Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? The Empire Windrush story.

Only five of the 1,027 passengers on board the Empire Windrush began their journey in Barbados. Bill Hern writes about them here and explodes some myths about the iconic ship and its historic journey to England in June 1948.

Windrush Generation Helped To Build Britain
The Windrush Generation Helped To (re)build Britain after World War II. Source: The Tempest.

Background:
The Windrush scandal erupted in 2018 where people mainly of Caribbean descent were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants, were detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and in at least 83 cases wrongly deported from the UK by the Home Office after not being able to prove their right to remain in the UK.

This all resulted from changes initiated in 2012 by Theresa May, who as then UK Government Home Secretary, introduced the Hostile Environment Policy.

Many of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1st January 1973, particularly from Caribbean countries as members of the “Windrush generation” (so named after the Empire Windrush, the ship that brought one of the first groups of West Indian migrants to the UK in 1948).

The British Nationality Act 1948 gave; ‘citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies status and the right of settlement in the UK to everyone who was at that time a British subject by virtue of having been born in a British colony.’ The Act and encouragement from British Government campaigns in Caribbean countries led to a wave of immigration. Between 1948 and 1971, nearly half a million people moved from the Caribbean to Britain, which in 1948 faced severe labour shortages in the wake of the Second World War.

Since these immigrants had a legal right to come to the UK, they neither needed nor were given any documents upon entry to the UK, nor following changes in immigration laws in the early 1970s. What’s more the Home Office did not keep a record of those granted leave to remain or issue any paperwork confirming it, making it difficult for Windrush arrivals to prove they were in the UK legally. Matters were made worse in October 2010 when the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK dating back to the 1950s and 1960s – these papers were often the last remaining record of a person’s arrival date, in the event of uncertainty or lost documents.


Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 21<sup>st</sup> June 1948
The British troopship HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks, Essex, late on 21st June 1948. Passengers disembarked the following day on 22nd June 1948. Source: The Guardian Newspaper.

Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful?1 is a song written and recorded by the British singer/songwriter Paloma Faith. The words could also be applied to the story of His Majesty’s Troopship (HMT) the Empire Windrush.

Empire Windrush - Eliza Southwood poster - London is the Place for Me
Eliza Southwood poster “London is the Place for Me” winner of the The Association of Illustrators and London Transport Museum Poster Prize for 2019. Source Creative Review.

The romanticised, or beautiful, version of the Empire Windrush story is that the British Government sent the ship to the West Indies to collect the men and women of the Caribbean who would be the first of many to be taken to Britain where they would be greeted as heroes and heroines as they commenced rebuilding the Mother Country after the ravages of World War Two.

Sadly, only the last part of that sentence is true. West Indians did indeed play a huge role in rebuilding Britain, they ensured the newly created NHS was a success and worked on the buses, trains and in factories. Some went down the mines, others joined or re-joined the Armed Forces. Britain could not have bounced back so quickly, if at all, were it not for the efforts of tens of thousands of West Indians.

But what about the rest of the Windrush story?

Ironically, the Windrush was not even British. It began life in 1930 as a luxury German cruise ship, the Monte Rosa. It was requisitioned by the British at the end of World War Two and renamed the Empire Windrush.

Nor was the Windrush sent to the West Indies by the British Government. Indeed as soon as the Government got wind of the fact that a ship with around 500 West Indians on board was heading for England their first priority was to find a way to make it turn back.

Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased by Winston Levy
Postcard of Empire Windrush purchased by Winston Levy whilst on board. Source: By kind permission of Andrea Levy.

The enterprising captain of the Windrush realised that the ship, which had begun its journey in London on 6th May 1948, would be under-occupied for the return leg commencing in Trinidad on 20th May. Tickets were therefore offered at the price of £48 in First class and £28 and 10 shillings in C class. The tickets were neither cheap nor subsidised. Even the C class tickets would cost over £1,000 at today’s prices. At much the same time the Australian Government was offering transport to the Antipodes for only £10 in order to attract immigrants from Britain.

Nevertheless, there was no shortage of buyers and it was a very full Windrush that docked in Tilbury late on 21st June 1948. The official passenger list shows 1,027 names. In addition there were fifteen identified stowaways plus stories of many more that evaded detection. This compares with the mere 493 passengers that travelled on the Windrush’s previous journey which was from Bombay to Tilbury in March 1948.

The nature of the passengers may surprise many. By no means were they all black or of working class. Many had purchased return tickets and were visiting England for business purposes or for a holiday. It was not uncommon for British people working in the West Indies to save up their leave and then spend three months or so in England every two or three years.

On board, for example, were Ellis Clarke (later Sir Ellis, the first President of Trinidad and Tobago), Mona Baptiste the Trinidadian singer/actress, McDonald Bailey who was on his way to watch his son compete for Great Britain in the 1948 Olympic Games and JP Gallagher the English author who wrote the Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican which was made into a film starring Gregory Peck.

There were at least three ‘Ladies’ – Lady Ivy Mary Woolley the wife of the Governor General of British Guiana, Lady Marie Louise Roberte de Rochfort Worley the wife of the Chief Justice of British Guiana and Lady Isobel Blunt-Mackenzie the adventuress, author and painter.

There was also the mother of a future head of Harrow School, a man who would become Prime Minister of Bunyoro in Uganda, the world’s leading expert on leprosy, a future Director of the English National Opera who would be knighted and the founder of the Black West Indian Pentecostal Church in Britain. The list of talented people on board the Windrush is long.

Royal Mail Ship Ormonde
An early Orient Line postcard of the Royal Mail Ship Ormonde. Source: ssMaritime.

There are those who think that the Windrush brought the first black people to England but of course there has been a black presence in Britain since at least Roman times. In March 1947 the SS Ormonde, carrying over 100 West Indian immigrants, made an almost identical journey to that which the Windrush would make over a year later. Four days before Christmas 1947 the SS Almanzora also predated the Windrush when it docked at Southampton carrying over 280 passengers, many of them West Indian ex-servicemen. Yet it is the name of the Windrush which will always be iconic; the one people remember and revere. It is an important symbol in history and would lead to terms such as the Windrush Generation and, sadly, the Windrush Scandal.

It would be nice to think those on board the Windrush were greeted as potential saviours but as we will see later, nothing could be further from the truth. While there were exceptions and examples of great kindness, the Government and the people of Britain were largely unwelcoming of the black men and women on board the Windrush.

The most commonly quoted figure in terms of the number of passengers claims that the ship carried ‘492 Jamaicans.’ We have already seen that there were at least 1,027 passengers. They were certainly not all Jamaican either. The Windrush started its journey to England at Port of Spain in Trinidad on 20th May 1948. In First class alone 108 mainly Trinidadian passengers had embarked there. The majority of First class passengers were white. All females were required to travel in First class so we had privileged ‘Ladies’ and wives of wealthy business men mixing with dress makers and beauticians who were escaping the hardships of Trinidad and Jamaica.

Another large contingent was the 66 Polish people who boarded at Tampico in Mexico. These Poles were refugees following the end of World War Two when their homeland had been occupied by the Russians.  

Once the British Government got wind of the fact that a ship carrying a large number of West Indians was headed for England they focussed all their efforts into trying to get them to turn back or at least go elsewhere.

David Gleave of Historycal Roots2 summed up the situation thus:

Despite the obvious need for their skills and labour, the 1948 arrivals were viewed as an unwelcome inconvenience. Civil servants working for the colonial authorities in the Caribbean reported, in spite of evidence to the contrary, that “most of them have no particular skill.”3 No doubt responding to criticism that they should have done more to prevent the black passengers from travelling, the colonial officials were deeply apologetic, a telegram on 11th May opened with the words “I regret to inform you” and one dated 29th May from H Lindo of the Colonial Secretary’s Office in Jamaica goes further; “very sorry indeed that you and your staff will be put to all the trouble that the arrival of this large number … will involve … it is an appalling thing with which to be saddled.”

Really? Appalling? The Windrush arrived at a time when Britain was actively recruiting workers from continental Europe. The European Voluntary Workers scheme was a regular topic for questions in Parliament. The answer to one such question revealed that up to 5th June 1948, 60,856 European volunteer workers had been brought to this country, of which number some 57,000 had been placed in employment.4 The cost of the scheme for the two years ended October 1948, was £2,250,000 (equivalent to about £80 million today). The potential recruits from the Caribbean: spoke English as their first language; had been educated in what was essentially a British education system; and had, in many cases, fought for Britain in the War. Some of the European workers recruited had also fought in the War – on the side of the German axis. For them, English was not their first language and they had not been educated using an English curriculum. They did have one big advantage however – they were white.

Prime Minister Clement Atlee briefly considered whether the Windrush should be diverted to Kenya in East Africa where there was plenty of work available harvesting peanuts. Possibly he was dissuaded when he was told that many of the passengers on board were white and that people like the wife of the Governor General of British Guiana might not take kindly to the long detour. 

Eventually Atlee saw sense: “I think it would be a great mistake to take the emigration of this Jamaican [sic] party to the United Kingdom too seriously. It is traditional that British subjects, whether of Dominion or Colonial origin (and of whatever race or colour), should be freely admissible to the United Kingdom. That tradition is not, in my view, to be lightly discarded, particularly at a time when we are importing foreign labour in large numbers.” He did go on to concede that if there were to be “a great influx of undesirables legislation might be needed to stem the flow but not at the present time.”5

Atlee was perhaps comforted by the views of the Colonial Secretary, Creech Jones who in a BBC broadcast forecast that there was no reason to worry because the West Indian immigrants wouldn’t last one English winter. That prediction has certainly not aged well.

Racist boarding House sign
Example of racist signs put up in some British Boarding Houses. Source: The Guardian Newspaper.

The final myth to explode about the Windrush is that those black West Indians on board were welcomed with open arms. Although all found work very quickly they were not made to feel welcome. Finding accommodation was perhaps the most difficult task. Even as late as 1952 a leaflet produced by the Jamaican Ministry of Labour6 warned those coming to England that; “Not only are rooms scarce, but you may be refused because you are coloured.” Those with children were warned “You will find it hard to get accommodation if you have children and the danger of having to overcrowd is greater.” Single parents were told “you will have a very hard time, it is almost impossible to have the child adopted, you will have to care for him/her, and the Childrens’ Homes are crowded.”

The Windrush did not call at Barbados. Starting its journey in Port of Spain it picked up passengers at Kingston, Jamaica, Tampico in Mexico, and Bermuda. It also docked at Havana, Cuba for essential repair work. The journey lasted just over one month from leaving Trinidad on 20th May to arriving in Tilbury, London on 21st June and disembarking the following day.

HMT Empire Windrush journey to Britain - June 1948
HMT Empire Windrush journey to Britain. Source: Press Association.

There were five passengers who started their journey in Barbados and travelled to Port of Spain to board the Windrush there. Only one of these passengers was born in Barbados.

Sharing a cabin were Nancy Cunard of the famous Cunard shipping company and Freya Stark the explorer and traveller who would later become a Dame. Both had travelled from Barbados. Freya was travelling under her married name of Perowne. Books have been written about both these ladies so we won’t repeat their stories here but suffice to say Nancy, despite her privileged upbringing, had a very troubled life.

She was a great supporter of black authors and fought against racism and fascism. She produced a book Negro Anthology in 1934 which celebrated poetry and writing, mainly by African-American writers and led to her being refused entry into the United States in 1941. Polite society simply couldn’t cope with Nancy’s enlightened attitude and it is reputed that her mother once exclaimed “Is it true that my daughter knows a Negro?” Little wonder that Nancy’s obituary in the Sunday Independent described her as “the alcoholic heiress who “knew how to be cool and looked hot.” She detested her mother, Lady Emerald Cunard.” She weighed less than 60 pounds when she died after being found on a street in Paris in March 1965.

Prior to sailing on the Windrush Nancy had been staying at the home of her cousin Sir Edward Cunard in Glitter Bay, St James and was returning to her residence in Paris.

Freya had quite another reason for being in Barbados. In 1947 she had married Stewart Henry Perowne in London. Stewart was the Colonial Secretary to Barbados. It was a very unhappy marriage; Stewart was a homosexual and the couple split up in 1952.

Freya was made a Dame in the 1972 New Year’s Honours list and lived to be 100, dying in Asoro, Italy in 1993.

This brings us to the only permanent residents of Barbados to be on board the Windrush. Dr Henry Douglas Weatherhead was born on the island in 1899 and was travelling with his wife Annie who was from Montserrat and daughter Annie Pamela who was born in Antigua in 1930. They were simply visiting England and, although it isn’t specified on the passenger list, were intending to return to Barbados.

The Weatherhead family had been present in Barbados since at least the 18th century and Henry had served as a Second Lieutenant with the British West Indies Regiment in World War One.

He trained as a doctor/surgeon at St Thomas’ Hospital in London and travelled and worked widely, including spells in St Lucia, Trinidad, United States, Singapore, Cuba and North Borneo. Henry died in 1953 followed by Annie in 1965 and Annie Pamela 15 years later – the latter two both died in Jamaica.

Of course while the Windrush may have lacked the presence of Barbadians, many Bajans migrated to Britain in later years. This was, unlike in 1948, with the greatest of encouragement from the British Government even if some of the natives of Britain remained less than welcoming.

In 1955 Barbados set up a Sponsored Workers Scheme to support emigration to Britain. Between 1955 and 1966, 27,000 Barbadians migrated to the United Kingdom many of them working in public transport and health care.

All of these people were members of what became known as the Windrush Generation. There is no strict definition of Windrush Generation but it is generally taken to include all those from Caribbean countries who migrated to the United Kingdom between 1948 and 1971 when the Immigration Act of that year dictated that in future a British passport holder born overseas could only settle in the United Kingdom with both a work permit and proof of a parent or grandparent being born in the United Kingdom.

This in turn led to what became known as the Windrush Scandal, a disgraceful situation exacerbated by the Home Office’s hostile environment policy. The Home Office interpreted the 1971 Act as requiring all individuals to provide an enormous (some would say unrealistic) amount of detailed documentary evidence of their presence in the United Kingdom prior to 1st January 1973 (when the 1971 Act came into force.) Many were unable to do so and faced deportation.

Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 21<sup>st</sup> June 1948
The British troopship HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks, Essex, late on 21st June 1948. Passengers disembarked the following day on 22nd June 1948. Source: The Guardian Newspaper.

Amelia Gentleman in her best-selling book The Windrush Betrayal summed up the situation eloquently:

“The uncovering of the scandal revealed how desensitised and dehumanised the Home Office had become…It showed a department operating a system that put targets before humanity. It showed how an anti-immigrant rhetoric infected everything, until blameless grandmothers found themselves being locked up by the state.”

The Windrush was a very special ship with very special passengers. Against all the odds they and those that followed changed the face of Britain for the better. Despite the efforts of the frankly spiteful and ill-conceived hostile environment policy, what they have achieved can never be removed and the name Windrush will be remembered long after the politicians and officials that opposed its arrival have been forgotten.

So there we have ‘the truth’ – is it ‘something beautiful?’ I will leave it to you to decide.

Postscipt:

Prime Minister Theresa May apologised to Caribbean leaders in April 2018 over the UK Government’s treatment of the “Windrush generation”, many who were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants and ordered to prove they had the right to stay in Britain – even though they may have lived in the UK for over 50 years.

In 2021 the Windrush Scandal is still mainstream news. The UK Government and the current Home Secretary Priti Patel have recently been criticised for their slow progress on making good on compensation claims. Feedback from the UK Home Affairs Select Committee which has been monitoring the Windrush scandal recently stated that claimants were being asked to provide ‘unreasonable amounts of documentary evidence’ in an effort to convince Home Office officials to pay-out.

The unintended consequence of Theresa May’s Home Office ‘hostile environment’ at the heart of the Windrush scandal was that innocent people from former British colonies were wrongly classified as illegal immigrants, detained, denied legal rights, threatened with deportation and physically deported. The Home Office’s response to the Windrush scandal and its action to ‘right the wrongs’ continues to attract criticisms.

The UK National Audit Office in its most recent Investigation into the Windrush Compensation Scheme published on 21st May 2021 is critical of the Home Office. The main main findings were: “The Department recognises the Windrush Compensation Scheme is an important part of its response in righting the wrongs suffered by the Windrush generation. Its design aimed to compensate claimants quickly while protecting public money from abuse. However, it started accepting applications before it was ready. Until it started enacting the changes it made in December 2020, it was not meeting its objective of compensating claimants quickly. Since then, it has made some progress. By the end of March 2021, the Department had paid £14.3 million in compensation, of which £11.6 million has been paid since December 2020. Nearly 60% of the payments since December relate to paying increased ‘impact on life’ awards to those previously paid and making preliminary payments, rather than finalising more claims. The Department needs to sustain its efforts to improve its case working operations and management systems to ensure it fairly compensates members of the Windrush generation in acknowledgement of the suffering it has caused them.”

Little seems to have changed even when it comes now to righting the wrongs. A common thread that continues is the systemic requirement for: ‘unreasonable amounts of documentary evidence’. The Home Office “must do better and keep on doing better.”


References

  1. Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? Written by Paloma Faith and Ed Harcourt
  2. Historycalroots.com
  3. HO213/714 The National Archives, Kew
  4. Hansard 22nd June 1948
  5. PRO CO 876/88 The National Archives, Kew
  6. Booklet for information on how to adjust yourself in Britain. Published by the Migration Advisory Service, Ministry of Labour, Jamaica.

Special Mention – Guardian Journalist: Amelia Gentleman

The West Indian community in the UK is indebted to the Guardian newspaper journalist Amelia Gentleman, who singlehandedly brought the Windrush story to the attention of the public and highlighted the Windrush scandal and the forced deportation of people originally from British colonies in the Caribbean or elsewhere in the Commonwealth who legally had a right of residence in the UK prior to 1971.

The issue had previously been neglected by the British media. The scandal broke in April 2018 and within weeks it led to the resignation of the then Home Secretary: Amber Rudd.

Amelia Gentleman won the 2018 Paul Foot Award for her work on the Windrush story. She was also named as the Political Studies Association’s journalist of the year for 2018, with Carole Cadwalladr, and as journalist of the year in the British Journalism Awards, 2018.

Amelia Gentleman continues to cover the Windrush scandal and has written a book:  The Windrush Betrayal.  Exposing the Hostile Environment available from the Guardian Newspaper bookshop. An excellent read.


About our guest author: Bill Hern

Since retiring from the British Civil Service in 2016 Bill Hern who is from Sunderland, England, has developed a passion for researching and writing about black history. A regular visitor to Barbados, Bill has visited and written about each of the World War 1 Commonwealth War Graves on the island.

Bill Hern & David Gleave - Football's Black Pioneers
Football’s Black Pioneers – The Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs is available from the publisher Conker Editions, Amazon or any good book store.

Football’s Black Pioneers – The Stories of the First Black Players to Represent the 92 League Clubs is his first major published work which was co-written with David Gleave. It has recorded sales across the world.

Four years of original research has not only identified these history makers but have also uncovered a wealth of fascinating and often eye-opening personal tales. This book features an incredible variety of emotive human stories and forgotten characters, together with a powerful theme of struggle against now-unthinkable attitudes.

Bill Hern and David Gleave are aiming to publish later in 2021 the biography of Mona Baptiste a Trinidadian singer/actress who came to England on the Empire Windrush in 1948.

Continuing on the Windrush theme Bill is currently writing a pen picture of each of the 1,027 passengers, plus stowaways, who travelled on the Windrush in 1948.

Bill is a proud member of the Barbados Museum and Historical Society and is desperate to return in 2021!


Some additional sources of information and background on the Windrush Generation and Windrush Scandal


Pathe News arrival of HMT Empire Windrush 21st June 1948:


Arrival: a 1998 BBC2 documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the arrival in Britain of the HMT Empire Windrush:


Sterling Betancourt & Lord Kitchener – Jools Holland London Calling showing some additional clips of Tilbury Dock – Essex where the HMT Empire Windrush docked late on 21st June 1948.


Some further background on the Windrush scandal:


3 thoughts on “Do You Want The Truth Or Something Beautiful? The Empire Windrush story.”

  1. Really a stain on the British, they colonized they profited from their Colonies and then turned on Natives of those colonies because of their race. Disgraceful!

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