Words: Leah Nuttall
Most people associate the term ‘Windrush’ with the scandal that hit the headlines in 2018. Following the destruction of landing cards that proved they could legally reside in the UK, 83 people have been wrongfully deported and many more detained and threatened with deportation.
The individuals known as the Windrush Generation arrived in England between 1948 and 1971. Britain was devastated after the war, and needed workers to help it rebuild. Subsequent polling has found that a majority of British people think that the Windrush generation have the right to stay in Britain.
My question is this: while the experiences of those affected by the recent crisis have been widely publicised, how much do you know about the challenges the Windrush Generation faced when they first arrived?
These are the stories of three ordinary people that came to the ‘mother country’ in the 1950s and 60s.
Eliza arrived in England from Black River in Jamaica during the late 50s. Flying to Heathrow and travelling to Manchester via coach, she found the experience daunting. Everything felt different, from the brick terraced houses squashed together like factories to the dark and miserable weather. Missing family, sunshine and friendly faces, Eliza initially wrote home longing to return. Caribbean food was one of the things she missed most about Jamaica – English food often consisted of tinned goods like corned beef.
Initially Eliza lived in a flat that was shared with multiple other families. She had to follow a rota for when she could cook, and other tenants frequently walked through her bedroom at night to go to the bathroom.
The prejudices Eliza faced made it difficult to pursue the ‘better life’ she had come to England to find. In Jamaica, she had received an extensive education and was trained at a college in Kingston in skills like shorthand and typing. She expected to use these skills in England, but quickly discovered how difficult it was for a Black person to get a good job. Employers would often make excuses once she arrived for an interview. Even when there were multiple vacancies advertised, they’d say that the job was taken.
Eliza continued to study, going to evening class three nights a week to learn bookkeeping and English. It was exhausting, but eventually she managed to get a job at a mail order company, where she and another Black colleague were often asked by superiors to stay behind and clean the windows when their white co-workers were allowed to go home.
In 1964, when she was 18 years old, Gwendolyn travelled from St. Elizabeth in Jamaica to Manchester. What she found contrasted with the descriptions of England in letters that she had received from friends prior to emigrating: they had described England as a place where the ‘streets were paved with gold’.
One of the first things she noticed was the coal fire inside her house. The year-round warm weather in Jamaica meant that she never needed to wear a coat, never mind light a fire inside to stay warm. She was told that she would be thankful for it come winter.
The first English winter was frightening. She was away from family and friends, and there were continually dark days and a cold that penetrated to the bone. This was exacerbated by a thick fog from the burning fires, which made navigating her way to work every morning more difficult.
In Jamaica, Gwendolyn had met her future husband, Alexander. He left a well-paid job in Kingston to be with her in England. The jobs accessible to Alexander in England didn’t reflect his level of education: in Jamaica he was offered an opportunity to study dentistry at 15, but in England there was only factory work.
Gwendolyn’s first job was in a toffee factory, after which she became a cleaner. She was told by a white colleague that she should stick to cleaning. People like her, the colleague said, shouldn’t seek more senior positions.
Things got worse when Gwendolyn and Alexander moved into their first flat. There was damp, and Gwendolyn’s bedroom frequently filled with smoke when children set fire to the bins outside. After opposing a summer-long play scheme that would have taken place directly outside with other residents in their block, Gwendolyn and Alexander woke up to find fifty or sixty people protesting in front of their building with placards that read ‘Go back to Africa’.
[This story was told to me in a matter-of-fact tone, as though the protest was expected. But the racism Gwendolyn normally faced was more subtle. It was shown in the calculation of entitlement – in the way that her white colleague calmly told her not to get ideas above her station.]
When Archie arrived in the 50s, he faced similar problems. Segregation of workers in industry was commonplace, and he was regularly on the receiving end of racial slurs. Reflecting, Archie says he didn’t have it so bad. Others experienced much worse.
In England, Archie met the love of his life – an Irish lady named Liz, who he’s still with today. Racial prejudice, he found, wasn’t limited to the workplace. His mother-in-law refused to accept him into the family.
Archie is 84 years old now. He says that ‘life has been an experience – and I have achieved all that I wanted to.’
To view the recent experiences of the Windrush Generation in isolation is to ignore the deep roots of racism. Years after the signs saying ‘no blacks’ were taken down, Gwendolyn’s children still faced prejudice. One of Gwendolyn’s daughters recalls visiting Blackpool beach for the day with her white partner and looking for a bed and breakfast to stay at for the night. Most places told her there were no available rooms, despite the signs stating they had vacancies in the windows.
Eliza says that she thinks there is less prejudice now. ‘Some of them,’ she tells me, ‘never used to think Black people were human.’ Gwendolyn said she never looked back following the purchase of her own home, and both she and Eliza praise the achievements of their children and grandchildren. All three individuals feel that the pace of change has been rapid.
Nonetheless, nearly half of Black households in the UK currently live in poverty, and our Prime Minister is a man who has openly used historical racist tropes. Over a quarter of the UK population continue describe themselves as ‘very’ or ‘a little’ racially prejudiced. The history of racism in Britain is far from over: there is still a way to go.
- BOOK: Mother Country – Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff
- PODCAST: Windrush Stories – Prison Radio Association
- TV: The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files – BBC
Leah Charlotte Nuttall is a History graduate and proud third-generation Windrush descendent.