As 450 West Indians crowded the rails of the MV Empire Windrush as it anchored in the Thames, a phalanx of reporters and flashing cameras greeted them as part of the official government reception.
Thus immortalised in newspaper print and Pathé film, the arrival of the former troop carrier at Tilbury Docks 70 years ago this week has come to be regarded as the symbolic starting point of multicultural Britain, even though it was not the first ship carrying Caribbean migrants to these shores and would certainly not be the last.
Dressed in their stylish suits and fedora hats, those on board possessed the naive optimism of adventurers, their buoyant spirits unforgettably summed up by one of their number, the calypsonian Lord Kitchener, who gave an impromptu rendition of his song London is the Place for Me for the awaiting film cameras.
They and those who would follow over the next two decades had answered the call of the Mother Country to come and help rebuild Britain after the war and most thought they’d be back home after a few years with money in their pockets. But it turned out to be very different.
“Like most people I didn’t think I’d be here for more than five years so my return is long overdue,” laughs Donald Hinds, 84. “But within in a few months of my arrival I realised that it would take much longer to achieve what I wanted to do here.”
Donald came to London from Jamaica in 1955 and became one of the first black bus conductors to be employed by London Transport. But his ambition was to become a writer and, after working as a reporter on Claudia Jones’ West Indian Gazette in his spare time, his first book, Journey to an Illusion, was published by Heinemann in 1966. A mix of interviews and social commentary, it has come to be regarded as the definitive account of the experiences of early migrants as it dawned on them that although Britain wanted their labour it didn’t want them around.
The hardships people faced spawned a host of civil rights activists, mostly unsung heroes who were prepared to stick their heads above the parapet, come what may. Norma Ashe-Watt became involved in the Campaign Against Racial Discrimination in the 1960s soon after arriving from Trinidad. “West Indians couldn’t get accommodation, they couldn’t get jobs and their children didn’t get taught properly at school – we had to do something and we did,” she declares.
The 87-year-old, who worked as an accounts manager for the old British Rail went on to become a founding member of the Keskidee Centre in north London that began as a pioneering arts and community hub for disaffected local kids.
“People really suffered but their children suffered more because they were raised here but were made to feel they did not belong.”
Racial tensions were a fact of life particularly after the 1958 Notting Hill riots. Former youth worker Winston Pinder lived with his family in Kentish Town, north London, where a sizeable number of Barbadians like himself had already settled. He remembers being chased from one end of the high road to the other by Teddy Boys armed with chains. “Fortunately, I was fleet of foot in those days and I easily outran them,” he says cheerfully.
On another occasion he was not so lucky and lost his spleen after being stabbed in the stomach outside a pub.
But it was not all doom and gloom. “People just got on with lives, raising their families and putting down roots. There was a lot of joy in that, too,” says actress Corrine Skinner-Carter, who played busy body mum Audrey Trueman in EastEnders.
Today we celebrate the Windrush generation as pioneers and catalysts for far reaching social change, however unintended. As a result, what it means to be British in 2018 is very different to what it meant in 1948.
An exhibition at the British Library attempts to capture this important moment in history, exploring the experiences and struggles of migrants and their descendants within the wider story of the Caribbean and the end of empire.
Setting the scene with a series of classic black and white images of early settlers, Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land uses an interesting mix of audio and film recordings to develop its theme, as well as numerous historic artefacts such as ER Braithwaite’s annotated typescript of his 1960s novel To Sir With Love.
Amid the displays are personal items from individuals who sailed on the Empire Windrush, including a made-in-Jamaica cotton shirt and a souvenir postcard of the ship itself from Winston Levy, author Andrea Levy’s father.
But bringing us right up to the present are filmed interviews with those for whom the 70th anniversary celebrations will leave a bitter taste in the mouth. These are the so-called Windrush children who, having come to Britain from the Caribbean with their parents, have been rendered stateless by recent changes in immigration law. Most are of retirement age and have worked and paid their dues all their lives. The scandal shows how the early migrants’ struggle to belong and be treated as equals is still being waged.
Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land is at the British Library until October 21. Entry free.
Outside, episode 2 of Snatches: Moments from Women’s Lives, starring Corrine Skinner-Carter, can be see on BBC iPlayer
This article appeared in the Camden New Journal and Islington Tribune on June 22, 2018