Arrival of the SS Empire Windrush
Hertfordshire Archives and Local Studies
The arrival of the Empire Windrush on 21 June 1948 at Tilbury in Essex marked the beginning of a period of migration that would eventually see over 500,000 Commonwealth citizens settle in Britain between 1948 and 1971, now generally referred to as ‘The Windrush Generation’.
In the years after the Second World War, more than two million people left Britain for Australia, New Zealand and Canada. There was a severe labour shortage and an urgent need to rebuild the economy. Men and women from Caribbean countries were invited by the ‘Mother Country’ to work in construction, manufacturing, food production, on public transport and to staff the new National Health Service. They were presented with an idealized image of life in Britain. The reality did not meet with this for everyone.
Following the British Nationality Act 1948, everyone who was a British subject (having been born in the UK or a British colony) was granted the right to settle and work in the UK. Most were attracted by job vacancies and some were returning members of the armed forces who had fought for Britain during the War. Some intended to work for a while, save money and return home, but later formed relationships, had children and stayed.
Where people came from
The ship’s manifest at The National Archives gives the details of 1027 men, women and children who boarded in Trinidad, Kingston, Tampico (Mexico), Havana and Bermuda, and disembarked at Tilbury on 22 June 1948. There were 684 males over the age of 12, alongside 257 females of the same age. There were also 86 children aged 12 and under. Of these, 802 gave their last residence as a Caribbean country (Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana, Antigua, Montserrat, St Kitts and Nevis, Anguilla, Windwards, Dominica, Grenada, St Lucia and St Vincent); 66 people gave their last residence as Mexico, 119 were from Britain and 40 from other parts of the world. The journey took 22 days and a ticket cost £28 (about £1000 today).
The initial reaction to the arrival of the Windrush was mixed. Some newspapers gave upbeats reports while others were less positive and many assumed that the newcomers were in Britain on temporary basis.
Finding a home
Roughly a third of the men were RAF airmen returning from leave or ex-veterans returning to service. After they had arrived, some went to stay with friends, and as a temporary measure, around 230 had to stay in the deep air raid shelters at Clapham Common due to lack of housing. For those without jobs lined up, the nearest labour exchange to the shelter was in Brixton. As a result, many of the incomers set up home there, making it one of Britain’s first Caribbean communities.
Most new arrivals had an air-mail letter from a relative or friend and this address would often be their first point of contact in the UK. Many more arrived without an address and had to find temporary accommodation in hostels. Also, the small groups of long-established migrants in London, as well as those who had arrived since the War helped to provide temporary accommodation. Their houses virtually became hostels for newcomers from the West Indies. There was an unofficial ‘reception centre’ of this kind in North Kensington; there were several in Camberwell and Brixton; one in Islington, one in Hampstead and a few in areas outside of London, e.g. at Slough, in Buckinghamshire and at Baldock in Herts.
They also had problems finding somewhere to live and were often forced to rent overcrowded and overpiced homes in poor run down areas. Generally they were not legiblefor council housing because only people who had been resident in the UK for a minimum of five years qualified.
Not everyone welcomed the new arrivals. Despite having equal rights to British citizenship, many faced prejudice and unequal treatment. Over half the men from the Caribbean initially accepted positions below their skill level, finding themselves in undesirable roles such as street cleaning and general labouring, or jobs that demanded anti-social hours such as night shifts. Many experienced racism and discrimination as part of their daily life.
Getting a Job
Those who did not find work immediately did not have to wait for long. From the late 1940s, London Transport had problems finding staff for semi-skilled front-line work and began recruiting staff outside London in areas where unemployment was higher. This included the North-East of England and Scotland. Increasing numbers were also recruited from the Caribbean. Concerned with rising unemployment in Barbados, the Barbadian government approached London Transport to set up a more formal arrangement for recruitment. In 1956, London Transport became the first organisation to operate a scheme recruiting staff directly from the Caribbean. The journey took four weeks by ship and between 1956 and 1970, thousands of new recruits came from Barbados to work for the network. By the 1960s, flights were arranged to make the journey quicker. For a short period in 1966, applicants came from Jamaica and Trinidad as well. The recruitment scheme became a model for other large public-sector employers, such as British Rail and the National Health Service.
A month after the Windrush arrived in 1948, the National Health Service was launched, a revolutionary new way to provide healthcare to the nation that would be free at the point of use. The NHS immediately faced a staffing crisis, with a shortage of 54,000 nurses. The post-war labour shortage was particularly acute as the women who’d stepped up to do nursing work as national service went home to their families and left the workforce.
For many British people, working for the new NHS was not an attractive prospect. In the wake of the post-war boom, men didn’t want to work long hours for low pay. Single women were being increasingly selective about their work choices, opting for occupations such as secretaries. In the 1950s and early 1960s, a married woman’s place was still considered to be in the home.
Senior British nurses visited Commonwealth countries to recruit trainee nurses and advertised in local papers. They came from all over the world by most came from the Caribbean Islands. They targeted young women looking for a new life and new opportunities.
General hospitals were well staffed, but there were shortages in hospitals caring for the chronically sick, disabled and the elderly. There were also large numbers of people admitted to psychiatric hospitals after the War and many young Caribbean women found themselves placed as resident trainees in these institutions. Once they arrived in Britain, they were sent to hospitals all over the country. By the end of 1965, there were between 3,000 and 5,000 Jamaican nurses working in British hospitals – mostly based in London and the Midlands.
In terms of racial harmony, most of the white British staff welcomed the diversity, but some elderly patients were not used to being nursed by people of different nationalities. Despite the facilities offered for nurses in terms of training and getting jobs, Black and Asian nurses frequently suffered prejudice at work.
Restrictions on Immigration
In 1962, legislation was passed to restrict the number of Commonwealth immigrants to Britain. Applicants now had to have work permits, which were given mostly to skilled migrants, such as doctors. The influx from the Caribbean ended in 1971 with the 1971 Immigration Act. Commonwealth citizens lost their automatic right to remain in the UK, meaning they faced the same restrictions as those from elsewhere. In future they would only be allowed to remain in UK after they had lived and worked there for five years. A partial right of abode’ was introduced, lifting all restrictions on immigrants with a direct personal or ancestral connection with Britain.
Some other national newspaper reports of their arrival…
‘Troop Deck’ (Daily Herald, 9 June 1948)
A Royal Lines official said last night that the Empire Windrush was made available for civilians on her return trip. Our Jamaica office told us there were ‘hundreds of people waiting for passages to this country’, he went on ‘and so we arrannged to ship as many as possible.’ The Jamaicans are travelling in the troop deck. They booked in the usual way. Fares for normal civil accommodation on the run can vary between £50 and £70.’ A colonial spokesman said ‘this unorganised rush is a disaster. We knew nothing about it. The majority of the voyagers are ex-servicemen who were here during the War. They imagine that conditions will be easier here’.
‘Jamaicans want British jobs’ (Derby Daily Telegraph, 10 June 1948)
Hundreds more West Indians are ready to follow the 450 job seeking Jamaicans bound for Britain in the Empire Windrush according to emigrants after the ship docked at Hamilton, Bermuda today.
‘Jamaicans seek work here’ (Gloucester Citizen, 10 June 1948)
Hamilton, Bermuda, Thursday: Hundreds more West Indians are ready to follow the 450 job seeking Jamaicans bound for Britain in the Empire Windrush according to statements by emigrants after the ship docked here. Most of the 450 served in the Forces in England and after unemployment in their homeland hope to get trade training in Britain.
‘West Indians to be miners’ (Western Morning News, 10 June 1948)
Thirty of the 417 West Indians on board the troopship Empire Windrush who are coming to seek jobs in Britain have volunteered for the mines, a Colonial Office spokesman said yesterday.
‘All aboard for the Jamaicans’ (Birmingham Daily Gazette, 22 June 1948)
As dusk fell over the Thames at Tilbury last night launches were still taking sight-seers to the 14,400 ton former former troopship Empire Windrush to welcome 492 Jamaicans who are here to seek work they could not find in ther own country. Tonight Colonial Office officials went out to the ship to welcome the Jamaicans and tell them of the difficluties that lie ahead. Another Colonial Office official who accompanied him told me ‘they are willing to cooperate with us tonight, they realise there is a tough time ahead, but they seem prepared to work and overcome the initial difficulties. There is no doubt that this is not an organised immigration. It seems that it was entirely spontaneous’. Fify two of the Jamaicans will volunteeer or the RAF or Army, 204 have friends to whom they can go to with a prospect of employment and 236 are without jobs. There are five families, including two white women aboard and 100 of the immigrants have been in Britain before.
492 Men on ship of good hope hail England (Daily Mirror 22 June 1948)
Voices shouting through megaphones and cupped hands, written messages tossed into a pitching tug that circled the ex-trooper Empire windrush gave me the story tonight of 492 hopeful Wwest Indians who have come to seek work in their Motherland because their own country could offer them nothing. Just before dusk, this ship with its ‘cargo of faith in Britain’ anchored in midstream off here. Aboard are the Jamaicans the Ministry of Labour did not know about until they had set sail. The Jamaicans lined the decks and because no pressmen were allowed on board they shouted to me ‘ we won’t be disappointed in England. Nothing could be as bad as what we have left. We want to help England back to its feet again. We’ll work as hard as anyone for you. Give us a chance. They wouldn’t even let us work in Jamaica.’ Lieut Smythe immediately took the situation in hand: ‘I could not honestly paint you a rosy picture of your future; conditions in England are not as favourable as you think. Various reports you have heard about shortage of labour are very misleading. The shortage is not general. Unless you are highly skilled your chances of finding work are none too good. On the other hand, if you are a very serious minded person and prepared to work hard in any location you could make your way’. Hard work is the order of the day in Britain and if you think you cannot pull your weight you might as well decide the return to Jamaica, even if you have to swim the Atlantic. No slackers will be tolerated’.
‘Jamaicans get roast beef – 236 in shelter’ (Western Morning News, 23 June 1948)
Of the 492 Jamaicans who arrived in Britain yesterday to seek work which they could not find in their own country, 236 were housed last night in the Clapham south deep shelter. The remainder have friends to whom they can go, with prospects of work. There was a meal of roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, yorkshire pudding, suet pudding with currants, and custard, and tea for those taken to the shelter. Then, after being interviewed by the Ministry of Labour and Agriculture officials they were allowed to go as they pleased. Thirty or forty have already volunteered to go down the mines. Winston Webb, a builder, said ‘we are prepared to take what is coming and make the best of it. All we ask for is a job and a chance to help Britain in her manpower shortage.’ Ten Jamaican stowaways found in the ex-trooper Empire Windrush, which brought the official party, were at Grays, Essex yesterday fined £1 each or seven days for travelling without paying their fares and sentenced to ten days’ imprisonment for being stowaways.
‘Why some Jamaicans wear expensive clothes’ (Daily Mirror, 23 June 1948)
‘Some of the 492 Jamaican emigrants who arrived in Britain yesterday in the Empire Windrush wore expensive suits. There were even emigrants wearing zoot-style suits –very long waisted jackets, big padded shoulders, slit pockets and peg-top trousers –costing £15 to £19. There were flash ties from 10s 6d to £1 1s and white and tan shoes (75s) The explanation was given last night by two quietly dressed Jamaicans, Oswald M Dennison, 35, sign painter and Leopold Evans, 45, builder. Mr Dennison, temporary night watchman in their mess tent on Clapham Common told me: “most of us are job seekers, but others are here to finish their trades and education. The very poor can’t leave Jamaica. They must have £28 for their passage and another £3 on them when they sail”. He was frank about himself: “it wasn’t poverty that brought me here.” He hopes to make England a base to reach Liberia or South America. But for the present, he is prepared to work. Mr Evans, 45, father of 5 said “I bought my clothes in the United States.” He earned £18 a week on war work in America and was able to save money for a time. Dennison and Evans were two of the 236 Jamaicans who spent the night in the deep air raid shelters in Clapham. Ministry of Labour officials have given them freedom to go where they please. The remainder of the 492 had friends to whom they could go with prospects of work. Among the emigrants was Mona Baptiste, blues singer and saxophonist. There was a complete dance band, students, boxers and engineers. Floyd Raynor, Jamaican buisinessman, here to buy livestock, said “some think the streets of Britian are paved with gold and there will be a lot of disappointed men among them”. [Dennison went on to open a coffee bar and was the first trader on Brixton market]
Jamaicans Gaoled here (Chelmsford Chronicle, 25 June 1948)
Fifteen sturdy young Jamaicans, some still wearing the RAF battledress which they wore proudly during the War are in Chelmsford Gaol. They are wondering why they are there. But they are stowaways. And the law says they must receive the same treatment as ordinary prisoners. As stowaways from Jamaica in the Empire Windrush which docked on Tuesday in Tilbury, they are serving sentences in the already overcrowded gaol. Most of them had splendid service in the War. They found conditions in their own country very bad so they came over here to find work, hoping to settle down. Fourteen of the fifteen ‘prisoners’ have been sentenced to ten days’ inprisonment, and one to 25 days. They are desribed as ‘grand chaps’ anxious to ‘get a start’. They are said to be appalled at the prospect of having to go back to Jamaica. A prison official said yesterday’ they are ideal prisoners but they seem puzzled. Many are married’.
‘ Jamaicans on way to jobs’ (Daily Herald 25 June 1948)
The first 12 of the 402 Jamaicans who arrived on Monday in the Empire Windrush to seek work were sent out yesterday for interviews abiut jobs in various parts of London. There are now 165 left at the deep shelter in Clapham. About 200 were staying with friends and reporting to local labour exchanges and 25 are at a hostel awaiting admission to the Army of RAF.