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The Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush: The story of the Caribbeans who came to Britain in 1948

Image: Wikimedia Commons

In June 1948, a ship docked at Tilbury, Essex, and changed the United Kingdom forever. She was the Empire Windrush, a ship that was originally part of Nazi Germany’s fleet before being captured and repurposed by the British. This vessel, once in the service of the most murderously racist regime in world history, now carried many hundreds of Caribbean people to a new life in the UK, kickstarting the era of multiculturalism in this nation.

They had boarded the ship in Jamaica, where the Windrush had docked en route from Australia to England. The ship ended up carrying 1,027 passengers, of which 802 hailed from across the Caribbean. The majority were men, though there were also sizeable numbers of women and children. Some were mechanics and carpenters and tailors, others were missionaries, boxers, and even piano repairers.

It’s not surprising that many people today wonder if they had ancestors on board this modern Mayflower which triggered such a dramatic shift in the demographic makeup of Britain. Thanks to interviews and extensive journalism over the decades, we do already know the stories of some of the passengers who made that fateful journey – from activists to musicians.

One of the most renowned was Sam Beaver King. Like many members of the Windrush Generation, he had already lived and worked in Britain during the war, which had ended just a few years previously. ‘My mother said, “Son, the mother country is at war. Go!’’ King would recall when talking about how he wound up working as an RAF engineer in his late teens. Despite the cold weather, which came as quite a shock (one of his superior officers was far too fond of playing football topless in the winter weather), King was keen to return in 1948. So keen, in fact, that his family sold three cows to raise money for his Windrush ticket.

For King, the voyage itself was tense – he was worried the ship would be ordered to turn back by antsy politicians concerned about this abrupt influx of migrants. But arrive he did, and the next few decades were spent working for the Royal Mail and also becoming a significant player in the burgeoning black community of London. He was one of the originators of the Notting Hill Carnival and the West Indian Gazette – the UK’s first major newspaper aimed at black readers. He even became the first ever black mayor of the London Borough of Southwark – a proud moment that also drew the attention of the National Front, who phoned him to warn they’d kill him and burn his house down. King’s ‘otherness’ was also made apparent in less overtly hostile ways. He would later speak of how complete strangers would touch him in the street with a kind of startled awe.

Another Windrush passenger who would make an important mark was Harold Phillips, better known by his flamboyant stage name, Lord Woodbine. A calypso musician, he deserves to be far better known for the key role he played in the rise of a little band called the Beatles.

Like Sam King, he had served as an engineer for the RAF in the war before returning to his native Trinidad. After returning to England on the Windrush, he played numerous gigs and became a club owner and music promoter in Liverpool, where he crossed paths with Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and early Beatles Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. It was Lord Woodbine who was instrumental in securing the fledgling band’s formative appearances in Hamburg – indeed, he literally drove the boys over there in his minibus, and performed on stage with them in Germany.

Lord Woodbine was a mentor, manager and guiding light for the band, which is why he found it particularly heart-breaking, decades later, when he attended a play about the Beatles and saw he had been airbrushed out of a Hamburg photograph featuring him alongside the band. ‘It really hurt me,’ he said in the 1990s. ‘Maybe the great Beatle publicity machine did not want any black man associated with their boys.’

Another calypso great – arguably the greatest of all time – was on board the Windrush. He was Aldwyn Roberts, aka Lord Kitchener, who became an early ‘face’ of the Windrush Generation when he was filmed singing his own song, ‘London is the Place for Me’, just after disembarking from the ship. As a musician, Lord Kitchener had entertained troops based in the Caribbean, and he soon made a name for himself in the UK with performances on BBC radio. Lord Kitchener was an important, almost reassuring voice from home for the thousands of Caribbean migrants who settled in the often aloof and outright racist atmosphere of 1940s England.

An additional Trinidad-born artist who sailed over on the Windrush was Mona Baptiste. A child star who’d sung live and on radio from her early teens, she built on that foundation after resettling in England, performing at famed London restaurant Quaglino’s and even featuring in the NME in the late 1940s. One of the reasons she’s not better known in the UK is that she eventually migrated to Germany and made her name properly there. Tragically, her husband was killed in a car crash when Mona was at the peak of her fame, forcing her to bring up her son single-handedly and curtailing her stardom prematurely.

She, like so many others on the Windrush, braved prejudice and all the tribulations of a migrant’s life to make that pivotal journey across the high seas. Their courage would be tested but this first generation would prevail. As Sam King would later say, ‘I wasn’t going to be chased out by anything… This was our country. You needed your hospitals cleaned, your buses driven, your rubbish collected, your gasworks manned, and we did it. We've contributed so much. And we're British now.’

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