The first ever ‘Windrush Day’ will be acknowledged on 22 June 2019, 71 years after the SS Empire Windrush ship arrived at Tilbury Docks, Essex. The ‘Windrush Generation’, all 492 West Indian men and women from the ship and the generations that followed, had no idea about the inestimable contribution they would be making to Britain, as Louise Chandler explores.
“It’s about time”, was our collective thought following the announcement a year ago, 18 June 2018, by Communities Minister Lord Bourne, that there would be a day to acknowledge and cement in the national consciousness, the important contribution of those who travelled from the Caribbean to Britain.
When the SS Empire Windrush ship arrived in Tilbury Essex on 22 June 1948, little did the passengers on board realize they were making history. They were not to know that seven decades later, they would be revered as the shapers and builders of the British landscape for future generations.
We’re all familiar with the images of West Indian people arriving on large boats, dressed smartly in shirts, suits and hats – equipped with suitcases to start a new life in England. Young Black men and women who look happy, confident, curious, excited and full of trepidation about the new life that awaits them. Did the passengers on board realize the challenges ahead of them? Or that in 71 years’ time, their contributions to British life would finally be acknowledged and celebrated?
The Windrush Generation
The “Windrush Generation” has come to represent the start of an active and prominent Black Britain. When they arrived, they came to a country that had a colonial relationship with the Caribbean but also a country recovering from a severe war. There were jobs that needed to be filled and although many were over-qualified as highlighted in a recent BBC docu series Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle, they settled into the framework, leaving their home country in search of opportunities in the ‘Mother Country’. Popular jobs for the new arrivals included nursing, working on buses and the London underground just to name a few. Jobs that were carried out with skill, pride and determination to contribute to the economy.
In 2008 I met Jamaican, Sam King, who travelled on the SS Windrush voyage in 1948 and his story would be a representation of the experiences of his generation. Sam was familiar with England even before the SS Empire voyage – having fought for the country in the Second World War after enlisting in the RAF. He then returned to Jamaica after the war was over to resume life, but he grew restless and the ‘Mother Country’ beckoned, as an option for a new life.
“The announcement of a national Windrush Day is a moment of great satisfaction. Their legacy has lived on in their children and grandchildren and the communities they have built across the country.”
Sam would go on to become the first black mayor of Southwark and a campaigner in support of West Indian immigrants to the country. He passed away in 2016 leaving a proud legacy as a community man, a spokesperson and a representative of the generation who worked hard and demanded equality. Anyone who met Sam will recall he was a man of courage and humility (his father sold a few cows in Jamaica to pay for his ticket on the Windrush ship) and he was also a man with a goal to make life better for his fellow Caribbean.
So why are we celebrating ‘Windrush Day’?
In 2018, government announced that £500,000 would be made available to support communities to recognize the day and lead celebratory, commemorative and educative projects.
Windrush Foundation Director Arthur Torrington said: “The announcement of a national Windrush Day is a moment of great satisfaction. Their legacy has lived on in their children and grandchildren and the communities they have built across the country. For years to come, Windrush Day will bring people together to celebrate this vital part of our shared history and heritage.”
When Windrush passengers disembarked from the ship, they created the beginning of a multicultural England which would influence food, fashion, religion, music and much more in our society.
An early star was Trinidadian Lord Kitchener who launched his British singing career when he serenaded reporters on the Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948, with the jolly tune: ‘London is the Place for Me’ to celebrate making a new home.
The Windrush Generation brought to England a life of vibrant colour and cultural experiences that absolutely needs to be commemorated. The Caribbean influence is felt in small ways and big throughout the country. Pentecostal churches blaring gospel music, the unmistakable cuisine – rice and peas with patties that can be purchased from supermarkets, Notting Hill Carnival (acknowledged as Europe’s biggest street party) and much more.
A frosty welcome
However, the writing was already on the wall in 1948, when Parliament questioned if the 492 passengers had any right to come to the UK at all. Some argued that they ought to be turned away on arrival even though they had British passports and had served King and country in wartime. It is an unsavoury fact that the Windrush arrivals were given a frosty welcome (temperature and people wise) in uncertain times.
Fast forward to 2018, and the Windrush scandal exploded. Caribbean folk were wrongly detained, denied legal rights, and threatened with deportation from the UK by the Home Office. It seemed like déjà vu.
In the context of these challenging events (many still to be resolved unfortunately), it is imperative that the contributions and sacrifices of the Windrush Generation are never forgotten. This generation represents a legacy of hope, courage and the positive impact on British society. An annual Windrush Day is an opportunity to acknowledge, celebrate and pay tribute to a legacy of proactive pioneers and adventurers who left all that was familiar to come to the aid of the ‘Mother Country’.
We encourage everyone to join in the celebrations and support a Windrush Day event near you.
Below is the Melan Magazine guide to local Windrush Day events:
Bernie Grant Arts Centre in Haringey, London will create performances and an oral history exhibition
The London Borough of Croydon will organise ‘All Islands Together’ – Six months of events including TEDx-style talks and assemblies.
In Camden, London a music exhibition will engage with people living with dementia using archive materials.
Brixton’s Black Cultural Archives will host an exhibition and Summer Programme
The Nurses Association of Jamaica (UK) will create a Windrush Legacy Publication to detail the historic contribution of the Windrush Generation to the UK
SoCo Music Project in Southampton will host Song writing, storytelling and recording workshops to capture extraordinary stories from everyday lives
Brighton and Hove City Council propose a ‘Windrush Presence’ set of events that will include exhibitions, talks and workshops delivered by The Royal Pavilion & Museum’s BME Heritage Network.
In Salford, Manchester, the People’s History Museum to put on ‘Living History’ interactive workshops and celebrations with local primary schools
Oxford City Council looks forward to hosting a Windrush memorial lecture and awards ceremony, celebration day and museum exhibition
In Leeds, the Alive and Kicking Theatre Company are preparing drama performance and workshops to share an interactive and immersive performance featuring two Windrush octogenarians
Blackburne House Education in Liverpool will spend their funding on workshops and a documentary Film to explore mixed heritage female descendants of the Windrush Generation
The Devon Development Education will host workshops and festivals across three towns in Devon
The Way, Wolverhampton Youth Zone will focus on 12 weeks of evening activities for young people on Caribbean influenced dance, music, and food
The Louise Da Cocodia Education Trust in Manchester will share the ‘Women of the Soil’ Windrush 40-minute performance, book launch and film celebrating experience of Windrush women
‘We have overcome’ is a series of drama workshops and performances due to take place at schools in St Pauls in Bristol
In Leeds, the Caribbean Cricket Club Cricket Tournament will take place to celebrate one of the UK’s oldest Caribbean societies
For all updates, take a look at www.windrush70.org for a range of events taking place up and down the country.