The British troopship, HMT Empire Windrush, made history when it docked at Tilbury in Essex on 21 June 1948, carrying passengers from Britain’s Caribbean colonies. The arrival of the Windrush marked the beginning of a period of rapid West Indian migration to the UK between 1948 and 1971, sparking a nationwide conversation about what it meant to be ‘British’.
The ship has since become synonymous with modern multiracial Britain, as an entire generation of Caribbean Brits was established that would come to be known as the ‘Windrush Generation’.
The Windrush was originally a German passenger liner called the Monte Rosa. Launched in 1930, the Monte Rosa took travellers to South America before becoming a vehicle for spreading Nazi ideology after they came to power in 1933. The pleasure cruiser hosted multiple party gatherings, most notably in Argentina and London.
The ship was used to transport German soldiers during World War Two but was taken by Britain in 1945 as part of the war reparations. While remaining a troop carrier between Southampton and Singapore, in 1947 the Monte Rosa was re-christened His Majesty’s Troopship (HMT) Empire Windrush.
In 1948, the Windrush made a commonplace voyage from Australia to Britain, planning to stop at Kingston in Jamaica to pick up a small number of servicemen on leave there.
Who was on board the Windrush in 1948?
According to the National Archives, the Windrush carried 1,027 official passengers and two stowaways. The majority of the passengers came from the Caribbean, but they were joined by Polish nationals displaced after World War Two, as well as British RAF servicemen, many from the West Indies themselves.
Over half of those onboard gave their last place of residence as Jamaica, while 139 said Bermuda and 119 stated England. There were also people from Gibraltar, Scotland, Burma, Wales and Mexico. Those from Mexico were in fact a group of Polish refugees, offered asylum in Britain.
One of the stowaways was a 39-year-old dressmaker called Evelyn Wauchope. She was found 7 days out of Kingston and a whip-round was organised onboard that raised £50, enough for her fare and £4 pocket money.
“We cannot spare you!”
Following World War Two, Britain was like much of Europe – in need of rebuilding and rejuvenation. More than half a million “lively and active citizens in the prime of life” applied to immigrate from mainland Britain to mostly-white Commonwealth countries. Winston Churchill called upon them to not desert Britain, claiming, “we cannot spare you!”
In 1948, the British government passed the British Nationality Act. This legislation defined British nationality and created the status of “Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies” (CUKC) as the national citizenship of those from the UK and its colonies, such as the Caribbean.
This recognition of citizenship cemented the invitation to relieve labour shortages in the UK and gave people from the Caribbean a concrete reason to travel to Britain, many in search of better employment opportunities and others with a patriotic attitude towards helping rebuild the ‘mother-country’.
Additionally, the ship was far from full and so to fill seats, an advert was put in Jamaican newspapers offering cheap travel for those coming to the UK for work. Many of the travellers had paid the £28 fare after responding to these adverts.
The Windrush arrives
The return of the Windrush was exciting news in Britain. Before it had even arrived, aircraft were sent to take photos of the ship crossing the Channel. Despite the hype, no one – civilians or the government – had expected Caribbean passengers to step off the ship on 21 June.
Due to their racial prejudice, members of government soon turned their back on Churchill’s invitation. Then Minister of Labour, George Isaacs, told Parliament there would be no further moves to invite any more West Indian migrants to the UK.
Since the Citizenship Act had been made law, the British government could not legally prevent these people from arriving, but they would try to discourage it. It was not until 1962 that legislation was passed restricting immigration from the colonies to Britain.
For the passengers of the Windrush, their immediate concerns were shelter and employment. Those who had not sorted a place to stay were held up in the Clapham South air-raid shelter, close to Coldharbour Lane Employment Exchange in Brixton where many hoped to secure a job.
The Windrush legacy
Many of those who arrived on the Windrush did not intend to stay in Britain for long, and the hostility they faced upon arriving surely did not entice them to stay. Mr John Richards, a 22-year-old carpenter, captured this feeling of alienation.
“They tell you it is the ‘mother-country’, you’re all welcome, you all British. When you come here you realise you’re a foreigner and that’s all there is to it.”
Caribbean settlers endured prejudice and racism from white British society, barred from certain jobs, trade unions, pubs, clubs and even churches. Conflict over the postwar housing shortage manifested into the race riots of the 1950s, fuelled by fascists and groups such as the White Defence League.
Nonetheless, the majority of the Windrush passengers made permanent homes for themselves in Britain, establishing vibrant communities that celebrated their West Indian culture. One such celebration was the Notting Hill Carnival, which began in 1966. The name Windrush has resultantly become shorthand for the beginning of modern British multiracial society.
As for HMT Windrush? In March 1954, the Windrush set off with a full capacity of passengers from Port Said in Egypt. Around 6 am, a sudden explosion killed several engineers and started a fire, prompting a swift evacuation of all onboard. Yet the fierce fire could not be stopped.
Despite efforts to tow the ship to Gibraltar, the Windrush sank some 2,600 metres to the seafloor, where it remains today.