THE WINDRUSH YEARS (1948-1998)
The steamship Empire Windrush brought the first generation of migrant workers from the Caribbean to England, and therefore played an integral part in the origins of multi-cultural Britain. The story of the Windrush was made known to a whole new generation in 1998, when the 50th anniversary of its arrival on these shores was celebrated. But the ship wasn’t always British…
It was built in Germany by the Hamburg firm Blohm and Voss, named the Monte Rosa and launched in December 1930. Designed as a passenger cruiser with the capacity to carry 1,372 people, the 500ft vessel sailed the South American tourist route between Hamburg and Buenos Aires, the Argentinian capital. During the second world war it was used as a troop ship and then a hospital ship, but was eventually seized at the German port of Kiel by British forces after the German defeat. Refitted as a British troop carrier by A Stephen and Sons of Glasgow, it was renamed Empire Windrush in 1947.
Its most celebrated journey took place the following year. En route from Australia to England via the Atlantic, it docked in Kingston, Jamaica. An advert had appeared in Jamaica’s Daily Gleaner newspaper on April 13th, offering cheap transport on the ship for anybody who wanted to come and work in the UK. The war had created a labour shortage but many of the positions were low-paid and lay unfilled.
The fare for a place on the troop deck was a cut-price £28 and 10 shillings. When the Windrush departed on May 24th, 1948, it had 300 passengers below deck and 192 above, from the colonies of Jamaica and Trinidad. It took a month to reach England, eventually docking at Tilbury in Essex on June 22nd.
Most of those who bought tickets were ex-service personnel, who had fought on the British side during the war. They were promised jobs would be waiting for them, and some looked forward to joining (or rejoining) the RAF. Others were just curious to see what they thought of as the “mother country” at first hand. Although the atmosphere turned out to be far from welcoming when they first arrived, 202 of the passengers found work straight away. The newly-founded National Health Service was a major source of employment for some – others worked in factories and mills – but the largest employer was London Transport.
While the Windrush was on its way to Britain, there was some debate in Parliament as to whether its passengers had any right to come here. Some argued that they ought to be turned away on arrival. It was pointed out in their defence that they had British passports, had served King and Country in wartime and would only be likely to stay for a year anyway. During interviews at the anniversary in 1998, some former passengers said they too had only intended to stay a short while, because they feared the climate and working conditions might not agree with them.
Windrush passengers, June 22, 1948
On their arrival on that June day, 236 of the travellers were temporarily housed in the Clapham South deep shelter in south-west London. This was one of a network of constructions beneath the underground stations, designed as refuges during the wartime bombing. Before the end of war, the one at Clapham South had been used for holding German and Italian prisoners-of-war. The shelter was less than a mile from the nearest labour exchange (job centre), on Coldharbour Lane in Brixton. As the men spread out into local accommodation, they marked the district’s debut as a multi-racial community.
The Windrush’s fate was not a happy one. On the return leg of a journey from Kure in Japan to Southampton in 1954, there was a large explosion in the engine room just off the Algerian coast and the ship was completely burned out. What was left of the ship sank in the Mediterranean while it was being towed towards Gibraltar. The event, which killed four engineers, could so easily have been a major maritime disaster but thankfully the remaining 1,500 or so passengers were evacuated safely.
Lord Kitchener and the initial voyage: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2011/jun/16/lord-kitchener-empire-windrush
S.S. Empire WindRush: http://www.oceanlinermuseum.co.uk/Empire%20Windrush.html