Author: Janett Walker
What is Windrush?
Empire Windrush was the ship that brought the first large scale group of immigrants from the Caribbean. Unknowingly at the time, it began the post war mass migration boom that changed the face of British society. To be clear, the Windrush passengers were not the first Black people in Britain. Black people have been here for centuries; even right here in Cumbria we can trace Black people as far back as the Roman imperial army, defending Hadrian’s wall in the third century AD.
The Windrush passengers came from Commonwealth Countries. That means they were countries which have roots in the British Empire, when they were ruled by Britain along with many other countries around the world and they ‘owed’ allegiance to the British King or Queen. It’s what colonisation is all about. It also meant, peoples from “the Commonwealth” could be called upon to defend Britain when needed. So, for example, during WWI, Britain relaxed its colour bar (yes, colour bar) to recruit around 16,000 Caribbean men of the Commonwealth to join the British West Indies Regiment. They fought in major offences including the Battle of the Somme. The colour bar was lifted again during WWII, with around 10,000 Commonwealth West Indians answering the call this time. By 1945 there were approximately 5000 West Indian RAF personnel in Britain and from 1944 West Indian women served in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force and the Auxiliary Territorial Service here in Britain.
Windrush docked at Dover on 22 June 1948. Between then and around 1971 (when the first major changes were made to legislation designed to limit immigration to Britain) the mass influx of those arriving from the West Indies, totalling around 500,000 Commonwealth Citizens, became known as the Windrush Generation.
When Windrush docked she brought able bodied and physically strong workers from Jamaica, Trinidad & Tobago, Barbados and other Caribbean islands, to help fill post-war UK labour shortages. There were 492 passengers on board, many of them children. None of those passengers could’ve foreseen that children accompanying parents in this way was to become significant many years later.
At the time, documented evidence shows they were confident of their welcome. This was partly because of the new British Nationality Act 1948 which conferred British citizen status and full rights of entry and settlement in Britain on people from Commonwealth countries and also because they were needed to bolster the workforce, which following WWII had left a serious labour shortage, of around 1.3 million workers. This shortage was not just as a result of the lives lost but was also a mass migration from Britain to white Commonwealth countries such as Australia and New Zealand. Churchill (in 1947) had all but begged over half a million British citizens, able and well enough to stay and help get Britain back on its feet after the war, not to desert their country, but his plea fell on deaf ears. So those in the West Indies were ‘sent for’. The Government invited and actively encouraged West Indians to come to the UK to take up the job vacancies.
No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish
They weren’t ‘welcome’ though. That became clear as soon as they began to disembark and look for accommodation. Cards and notices like the title above were everywhere; in shop windows and rooms for rent. The reception was hostile and blunt. West Indians were not going to be given an easy ride. They ended up in damp run down accommodation (slums), exploited by ruthless landlords who charged inflated rents, and in jobs no one else wanted. Many worked for London Transport (one of the biggest employers), British Rail and the newly created NHS (not as qualified doctors, nor as nurses equal to their White British counterparts) and nor were they welcome in the Metropolitan Police. But despite the by then new PM Clement Atlees’ view that they wouldn’t stay long (5 years at the most giving them time to save up and leave), the Windrush Generation turned up their coat colours against the seemingly never ending and bitter cold, shared housing, poverty, constant racism and exhausting work they were given as jobs, and began to create their own opportunities. They set up churches, introduced their own music and dance, got together to socialise and share news from ‘back home’ and reminisce. They began to establish their own Black British Culture. And boy were those West Indian men charming! They even began to strike up relationships with White women, much to the horror and disgust of some White men. Back then, the racism of ‘stealing our women’ was as common as ‘stealing our jobs’ is today. On the whole they took jobs as manual workers, cleaners, bus drivers and nurses. More than a few broke new ground in representing black Britons in society. Like campaigner Sam Beaver King who became the first Black Mayor of Southwark in London, helped to set up Notting Hill Carnival and founded the West Indian Gazette, the first British newspaper written specifically for black readership. David Lammy MP is a proud son of Windrush; his parents arrived here from Guyana. And they played Cricket Lovely Cricket.
The Front Room
In short, they made a home from home. Any child of West Indian parentage worth their salt will recall the cherished West Indian ‘Front Room’ which had to include a gas fire, a very patterned carpet, a gram (record player) and the obligatory drinks trolley with Stone’s Ginger Wine and Guinness Stout. These served as venues for wedding receptions, christening parties and ‘where the grown-ups went’ for some peace.
Our Chair, Janett, a first generation Windrush descendant, recalls that front room only too well, along with other items like the paraffin lamps, Trojan records, the iron comb (a story for a Black women’s relationship with her hair) and of course the food – rice n’ peas, chicken, callaloo, coconut drops, hard dough bread, salt fish n’ ackee and plantain. The West Indian communities created it all – they couldn’t go to regular nightclubs or bars, so they made their own known as ‘Blues’ – all night parties in basements and they weren’t welcome at British annual celebrations and events so they created those too – Notting Hill Carnival anyone(?), followed by Leeds West Indian Carnival.
QUICK FACT: Notting Hill Carnival came about as a result of the uprisings in 1958 when racial tensions reached extreme levels, started by Teddy Boys attacking five Black men leaving three seriously injured. The uprisings lasted a week, with mainly White people being arrested and as is nearly always the case with racism, they were dismissed as hooliganism rather than racially motivated, despite all the evidence.
There’s no doubt it was a tough time – and those enduring it, did not simply sit back and take it. They lobbied for liveable housing, employment, education (in the 60s and 70s hundreds of black children were labelled as “educationally subnormal”, and wrongly sent to schools for pupils who were deemed to have low intelligence – their parents fought back) and anti-discrimination legislation; they were pioneers in establishing ground-breaking organisations that paved the way for activism that continues today. Britons, Black and White and everything in between, owe them a great debt, not only for what they endured and suffered in striving for us to have the same rights as everyone else, but for helping to rebuild the country from the devastation of the Second World War – lest we ever forget.
The Hostile Environment
Having made lives here, the Windrush Generation worked, paid taxes, saved, took out mortgages and paid into pensions, just like other British Citizens. The Windrush Scandal began to surface in around 2017 when it emerged that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens from the Windrush Generation were being wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights. They were victims of the government’s new ‘Hostile Environment’ policy which was legislation introduced in 2012 by Theresa May putting the burden on the NHS, landlords, banks, employers and many other individuals and sectors to enforce ‘immigration controls’. The aim was to make the UK unliveable for undocumented migrants, forcing them to leave. Being undocumented was of huge significance for the Windrush Generation; in 2010 the Home Office destroyed the passenger records of the Windrush Generation meaning it was impossible for many individuals to prove they were in the UK legally. Remember the children who arrived on the Windrush itself and those arriving during the 20 plus years later? They mainly arrived on their parents’ passports; so the destruction of their landing cards and other records meant many lacked the documentation to prove they had a right to live here. The burden to prove they had this right was placed on the individual and they had to evidence their lives here prior to 1973, which by the new ‘hostile’ Home Office standards meant they required at least one official document for every year they had resided here. Imagine attempting to find official documents from years ago – the burden was impossible, and it was placed on people who had done nothing wrong. Council Tax bills weren’t good enough, letters from schools weren’t good enough, proof of taxes paid for years weren’t good enough. People began receiving letters stating they had no right to be here and began to lose their right to work, and thus their jobs, their homes, access to healthcare via the NHS – the very organisation that had desperately needed them in the 40s, 50s and 60s – bank accounts and even driving licenses. Despite being legal citizens many were detained in immigration detention centres, unable to travel abroad (for fear of not being able to return to the UK to their families) threatened with being forcibly removed and deported to countries they had not been to since childhood. Below are just three of the thousands affected:
Albert Thompson – lived and worked in London for 44 years, paying taxes and National Insurance during that time. He went for his first radiotherapy session for prostate cancer and was told that unless he produced his British passport he would have to pay £54,000 for the treatment. Albert had worked as a mechanic and paid taxes for over three decades. His free NHS healthcare was denied and he was evicted from his home, leaving him with no choice but to sleep on the streets for three weeks.
Paulette Wilson – lived and worked here for 50 years. One day, she received a letter from the Home Office informing her she was an illegal immigrant and would be deported. She had left Jamaica to join her family when she was just 10 and had never returned. She worked as a chef for most of her life, ironically for a while in the House of Commons restaurant. She was arrested and placed in an immigration removal centre ahead of a flight to Kingston but received a last minute reprieve.
Anthony Bryan – lived and worked in the UK for over 50 years after coming here as an 8 year old. He was threatened with deportation to Jamaica under Home Office claims that he was an illegal immigrant. What happened to him can be seen in the poignant BBC documentary Sitting in Limbo He was unlawfully detained and threatened with deportation.
The Government’s Apology – Sorry, Not Sorry.
In April 2018, Amber Rudd the then Home Secretary publicly apologised to those who had arrived from the Commonwealth countries in the Caribbean decades ago and who the government had denied basic rights to after being incorrectly identified as illegal immigrants. A review of what had taken place was commissioned and published in March 2020. The review made it clear that the destruction of documentation and subsequent Home Office actions, now called the Windrush Scandal had not been an accident. It was the inevitable result of policies designed to make life impossible for those without the right papers. It found the government ignored repeated warnings and that ministers were still failing to acknowledge the extent of the suffering inflicted on thousands of people who had been ‘mistakenly’ classified as illegal immigrants by the Home Office.
Windrush Compensation Scheme
In response to the scandal and the government’s acceptance that they needed to pay compensation to those who had lost their livelihoods, their homes, their right to access medical help and even their pensions the Windrush Compensation Scheme was launched in April 2019.
According to the latest report from the National Audit Office, the Home Office estimated it would need to pay out compensation worth between £120 million and £310 million to 15,000 people. By the end of March 2021, the department had received 2,163 claims and has paid £14.3 million to 633 people. Despite the apology and the government’s promise to work quickly to put things right to those who have been wronged, there have been massive delays to the scheme leaving a huge backlog of outstanding cases. The National Audit Office also pointed out that there are only 6 full time case workers to support over 15,000 potential claims.
Gareth Davies, the head of the NAO, said: “The Windrush Compensation Scheme was rolled out before it was ready to receive applications and two years after it was launched, people are still facing long waits to receive their final compensation payment. Since December 2020, the Home Office has made some progress, but it needs to sustain its efforts to improve the scheme to ensure it fairly compensates members of the Windrush Generation in acknowledgement of the suffering it has caused them”.
During the tenure of the scheme over 21 people wrongly accused of being so-called ‘illegal immigrants’ have died without receiving compensation, including Paulette Wilson who died in July 2020. Her daughter Natalie Barnes said, “The Home Office still operate the hostile environment policy which contributed to the death of my mother. Before she passed, she was struggling with the forms and lack of support and respect from the Home Office. The scheme needs to be moved so there is proper justice to families like mine.’ Paulette had been through not only having to prove her very existence in a country that had been her home since she was 10 years old but then after the trauma, prove the trauma.
Stephanie O ‘Connor is still mourning the loss of her mum Sarah who moved to the UK as a child in 1967 and died in July 2019. She says:
‘For my mum the compensation scheme has come too late, and I am so disappointed that it is still taking this long for people to get what is owed to them. I just hope that people get compensated fairly for everything that they have been through.’
The compensation scheme was meant to help people get their lives back on track as well as renumerate people for the hardship caused by the government’s acknowledged part it played in abusing the rights of Black British Citizens. Instead, the scheme has been far too complicated for victims to use, with very little support for those making claims. Again, the burden is placed on the individual. This is no apology and effort to put things right, instead there are yet more hoops to jump through. Over the last two years there have numerous reports and news stories on the failure of the scheme. It is impossible to place a value on the impact this had had on the victims, affecting their entire lives, the mental stress and the turmoil they have endured. It is a sad fact that the compensation scheme and application process was created behind closed doors, with no public input and no one to represent the Windrush victims.
In terms of the victims, we leave you with this: Charlotte Tobierre who has been advocating for her father Thomas said:
“My father worked for over 50 years, paid into a private pension. He was then caught up in the Windrush scandal and told he couldn’t work. He cashed in that pension for bills, rent and food. The compensation team asked for all documentation of the pension, which my father provided. He was then told they do not compensate pensions and would receive nothing for pension loss. All those years working, £14,000 lost just like that, He continues to work now at the age of 67.”
Legacy and Windrush Day
No one born in Britain today knows of a Britain without the impact of the Windrush Generation. Britain has been forever enriched. Imagine British music; fashion, language, books, food, politics and its very culture without the influence of the Windrush Generation and its descendants. It’s impossible. Perhaps though the double-edged success of the Windrush generation is that their contribution to British society and culture is now so easily seen as “British” that the true story of its origins and struggles are ignored or even forgotten. Those arriving during that period bought so much with them and it has become part of our culture today. People come from all over the world to England’s two internationally renowned carnivals, Notting Hill and Leeds West Indian Carnival. Calypso, Reggae, Ska, Punk, R&B, Pop, Funk and Soul are woven into the very fabric of our society. From the likes of Lord Kitchener (who famously sang ‘London is the Place for Me’ as he exited Windrush Empire) and his calypso band in the 50s, to UB40, The Specials, Bob Marley, Janett Kay’s Silly Games and Junior Murvin’s Police and Thieves right through to artists today like Craig David, Lady Leshur and beyond. Think about the food, the dance and the culture that came with them and the staying power of all of these things that have become a part of British culture, not just Black British culture. Notwithstanding the terrible impact of the Windrush Scandal and subsequent scheme, they made their lives here, they were pioneers of their time and they made a success of all they did, even in the face of such adversity.
Despite all this it still took two petitions and a lot of noise starting back around 2009 to get Windrush Day recognised. Official backing was finally given when in 2018 the government announced that an annual Windrush Day would be celebrated on 22 June to recognise and honour the contribution of the Windrush Generation and their descendants and to keep their legacy alive for future generations, ensuring that we all celebrate the diversity of Britain’s history.