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The Windrush Generation On 22 June 1948, the British troopship ss Empire Windrush discharged its passengers at Tilbury Docks in Kent. Among those on board were 492 Jamaican civilians who had joined the ship at Kingston. They were leaving behind an island devastated by a recent hurricane, where there were few jobs and which was suffering from a long-term agricultural depression. Their arrival marked the beginning of a major period of black immigration to Britain, which ended in 1962 with the passing of the Commonwealth Immigrants Act.

In Small Island, Hortense describes the scenes at the docks on the arrival of the banana boat that brought her from Jamaica a few months after the Windrush.

The only jumping and waving that was done was by the Jamaicans arriving and leaving the ship. Women who shivered in their church best clothes – their cotton dresses with floppy bows and lace; their hats and white gloves looking gaudy against the grey of the night. Men in suits and bow-ties and smart hats. They jumped and waved. Jumped and waved at the people come to meet them. Black men in dark, scruffy coats with hand-knitted scarves. Hunched over in the cold. Squinting and straining to see a bag or hair or shoes or a voice or a face they knew. Who looked feared – their eyes opening a little too wide – as they perused the luggage that had been brought across the ocean and now had to be carried through the streets of London.

There was a long tradition of Caribbean people migrating in search of work, either to different parts of the West Indies or to the USA. The 1948 Nationality Act, which gave all members of the Commonwealth the right of British citizenship, made the prospect of travelling further afield to the Mother Country more attractive. At the time, Conservative MP David Maxwell Fyfe was quoted as saying:

We are proud that we impose no colour-bar restrictions… We must maintain our great metropolitan traditions of hospitality to everyone from every part of the empire.

America continued to be the preferred migrant destination, however, until the implementation of the McCarren-Walter Act in 1952. This restricted entry to the USA and led to an increase in immigration to Britain. Before the 1952 Act, immigration to Britain from the Caribbean was measured annually in the high hundreds. By 1953 it had reached 2,200, jumping to 10,000 the following year and reaching 27,550 in 1955. Anticipating that the British government would soon bring in their own entry restrictions, there was a rush to come to Britain from the Caribbean in 1961 when the annual immigration figure rose to its peak of 66,300.

In response to official concerns about how the growing numbers of immigrants were settling into British society, the British Caribbean Welfare Service was established in 1956 to help new arrivals. It consulted with the various Caribbean authorities to assess the immigrants’ likely needs and provided welfare officers ‘on the ground’. Two years later the body was renamed with the long-winded title The Migrant Services Division of the Commission in the United Kingdom for the West Indies, British Guiana and British Honduras.

Enoch Powell, the Conservative MP, had been among those politicians who had encouraged Caribbean people to come to Britain in the immediate post-war period to combat labour shortages in essential services. In 1968, twenty years after the arrival of the Windrush, he made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in which he anticipated that there would be widespread violence if non-white immigration continued. Throughout the late 1950s, opportunist politicians had been stoking up resentment on the part of some of the resident population who felt they were losing out to the newcomers. Although those coming to Britain from the Caribbean were by no means the only immigrants at that time, they stood out as easy targets because of the colour of their skin. In August 1958 Nottingham saw two weeks of civil unrest sparked by the immigration issue. This was followed by a week of mob violence on the streets of Notting Hill aimed at Caribbean people.

Rightwing nationalists not only found a willing audience among the street-fighting Teddy Boys and skinheads of the 1950s and 1960s. They also had the sympathies of some of the major unions, feeding on anxiety about job losses and wage cuts. Many people from the Caribbean, like Small Island’s Gilbert, found work with the General Post Office, but there were few opportunities for career progression for black employees while the unions’ branch officials remained advocates of the policies of Sir Oswald Mosley and later of Enoch Powell. Even when the unions were supportive of black workers they sometimes struggled to convince their white members that hiring black people would not lead to employment problems. In Bristol in the early 1960s, for example, although the Transport and General Workers’ Union backed moves to employ black crews on the buses they faced opposition from white employees of the Bristol Omnibus Company. This dispute led to a bus boycott with local people refusing to use the service until the colour bar was lifted. The boycott proved successful and the first black and Asian drivers and conductors were appointed in Bristol in 1963 (see the BBC Legacies website for further details).

The anti-discrimination legislation of the 1960s and 1970s, while not ending racist attitudes, did help to break down some of the barriers to employment, housing, education, justice, welfare and other areas of public life that had previously existed for black people. The Caribbean immigrants, now settled to varying degrees as British residents, were also establishing their own businesses and community groups as well as entering local and national politics where they could challenge instances of discrimination.

You can find out more about The Windrush Generation and Settling In by downloading the relevant sections of the readers’ guide from the Downloads page, and following the Read More links on this page.

The War Years.

The War Years.

Black GIs in Britain.

Black GIs in Britain.

Empire Windrush.

Empire Windrush.


Arrival.


Children.

Black British.

Black British.