Can you imagine emigrating to a country that you have never visited before? A country that you have only heard and read about. There is no internet and limited television to do any research on this country. There are only limited history books or novels about it. This country is mainly just a concept, forged in your imagination. This country is Britain.
Caribbeans were taught about British history in school – being a British colony it was part of the curriculum. They were brought up to revere and admire the Queen and the British monarchy. The Queen was on their currency. Britain was seen as the mother country.
Adverts came on the radio and appeared in the newspapers in the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s inviting people from the Caribbean to fill jobs in post war Britain. This was an exciting prospect for young people – to be away from the constraints of strict parents and limited job prospects. A personal invite from the mother country, the land of plenty, with a guaranteed job – wow! They were in awe of anything British and thought of themselves as British Caribbean and so a whole swathe of Caribbeans took up the invitation.
Leaving behind family and friends the first ship, the Empire Windrush, arrived in the UK on 22 June 1948 with 492 Jamaican and Trinidadian passengers and several stowaways. The fare was £28.10 shillings in old money, about 6 months salary in those days. Like many of the immigrants that travelled in the years after them, those on the ship had no idea what to expect, most didn’t know where they were going to live, they just packed their brown leather suitcase and maybe a trunk, and boarded the ship. Many had little more than the money saved for the one way ticket. Regardless, they sported their best outfits. Zoot suits and Trilby hats were the fashion of the day for men, stylish crinoline dresses, hats and gloves for the women. Families back home were left fragmented. Not just parents and siblings left behind, some left wives, husbands or sweethearts too. Some left their children with family or friends for informal fostering, which happens in the Caribbean, as a short term arrangement initially. They had plans to return or send for them once they were established.
Having listened to my parents, aunts and uncles, I’ve heard many anecdotal stories about that time. My aunt said that the voyage took weeks – I didn’t realise that. With planes now being the main mode of travel it seems strange that going from one country to another would take so long. The journey itself must have been an adventure, a cruise of sorts but not a luxury one as we know it today. My dad came over in 1954, by this time his fare was £57.5 shillings. He kept his boarding ticket which I still have to this day. Most of the travellers were young, late teens or early twenties and most had never left their respective islands before. They met people from neighbouring Caribbean islands for the first time and soon realised there were subtle differences in accents or the names they called the same foods or dishes.
My aunt said she didn’t know where she was going to stay and asked other people on the ship if they knew of anywhere. Can you imagine that? That’s like backpacking on an extreme level. When they stepped off the ship, they stepped into the world of the unknown. My aunt got off at Tilbury docs then, along with most of the other passengers, took a train into Victoria Station in London which struck them as being very grey, gloomy and enclosed. Guess who was at the station trying to recruit domestic nurses as soon as they came off the train? Enoch Powell and his party no less – the irony! She said she was so disappointed when years later he was so anti immigration.
I’ve heard many other anecdotal stories about the first impressions of the UK. They say it was cold, very cold, and grey, with very little greenery and all the houses were joined together in rows. That was shock number one. Shock number two was they saw working class white people for the first time. In the Caribbean the few white people they knew were middle class, part of the elite and living a privileged life. It was a shock to see white train drivers, mail men, cleaners etc. The third shock was that contrary to the invitations requesting them to come over – they were not welcomed or viewed as British when they arrived. The British working class didn’t know who they were or why they were there, they didn’t seem to know about the invitation that had gone out to the Caribbeans.
Jobs were plentiful that was true. They could pick, choose and refuse any entry level job they wanted. My aunt went to Lyons cake factory and asked for a job for her and a friend (who was not with her at the time). The man at the factory said he would take both of them on and they could start the next day. No interview, no application process to speak of. At that time if you didn’t like a job you could leave without giving any notice and be in another job by the next day. They didn’t however have access to the ‘good’ jobs that they were hoping for, no careers yet.
They encountered open racism for the first time – my mother always said she didn’t know she was black until she came to Britain. When your skin colour is the norm in one country then perceived as objectionable in another country you suddenly become self aware. They couldn’t understand why it was a problem. They couldn’t get housing at first – most landlords would openly refuse to house them. For the few landlords that would, they had to suffer the indignity of sharing facilities before they were in a position to buy their own homes. Even at church, which was such a cornerstone of Caribbean life, they were not welcomed.
They had to adapt quickly, there was no going back, they had come this far. They had to make something of themselves and return with dignity. It was still an adventure but it was not like the history lessons and Charles Dickens novels they had imagined. They didn’t meet the Queen either, they didn’t realise the scale of Britain and initially thought that they might see her in their day to day travels.
The plan for most was to stay for about 5 years, learn new skills, start a career, make some money and then return. It was a steep learning curve. Whilst still growing up without their family, they had to adapt to an extreme culture change, different values, a system they didn’t understand and face many obstacles and challenges. The mother country, the concept of which they loved so much, was very different in reality.
Before the 5 years was up most had married and had children in Britain and were now established – their 5 year plan was now and unrealistic expectation. Most never returned to the Caribbean to live unless it was in retirement.
I’m one of the first generation Black British, born to Caribbean parents The Windrush generation were real pioneers and trail blazers of their time. Many of them are in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s now, some have passed away. There are some well researched books and documentaries about this time but I feel there are still so many individual stories that are untold. They may not think their story or their experiences are important. I think they are. If you are privileged enough to still have someone in your life that emigrated to the country you were born in, take the time to ask them about their experiences and document it before it’s too late. They have passed on a lasting legacy and we should never forget or underestimate what they went through and accomplished.
What are your thoughts?
© Elise – Cinnamon & Brown