The destination for history

Windrush: A landmark in the history of modern Britain


On 21 June 1948, the former German cruise liner HMT Empire Windrush arrived in the UK at Tilbury Docks, Essex carrying passengers from the West Indies. The following day, in what has become a landmark in the history of modern Britain, Caribbean migrants from countries including Jamaica, Bermuda, Trinidad and British Guiana exited the Windrush and were among the first to be recruited to rebuild post-war Britain. Mainly former service personnel, this was the first wave of post-war immigration.

In 1948, Britain was just starting to recover from the devastation of the Second World War but faced desperate labour and housing shortages. Enticed by the prospect of long-term job opportunities and prosperity, Caribbean men and women crossed the Atlantic in response to adverts for work in an attempt to tackle Britain’s labour shortage crisis. 

HMT Empire Windrush

In May 1948, HMT Empire Windrush was en route from Australia to England, via the Atlantic and docked in Kingston, Jamaica, to pick up servicemen who were on leave. Whilst the Windrush was crossing the Atlantic the 1948 British Nationality Act, which would grant all Commonwealth citizens free entry into Britain, was being debated by the British government. Even before the act – which would reaffirm their pre-existing rights of travel and residence – had been passed, Commonwealth migrants began to arrive in Britain with the first of these travelling on board the Empire Windrush

When the Windrush docked in Kingston, the ship was far from full and so an opportunistic advertisement was placed in a Jamaican newspaper offering cheap transport on the ship for anyone who wanted to work in the UK. During the war, thousands of Caribbean men and women had been recruited to serve Britain and many of these decided to make the trip in order to rejoin the armed forces or with hopes of finding better employment. Those from Jamaica were also leaving a country which had a struggling economy and had been recently devastated by a hurricane. Other more adventurous spirits, mostly young men who had heard about the voyage, simply fancied coming to see what the ‘mother country’ was like and doubled the numbers. The journey to Britain cost £28 for travel on the troopdeck (around £1,000 today) and £48 for cabin class travel.

Before arriving in Kingston, the ship had visited Trinidad and, following departure from Jamaica, it also docked at Tampico in Mexico, Havana in Cuba and Bermuda where others joined the vessel. However, most of the Windrush’s passengers boarded in Jamaica.

The ship itself made its final voyage in 1954. She continued to be used as a troopship until March 1954, when the vessel caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean with the loss of four crew.

Arrival in Britain

The ship docked at the Port of Tilbury on 21 June 1948 and discharged its passengers the next day. At the time, news reports in the media reported that the number of West Indian immigrants on board was 492, however the ship’s records, which are held at the UK National Archives, show that Windrush was carrying 1,027 passengers (including two stowaways) and amongst those travelling from the Caribbean for work there were also Polish nationals displaced by World War II, members of the RAF and people from Britain, Mexico, Gibraltar and Burma. According to the ship’s passenger lists 802 of the official listed passengers on board gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the Caribbean – over half of these (539) were Jamaican residents. 

As most eyewitness accounts testify, the majority of people on board the ship were men. There were 684 males over the age of 12, compared to 257 females over the age of 12. 86 of the passengers were children aged 12 and under. 

Unsurprisingly, the most popular destination recorded by the passengers was London – 296 people named the city as their planned place of residence and a number of others planned to go to Liverpool, Birmingham, Manchester, Plymouth and Bristol. Those that had not already arranged accommodation were temporarily housed in the Clapham South deep shelter, which had been built under the London Underground station as an air-raid shelter during the Second World War. 

The nearest employment exchange to Clapham happened to the Coldharbour Lane Labour Exchange in Brixton, less than a mile away. Many of the arrivals sought work here, working for state-run services like the newly-formed National Health Service and London Transport. They then moved into rented houses and rooms in the Brixton and Clapham areas where large Caribbean communities developed. In Brixton, the town’s Windush Square commemorates the ship’s arrival. 

Many of Windrush’s passengers originally only intended to stay for a few years and although a number did return, the majority remained to settle permanently and now form a vital part of British society. 

Arrival of HMT Empire Windrush (0:44 secs)

The ‘Windrush generation’

The arrival of Empire Windrush in Britain in June 1948 was a landmark event that marked the beginning of post-war mass migration and one that would change Britain’s social landscape forever – the image of West Indians filing off the ship’s gangplank is often used to symbolise the beginning of modern British multicultural society. 

By January 1949 the 1948 British Nationality Act had come into effect, giving citizenship of the UK and Colonies (CUKC) to all people living in the United Kingdom and its colonies, and the right of entry and settlement in the UK. This, coupled with the introduction of a tough new US immigration law which restricted entry into the USA in 1952, encouraged West Indian immigrants to travel to the UK en masse as they could settle in the UK indefinitely without restrictions. By 1956, more than 40,000 immigrants from the West Indies had moved to Britain.

New immigration rules were introduced in the intervening years, before the Immigration Act 1971 changed the law to grant only temporary residence to most people arriving from Commonwealth countries. This came into force in 1973 and ended the influx from the Caribbean. However, people born in Commonwealth countries (and their wives and children) who settled in the UK before 1973 were still allowed to remain in the UK indefinitely under the terms of the new Act. They retain that right today but, after the 1971 Act, a British passport-holder born overseas could only settle in the UK if they had a work permit and could prove that a parent or grandparent had been born in the UK.

Those who were born in the Caribbean and who settled in the UK between 1948 and 1971 are generally referred to as the ‘Windrush generation’, after HMT Empire Windrush which transported the first migrants. It is unclear how many people belong to the Windrush generation, since many of those who arrived as children travelled on their parents’ passports and never applied for travel documents, but they are thought to be in their thousands. According to estimates by Oxford University’s Migration Observatory over 500,000 are now resident in the UK who were born in a Commonwealth country (including Windrush arrivals) and arrived before 1971.

The Windrush Scandal

Recently it came to light that some of the Windrush generation of Commonwealth citizens were being denied access to state healthcare, had been made redundant from their employment and, in some cases, threatened with deportation, despite being legally resident in the UK for decades and often making paying taxes and making pension contributions. The scandal also prompted a wider debate about British immigration policy and Home Office practice, including treatment of other migrants, and of asylum seekers and what the status of EU nationals living in Britain would be after Brexit.

Under more recent immigration laws there had been a requirement for people to provide four pieces of evidence for each year that a person has been in the country. Since the 1971 Immigration Act people of the Windrush generation have been forced to prove continuous residence in the UK since 1973, when they were granted the right to stay in the country permanently (if anyone left the country for more than two years they lost their right to remain). However, proving continuous residence has proved to be an almost impossible task for those who have not kept up-to-date records, or did not have paperwork originally.

In 1962 citizens of the Commonwealth became subject to immigration controls but those who arrived as minors were not included – children could come in on their parents’s passports – and many of those now facing difficulties arrived as children with their parents. In the 1970s the Home Office did not keep records of the people to whom it granted indefinite leave to remain and while many have taken UK citizenship or have documents to prove their status, some do not – some Windrush generation citizens stayed but did not apply for British citizenship, meaning there is no official record of their legal status.

Then, in 2012, then Home Secretary Theresa May promised a ‘hostile environment’ for illegal immigrants to stop migrants having access to the NHS, welfare services, employment, bank accounts, driving licences and rented accommodation, unless they could prove their right to be in the UK. These requirements were made even more stringent in 2016 and, consequently, hundreds of those from the Windrush generation found they had not got paperwork to prove they had lawfully been in the UK for years.

To gain official recognition people were told to apply for an official ‘No Time Limit’ (NTL) stamp, at a cost of £229. The Home Office did not use central tax and pension records to support NTL applications and instead the onus was put on the individual to provide evidence and documentation. It further came to light that in 2010 the UK Border Agency destroyed thousands of landing cards, which for some of the Windrush generation would have been the only proof of exactly when they arrived in Britain, as part of their legal obligations under the Data Protection Act.

From 2013 onwards the Home Office received repeated warnings that many Windrush generation legal residents were wrongly being identified as illegal immigrants. In April 2018 Home Secretary Amber Rudd apologised for the “appalling” treatment of the Windrush generation and announced a taskforce to resolve the immigration status of those affected, granting them the citizenship papers to which they are entitled, waiving application fees and awarding compensation. By the end of April Rudd had resigned as Home Secretary amid great pressure over the Windrush scandal. She said she had “inadvertently misled” MPs over targets for removing illegal immigrants and was replaced by Sajid Javid.

By August 2018 a compensation plan had still not been implemented and in February 2019 the Home Office admitted that, although it had set up a hardship scheme in December 2018 for victims of the scandal, only one of the applicants to the scheme had thus far received any assistance. Even by April 2020, the Windrush taskforce, which was set up to deal with applications from people who were wrongly categorised as illegal immigrants, still had 3,720 outstanding cases.

On 19 March 2020, the Home Office released the Windrush Lessons Learned Review, an independent inquiry managed and conducted by Wendy Williams, which concluded that the Home Office showed an inexcusable "ignorance and thoughtlessness", and that what had happened had been "foreseeable and avoidable". It further found that immigration regulations were tightened "with complete disregard for the Windrush generation". The study recommended a full review of the "hostile environment" immigration policy.


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