Today is the 75th Anniversary of the first arrival – at Tilbury Dock – of the ship, the Empire Windrush. On board were 492 passengers traveling to Britain from the West Indies.
This momentous arrival marked the advent of a significant era in British history – one in which thousands of people would travel from the Caribbean to the UK to rebuild the country. Between 1948 and 1970, nearly half a million people came here in answer to the severe labour shortages in the wake of the Second World War.
The UK was not welcoming to these Caribbean migrants answering “The Mother Country’s” call for help.
By all accounts it was a cold, grey and racist place in which to live and work. Andrea Levy’s magnificent novel Small Island and Beryl Gilroy’s Black Teacher and In Praise of Love and Children paint a vivid picture of the struggle that the women of the Windrush generation had for dignity, work, housing and basic respect:
“Prejudice was rare among students, but directly one joined the ranks of the workaday English, life became a fight for survival and dignity”.
– Beryl Gilroy, Black Teacher, 1976
The films of Horace Ové also convey the textures of Black British life in the 1970s. Pressure was the first full-length dramatic feature film by a Black director in Britain, and it follows three generations within a Black family in London and – as the title conveys – the many social pressures they faced: racism, questions of identity, the human search to belong.
Yet in spite of facing hardships and prejudice, the Windrush generation persevered. Many of those who traveled here took up roles within the NHS – which was launched just two weeks’ after the first arrival of the Empire Windrush, on July 5th, 1948. The diversity of the National Health Service (NHS) established at its outset by those early pioneers prevails today. According to the NHS website “ethnic minority colleagues make up almost a quarter of the NHS workforce and 42% of medical staff” today. Its inherently multicultural makeup is an important focus for the NHS 75th Birthday celebrations this year:
As part of our plans to mark the NHS’s 75th birthday, we are celebrating the 75th anniversary of Windrush and diversity of the NHS workforce. From the Windrush generation of 1948, the south Asian arrivals in the 1960s and 70s, to today’s workforce which currently represents over 200 nationalities.
– NHS England (further info here)
As well as the NHS, the Windrush generation played key roles in rebuilding other vital parts of the country’s infrastructure – the postal system; education; the rail network; construction; repairs and engineering. The kinds of jobs which, as we saw during the global pandemic, are utterly vital yet largely underpaid and woefully under appreciated.
Today offers an amazing opportunity to formally acknowledge the cultural contributions and determination of the Windrush generation; to celebrate the pivotal role they and their descendants have played in creating modern Britain and shaping every level of cultural life in the UK; and to recognise that the problems faced by the Windrush generation 75 years ago have not gone away and that there is still a lot of work to do if we are ever to repair the travesty of justice that is The Windrush Scandal.
The vibrant and diverse country we share today has been indelibly shaped – and immeasurably enriched – by the food, art, music and creativity that the Windrush generation brought here and embedded in the fabric of Britain. Our multicultural society has evolved over time. Understanding the many different identities and experiences that shape it is crucial if we are to build a truly inclusive future.
More Than A Moment
The Windrush75 Network has been established to lead and coordinate celebrations across the UK today, but also to ensure that the legacy of the Windrush generation is not forgotten and that it continues to be foregrounded in the nation’s consciousness beyond today and beyond this special anniversary; celebrating the Windrush generation must be an ongoing practice and one that exists beyond and outwith just this day if we are to forge a truly equitable society, going forward:
The Windrush 75 network was formed in 2022 and its first media intervention was ahead of Windrush Day that year, bringing more than 100 voices together in a joint letter urging all institutions to pay attention to the 75th anniversary in a year’s time. Since then we have sought to extend the Windrush 75 commemorations to try to make this more than a ‘moment’ on 22 June.
So we are keen to keep Windrush 75 conversations going throughout 2023, after most events have finished by the end of June – shifting the focus from the anniversary itself to its legacy and plans for the future relationships to help ensure a lasting legacy for Windrush 75.
Making the cycle of forgetting into a cycle of remembering
I don’t know about you, but The Windrush generation was never covered in the history lessons at my secondary school in the 1990s; there was an awful lot of energy focused on the Second World War, but the Black and brown servicemen and women who served alongside white British troops were never mentioned; neither were we taught about the pioneers who repaired the UK after the war.
At A-Level I studied the phenomenally important texts of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker – excellent writers with vital perspectives on gender identity, organised religion, race and racism in America – yet there are many significant Black British writers whose literature we could have studied with equal care and nuance in order to more deeply understand race and identity right here: these were left out of the curriculum, reinforcing the popular idea that racism is a uniquely American problem. I think about this often. Why were educators who set key texts and taught us about the Civil Rights Movement in the US not combing the rich catalogue of Peepal Tree Press or New Beacon Books for texts that might equip us with applicable frameworks for understanding race and identity in the UK?
Today to mark Windrush Day I want to reflect on the many gaps in the history I was taught; and to resolve to continue working to repair those gaps when working on the research and writing side of my creative practice. Below is a list of several of the amazing resources I have come across that illuminate stories, creativity and contributions of the Windrush generation. Please share any resources you have come across in this vein as well – if your school was anything like mine, there is a great deal of catching up to do to make these stories and histories what they should be: mainstream, well-known, and firmly embedded in the UK’s contemporary understanding of itself.
The Story of Windrush by Colin Grant, English Heritage
Guide to Celebrating Windrush Day by Tihara Smith
Windrush 75 Commemorative Stamps – read more about them here
Screening at Piccadilly Lights of CIRCA x Black Cultural Archives: Windrush Memories of Arrival, June 22nd, 2023
Publishers specialising in Black British literature and books by the Windrush generation
Small Island by Andrea Levy and this piece by Lorna Hamilton-Brown RCA, MBE detailing its importance from the perspective of the history of knitting
Black Teacher by Beryl Gilroy
In Praise of Love and Children by Beryl Gilroy
Building Britannia – Life Experience with Britain featuring Dennis Bovell, Althea McNish, Gus John, Rev. Wilfred Wood, Aggrey Burke, Yvonne Brewster and Alexis Rennie, New Beacon Books
The Front Room: Diaspora Migrant Aesthetics in the Home by Michael McMillan
Art Exhibitions & Artists
Black Blossoms – an innovative art organisation that operates as an expanded curatorial platform and online art school (Lisa Anderson’s Black British Art course is especially excellent for shining a light on the Black British experience and the stories of the Windrush generation present in that context)
Over A Barrel: Windrush Children, Tragedy and Triumph, exhibition at Black Cultural Archives; June 22nd – September 9th, 2023
A Front Room in 1976, Michael McMillan, Museum of the Home