Windrush Day is observed in the UK on 22 June to mark the arrival of the Empire Windrush and to honour the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants. It was introduced in June 2018 on the 70th anniversary of the Windrush migration following a successful campaign led by Patrick Vernon.
The arrival of Empire Windrush
On 21 June 1948, the Empire Windrush, a former German cruise ship, arrived at Tilbury Dock, London carrying around 1,027 settlers.
These new arrivals had come from Jamaica (539), Trinidad (73), British Guiana (44) and Bermuda (139) hoping for a new life in the so-called mother country. Many of them were enticed to come to Britain by job opportunities due to the UK post-war labour shortage. Some were ex-servicemen who had served in England in World War Two. They were allowed to leave the ship the following day, 22 June.
During the war, thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited to serve Britain and many of these decided to make the trip in order to re-enlist in the armed forces or with hopes of finding better employment.
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 The Daily Gleaner, a Jamaican newspaper, offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to work in the UK.
Alongside those travelling from the Caribbean, there were also Polish nationals – mainly women and children – displaced by World War Two who had come via Tampico, Mexico. They had been granted permission to settle in the United Kingdom under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947.
Whilst the ship was crossing the Atlantic the 1948 British Nationality Act, which would grant all Commonwealth citizens free entry into Britain, was being debated by the British government. The act recognised their right to work and settle in the UK and to bring their families with them.
Despite severe labour shortages, the initial reaction to the migrants was far from welcoming. Whilst some newspaper headlines welcomed the Windrush passengers, the government was alarmed by the prospect of a visibly different population although reassured by the assumption that the several hundred men and some women who arrived would be temporary visitors rather than ‘here to stay’.
Between mid 1945 to the end of 1946, the total working population of the UK had fallen by 1.38 million. So, with the hopes that the Commonwealth citizens would eventually return home, the government actively encouraged them to come to the motherland to fill the jobs that the current population could not.
London was the most popular destination recorded by the passengers – 296 people named the city as their planned place of residence. Those that had not already arranged accommodation were temporarily housed in the Clapham South deep shelter, which had been built under the London Underground station as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War.
Newspaper reports from the time state how those at the shelter went on to find jobs through the nearest Labour Exchanges (Job Centres), one of which was in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton. Many of the arrivals found work there, working for state-run services like the newly-formed National Health Service and London Transport.
The new arrivals faced difficulties finding suitable accommodations as whites openly discriminated against them with signs in windows saying “No blacks!”, “No dogs!”, “No Irish!” They moved into rented houses and rooms in the Brixton and Clapham areas where large Caribbean communities developed.
Despite hostilities, the people prevailed. Using the pardner draw system, they managed to buy their own homes, renting rooms to others in the community. They opened businesses and following the race riots in 1958, one of Britain’s largest tourist attractions was born – Notting Hill Carnival. The first carnival was designed as a way of showing solidarity and strength within the growing Caribbean communities and an opportunity to celebrate their heritage in defiance of the race riots.
Celebrating Windrush Day
The Windrush’s arrival has become symbolic of the generation of Commonwealth citizens who came to live in Britain between 1948 and 1971. Migration was eventually slowed with the introduction of the Immigration Act 1971. On Windrush Day, let’s take some time to appreciate the contributions the Windrush Generation have bestowed on the UK. From the hard work to rebuild a country devastated by war, to the rich sounds of Ska, Soca, Calypso and reggae music and the language which has played a large part in the evolution of British slang and so much more.
The Windrush Scandal
Despite being welcomed and encouraged to come to Britain, some of the Windrush Generation had their world turned upside down decades later with the introduction of the Hostile Environment Policy. Many of them have faced a hostile environment that saw some lose their homes and jobs, some held in detention centres and some deported.