75th Anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush

This year on National Windrush Day, it is 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain, on 22 June 1948.

The ship arrived at Tilbury docks, carrying more than 800 passengers from the Caribbean and beyond. Their arrival and, subsequently building their lives in the UK, has shaped modern Britain. And it has shaped mine, as my husband’s grandparents came over to the UK a few years afterwards.

They came from the different islands of the West Indies, including Jamaica, Trinidad, Tobago and many many more.

In 1947, Winston Churchill had tried to persuade more than half a million ‘active citizens in the prime of their life’, who had applied to immigrate to mostly white Commonwealth countries, not to leave Britain.   This was because we didn’t have enough people for jobs, after the war ended.

Some ships arrived in the UK before the Windrush, but this was the first ship to arrive following the Nationality Act. The British Nationality Act 1948, redefined a British subject as any citizen of the UK, its colonies, or other Commonwealth countries.

Even before they arrived, Arthur Creech Jones, at the time Secretary of State for the Colonies of the UK, said, ‘Do not worry. These people are just adventurers. They will not last longer than one British winter’.

Labour MPS warned the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee that, ‘an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned’.

When the West Indians disembarked and started looking for accommodation, they were met with cards saying ‘No Irish, no blacks and no Dogs’. Finding jobs and housing was difficult, but the Jamaican’s persevered, and over time made lives for themselves.

Although many of these newcomers were mostly in London, others found work in many different areas of the country.

The government hadn’t prepared the British population for the immigrants arriving from the colonies. Sadly, the indigenous population either couldn’t, or wouldn’t see how these immigrants had provided help when it was needed and asked for. They seem to have forgotten how many of these same people had fought and died in the war, alongside the very people who these immigrants were coming to replace for the labour shortages we had.

When Conrad’s grandfather, Wilfred arrived in the UK, he found it hard to find somewhere to live. Eventually though, he found someone who would rent  rooms; where he shared the bathroom and kitchen facilities. Wilfred’s wife, Florence joined him with their eldest child, Conrad’s mum. The other three children arrived about two years later, and then they had other children who were born here in the UK. Wilfred and Florence eventually owned their own house in Cannon Road, Edgbaston, very near the cricket ground. My husband doesn’t know what his grandfather did for a living, but whatever it was, he went to work wearing a suit and hat, and he drove to work in his own car, and they owned their house.

In the same way that people helped them when they first arrived, they did the same for others, renting out rooms.

Recently, we had the Windrush scandal. The fact that many Commonwealth citizens were affected by the government’s Hostile environment legislation. It’s aim – to make the UK unliveable for the undocumented migrants and ultimately push them to leave.

Many of the Windrush generation arrived as children on their parents’ passports. Also, the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing cards and other records, which meant many people lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK.  The documents that the Home Office demanded to prove they’d lived here were outlandish in their expectation. One demand being, that they had to provide at least one official document from every year they had lived here.

I find this both, incredibly annoying and sad, because we know that we invited the Commonwealth citizens here because we needed people for jobs.  My own mother, when staying with us for Christmas one year, was watching the Queen’s speech. My husband and I took the opportunity to wash up, leaving Mum in peace. I took her a cup of tea and she said, ‘if it wasn’t for the Queen, people ‘like’ Conrad wouldn’t be here’. I was so angry, I reminded her that ‘they were invited here because people like her needed help, and they should be grateful!’

Those people who came over after the war took up jobs in the NHS, on Railways, and on buses – jobs involved in our infrastructure.  Many of them became the backbone of those institutions.

Our Government should be ashamed. I certainly celebrate the amazing input these people have given Britain over the years. The richness of our culture, for me, is down to the diversity and different cultures we have in our society.

Treating people with anything other than respect hurts me too, because half of my family are of Jamaican descent, and had we had children, they too would have had that heritage in their DNA.

This year after 75 years – surely, it’s the time to celebrate the arrival of the Windrush to our shores, and the people who make up Britain today.

This is a poem I wrote last year,  about the scandal of people being sent back home, when this is their home.


                                                           How was it okay to invite a whole generation

                                                           to come to our aid, as subjects of the Empire

                                                           then give them absolutely no veneration?

                                                           Made them unwelcome, when it came to transpire,

                                                         England had expected people who were white,

                                                         from New Zealand, Australia and Canada,

                                                         who would come to help them with the fight

                                                         to fill jobs; brown people were not on their agenda.

                                                        Promises were made and many plans laid

                                                        as West Indian families came to this land,

                                                        filled with dreams of new lives and trade,

                                                        happily disembarking, to the songs of a calypso band.

                                                      “No Irish, no blacks no dogs: were the signs

                                                       Caribbean’s searching for lodging often saw.

                                                       You don’t have to read between the lines

                                                        to understand you weren’t wanted on this shore.

                                                       Despite this ungrateful, unwelcome start,

                                                       hundreds of families built lives in this country,

                                                      These new visitors took England to their hearts,

                                                      Remained here eating salt fish ‘n ackee.

                                                     Over the last seventy-five years of English life,

                                                     adding a distinct culture to the British scene,

                                                     this Windrush generation are now suffering strife,

                                                     some returned to a country where they’ve not been.

                                                     An imperial invite to subjects from their colonial lands

                                                     by past politicians who reneged on their promise true,

                                                    British Citizenship given, snatched back by legislative hands,

                                                    has made it a bitter fruit for many people to chew.

                                                                                                                        ©Lis McDermott 2022