First steps of Windrush Generation on British soil celebrated in 75th anniversary year

  • london
  • January 8, 2023
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As they step onto British soil, the early Windrush Generation arrivals begin a legacy that would help revitalise a nation depleted by years of war. 

Wearing their Sunday best as they answered the UK government’s call to rebuild the country, men, women and children arrive on a ‘journey of hope’. 

Some had already been to the UK to serve during the Second World War, while others were setting foot in the ‘mother country’ for the first time. But they all carried high hopes after what has been described as the ‘hardest journey in their lives’; a break not just with their homelands, but with their previous identities.

The arrival of the HMT Empire Windrush from the Caribbean is being celebrated nationally in the 75th year since the former German troopship pulled into Tilbury dock in Essex. 

The arrival provided the defining images of post-war migration from the islands which filled labour shortages and helped shape multi-cultural Britain. 

Disembarking 802 people who had bought cheap tickets for passage from the West Indies, the ship’s arrival followed a call from the British government for Commonwealth citizens to plug the workforce gaps, and their achievements would include a vital role in establishing the then fledgling NHS. 

Those shown wearing their best going-away gear in the black-and-white images include passengers on the Windrush as well as the liner SS Begona, which operated across the Atlantic.

Finely turned-out young men, wearing their best suits, ties and shoes, crowd round for a picture taken during the Windrush’s disembarkation on June 22, 1948, the ship having arrived the previous day.

In another picture, a small boy dressed in a collared shirt carefully holds a guardrail and a girl’s hand as they walk down a gang plank in Southampton.

Behind him, a girl dressed in a smocked sailor dress beams as she takes in the new surroundings. 

There are also signs of apprehension and dislocation among the newcomers. A young girl looks pensive as she is shown wearing a duffle coat and gloves to guard against the cold while waiting patiently to disembark the Begona with a party of more than 400 people on March 6, 1962. 

She is pictured five months before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act, which placed restrictions on Commonwealth passport holders hoping to live in the UK, came into force. 

Sisters Veronica and Velveta McGregor, wearing matching fascinator hats, appear more comfortable as they take tea on a train on their way to meet their dad in London. 

The pioneers would become known as the Windrush Generation, a term used for people from the Caribbean who sought better lives in the UK between 1948 and 1971. 

The portfolio of 37 pictures, telling the Windrush story before, during and after arrival in the UK, forms a free outdoor and online exhibition run by Autograph, a visual arts charity based in Hackney, east London.  

Professor Mark Sealy, the group’s director, said: ‘When selecting the photographs for Journeys to Hope, we wanted to widen the narrative of the Windrush journey, to place an emphasis on the women, families and children who made these important voyages and their first steps arriving in Britain.

‘It’s more than a single moment, the images in our collection selected for this project span the years between 1938 and 1962.’

The Windrush brought one of the first large groups of West Indians to the UK, a cohort described as ‘citizens of the British Empire coming to the mother country with good intent’ by a Pathé reporter at the time.

‘It’s important to remember that the Windrush generation were invited to Britain, to help rebuild in the aftermath of the Second World War,’ professor Sealy said.

‘This was a journey of hope: to a better future for themselves and their families, and to help create a better future for the country and all the world’s citizens after the defeat of fascism.’

The absorbing images, taken from archives held by TopFoto, have also been given life by the late professor Stuart Hall in quotes accompanying the exhibition. 

The cultural theorist describes ‘people sitting on their luggage waiting to be met’, while others hope to see ‘a friend or an unexpected relative or even just for an acknowledgement from a friendly face amongst the crowds with their bulging suitcases and straw baskets’. 

He sketches a scene of ‘men, women and children already battened down against the freezing weather by the ubiquitous wearing of hats’. 

‘These people have just survived the longest, hardest journey in their lives: the journey to another identity,’ the professor says.

‘They are people “in transition” to a new state of mind and body: migrant hood…

‘They have torn themselves up by the roots… half the family is left behind and nobody knows when or whether they will ever be united again.’ 

Many of those shown making a bright entrance into British life, including RAF veterans who had served in the war, would be met with racism and intolerance.

Today, campaigners are still fighting for compensation in the aftermath of the Windrush scandal, where members of the generation were targeted for immigration enforcement as a result of the ‘hostile environment’ policies under previous Tory governments.

Victims found themselves wrongly denied access to healthcare and housing, with some being detained and deported despite being longstanding UK residents.

The pictures and stories, which are held in Autograph’s permanent Collection of Photography, capture the early movement of the willing that is credited with helping to turn Britain into a diverse society. 

The 75th anniversary year was kickstarted on Tuesday with a host of prominent figures paying tribute to the pioneers and their contribution to society.

Patrick Vernon OBE, convenor of the Windrush 75 network, has called for the milestone to be celebrated at a national level on a par with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012. 

He told ‘Some of those on the Empire Windrush were already familiar with Britain because they had served at RAF bases around the country during the war, but for the vast majority, it was a new place.  

‘They still knew a lot about Britain, including about the Queen, the Royal Family and Shakespeare, because the Caribbean school syllabus was based on the one in Britain.  

‘Everyone had worked hard and saved money to dress up, with the majority of the generation coming via air through Heathrow. They had big expectations and five-year plans to come to Britain to make money and go home until many people had families, settled and stayed on.’  

The Windrush story is one which includes the struggle of many West Indians to overcome what has been termed a ‘colour bar’ to housing, decent jobs and social spaces.

‘At first, they thought they would be welcomed with open arms in the mother country, but they soon realised it was the complete opposite,’ Mr Vernon said.  

‘The majority of people who travelled on the Windrush lived in a former bomb shelter in Clapham for months until they found their own accommodation.  

‘A lot of them were well qualified; if you look at the passenger list there were engineers, doctors, teachers, mechanics and carpenters, but they had to take menial jobs well below their qualifications and experience.

‘There was discrimination in the job and housing markets and a frosty reception in the pubs, so they created their own parties, which is how sound systems emerged. Reggae and ska in particular would be a great leveller with British people and a huge influence on British music.  

‘We now have a chance to recognise the generation’s contribution to all aspects of British society over the past 75 years and to say thanks while many of its members are still with us today.’

For more information about the exhibition click here.

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