamaican Government to discourage it.


In June 1950, a Cabinet committee was established with the terms of reference of finding "ways which might be adopted to check the immigration into this country of coloured people from British colonial territories".  In February 1951, that committee reported that no restrictions were required.  There was plenty of work in post-war Britain, and industries such as British Rail, the National Health Service and public transport recruited almost exclusively from Jamaica and Barbados.  Though African-Caribbean people were encouraged to journey to Britain through immigration campaigns created by successive British governments, many new arrivals were to endure prejudice, intolerance and racism from sectors of white society.  This experience was to mark African-Caribbean people's relations with the wider community over a long period.  Early African-Caribbean immigrants found private employment and housing denied to them on the basis of race. Trade unions would often not help African-Caribbean workers and some pubs, clubs, dance halls and churches would bar black people from entering.  Housing was in short supply following the wartime bombing, and the shortage led to some of the first clashes with the established white community. Clashes continued and worsened into the 1950s, and riots erupted in cities including London, Birmingham and Nottingham.  In 1958, attacks in the London area of Notting Hill by white youths marred relations with African-Caribbean residents, and the following year as a positive response by the Caribbean community an indoor carnival event organised by West Indian Gazette editor Claudia Jones took place in St Pancras Town Hall, and would be a precursor to what became the annual Notting Hill Carnival.  Some of the racism and intolerance was stoked by explicitly fascist or anti-immigration movements including Oswald Mosley's Union Movement, the League of Empire Loyalists, the White Defence League, the National Labour Party and others. Influenced by this kind of propaganda, gangs of Teddy Boys would sometimes attack black people in London.  Historian Winston James argues that the experience of suffering racism was a major factor in the development of a shared Caribbean identity among immigrants from a range of different island and class backgrounds. The shared experience of employment by organisations such as London Transport and the National Health Service also played a role in the building of a British African-Caribbean identity.


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Ubele Initiative CIC - Windrush 75 Newsletter 2023