This weekend marks the 65th anniversary of the docking at Tilbury of SS Empire Windrush and its human cargo of British West Indians.
In 1948, a British Nationality Act was entered into law to accommodate Britain’s need to rebuild following the end of WWII. The Act afforded British citizenship to all people from Commonwealth countries and paved the way for workers to be recruited from the British West Indies, as the region was then known, to staff state-run services.
Prominent advertisements were placed on billboards, in shop windows and in newspapers throughout the major towns in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and, later, British Guiana (now Guyana), but they were scarcely needed. The grapevine was a more than adequate medium for the anticipation, particularly amongst young men, to reach fever pitch, despite the not inconsiderable £28 passage.
Nearly 500 overseas citizens – almost certainly more if stowaways are included – arrived in their mother country in the middle of summer, 22nd June 1948, having set off from Jamaica, via Trinidad, just under a month earlier. Many arrived intending to begin a new life but some content to earn enough to improve the one they already enjoyed back home. Expectations were high and mostly not realised. The Empire Windrush’s arrival was momentous but its passengers ultimately found their fellow British citizens’ welcome more muted than the adverts that lured them had led them to expect. Most spent their first few weeks housed in a redeployed WWII bomb shelter below the Northern Line.
But this is a time to celebrate those pioneers. My late father arrived in Britain from Jamaica later that same year, albeit into Bristol on a different vessel; so I have reason to look back at the Windrush generation with a degree of fondness. They contributed much to British society and, in the judgement of anyone informed enough to understand, received less than their just desserts.
Heralding the anniversary on behalf of the Government, David Cameron said:
“The 65th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock on 22 June 1948 marks a truly historical moment for modern day Britain. Nearly 500 people arrived from the Caribbean that day to find work or a new life, and it led to the transformation of this country into the richly diverse nation it now is.
“The early arrivals from the Caribbean came to help rebuild our country after the Second World War. They brought with them the skills and resolve to help get Britain back on her feet and to make a better life for themselves and their families. But as history has shown many of them suffered unjust hardships and barriers – from social exclusion and prejudice to discrimination and racism.
“I pay tribute to the Windrush generation and praise their fortitude and determination in overcoming those difficult challenges. Younger generations are rightly very proud of those early pioneers, and while some social issues still need to be tackled, I strongly believe that our country today is an overwhelmingly fair and tolerant one. And this is in part down to the people from the Caribbean and around the world who settled here.
“Those early migrants did so much for our country, and paved the way for their children and subsequent generations to make enormous contributions to Britain in the 21st century. Whether this is in the field of public service, business, culture or the arts, the children of the Windrush generation have given so much.
“Whenever I meet people from Britain’s African-Caribbean community, I’m always struck by the stories I hear; stories of guts, determination and sheer hard work. Our island is richer in every sense of the word for your contribution.”
A special weekend event to mark the 65th anniversary is being held at Tilbury Cruise Terminal. Leaving from St Katherine’s Dock in London, a vessel will cruise along the Thames to Tilbury on the afternoon of 22nd June 2013, attempting to emulate that memorable arrival on the same day in 1948. A special reception infused with Caribbean and African cuisine will follow, complemented by an evening of entertainment, live music and a special awards ceremony.
On the following day, Sunday 23rd, Tilbury Cruise Terminal will host a Family Fun Day. Activities will include tours of the Windrush exhibitions, music and educational workshops, a gospel choir and dance performances.
For further information, call 07766 725173 or book at ticketline.co.uk