War To Windrush
Men and women from the Caribbean volunteered for the armed forces and war work during the Second World War. Their contribution had a long-term legacy for Britain.
The arrival of MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 is regarded as a landmark in British post-war history. It has become a symbol marking the beginning of immigration to Britain from Commonwealth countries and colonies. There were 492 West Indian passengers on board. Many were ex-servicemen who had been posted to Britain during the Second World War.
‘Windrush has become a symbol marking the beginning of immigration to Britain from Commonwealth countries and colonies’
They were not the first people from the Caribbean to settle here. Britain’s links to the Caribbean go back to the 17th century, and for more than two hundred years were dominated by the slave trade. Slavery was formally abolished in 1837 but most black West Indians remained poor, with no political representation. These conditions still existed a century later, and the 1939 the West India Royal Commission led by Lord Moyne, recommended significant social and political reform, including representative government.
The Second World War
Despite the hardship and frustration experienced by black West Indians, most still regarded Britain as the ‘Mother Country’. When the Second World War broke out in 1939, men and women from the Caribbean volunteered for all branches of the British armed services, as well as war service at home, for example in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) or Home Guard.
The largest number of recruits from the Caribbean served in the Royal Air Force, 5,800 in total, with smaller numbers in the Army, the Royal Navy and Merchant Navy. 300-400 Caribbean men were recruited for work in munitions factories, as well as eight hundred foresters who travelled from British Honduras to Scotland. In 1943, 80 West Indian women volunteered to join the ATS in Britain. Racial discrimination was widespread both within the military and in civilian life. But many West Indians also had positive experiences of Britain and its people and wanted to contribute to the war effort. When the war ended, some settled in Britain, but hundreds more Caribbean servicemen and women returned home.
The MV Empire Windrush was travelling from Australia to London and docked in Jamaica in May 1948 with spare berths. Advertisements were placed in newspapers offering tickets for Â£28 and 10 shillings for a passage. All the places were taken. There were lots of reasons why people wanted to emigrate to Britain. Post-war conditions in the West Indies were hard. Jobs were difficult to find and the cost of living had doubled during the war. On the other hand, there was a shortage of labour in Britain. Britain’s 1948 Nationality Act gave UK citizenship to people living in her colonies, including the West Indies. Moving to Britain seemed to promise good jobs and a better future.
The MV Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks on 21 June 1948 with 492 West Indian passengers on board. Many were ex-servicemen hoping to re-join the armed forces and almost all of the West Indian passengers were skilled. The voyage took a month. During that time there were significant debates in government and the British press about their arrival and employment. Their disembarkation at Tilbury on 22 June received extensive newspaper and newsreel coverage.
Some of the Windrush passengers already had lodgings arranged in Britain. Those who did not - about half - were initially housed in an air-raid shelter in Clapham in south London. The nearest labour exchange was in Brixton and, as a result, many West Indian immigrants made their home there, creating one of Britain’s first significant Caribbean communities. The difficulties and discrimination all these men (and later women) faced in finding jobs, housing and establishing a way of life were to be mirrored in the experiences of the thousands of West Indian immigrants who came after them.