When the Boat Came in; Nearly 50 Years Ago the First West Indian Immigrants Came to Britain on Board the Empire Windrush. Colin Wills Tells of One Family's Struggle to Adjust to a New World

By Wills, Colin | Sunday Mirror (London, England), May 10, 1998 | Go to article overview

When the Boat Came in; Nearly 50 Years Ago the First West Indian Immigrants Came to Britain on Board the Empire Windrush. Colin Wills Tells of One Family's Struggle to Adjust to a New World


Wills, Colin, Sunday Mirror (London, England)


They slipped into Tilbury docks under cover of darkness as a thick fog swirled around the banks of the Thames. It was a low-key beginning to a momentous piece of history. The ship inching its way up the Thames to its mooring in East London was the Empire Windrush, and on board were the first Caribbean immigrants to make their home here.

Though they couldn't possibly have known it, they, and the tens of thousands who followed them, were to change the face of Britain forever.

The date was June 22, 1948, and for most West Indians on the Windrush the ghostly glow of street lights in the fog was their first glimpse of a mysterious land. The portents were not good. Some newspapers were already taking an anti-immigrant line and in Parliament there were rumblings of discontent: "Don't worry," one MP said. "After experiencing their first English winter, they will be gone."

But they didn't go - they stayed on, battling against all the odds thrown up by racist ignorance and resentment. They were strangers in a strange land but, through courage and industry, they built their lives and raised their families to take their rightful places in the rich variety of cultures that is modern Britain.

THE FIRST GENERATION

Sam King, 72

Sam was one of the 500 West Indian immigrants aboard the Windrush. He had learned about Britain through serving in the RAF during the war, but for others the journey to Britain was a leap into the unknown.

"Some were very frightened," he says. "In the middle of the Atlantic, five days out of Tilbury, I came across a man on the starboard deck crying. He said he didn't have any idea what was in store for him and he was afraid of being sent back home as soon as he landed."

The passengers had boarded the Windrush in Kingston, Jamaica. Sam, then 22, paid pounds 28 and 10 shillings for his ticket. During the voyage he was able to categorise his shipmates. "I'd say a third had been in the armed services, like me. A third had travelled overseas before, but the others were peasant farmers who had never been out of Jamaica in their lives."

As the eldest son in his family, Sam had been expected to take over the family farm. But the RAF had opened his eyes to the outside world. "When I came home after the war, I couldn't settle. A lot of Jamaicans were desperately poor. When the boat taking me home was half a mile outside Kingston harbour, the British tourists amused themselves by throwing coins overboard for men to dive for. They'd surface with their mouths filled with money. They were so destitute they'd risk their lives for a few pennies.

"My family tried to persuade me to stay. But my mind was made up and, four months later, I was on the Windrush. Before I left, my mother washed everything I owned, even the cloth to clean my shoes. She said, `Son, I know you will never come back, so I want all your things to look right.' All I took with me was in a rucksack and a little suitcase."

Once here, Sam rejoined the RAF. "I could have done anything really. I had been an engineer in the Air Force and when I went to Balham labour exchange in South London, to see what the situation was, they offered me five jobs on the spot.

"How different things were later. Eight years ago I was on the board of governors of a school in Eltham. When we advertised for a school caretaker, we got 30 applications inside 24 hours."

After four years in the RAF, Sam started work as a postman-sorter with the Post Office at London Bridge. It was the early Fifties, and a black face on Britain's streets was still a novelty. "I'd be waiting for a bus early in the morning and ladies in the queue would ask to touch me. They believed that if they touched a black man or a chimney sweep it would bring them good luck. But it was only old women who asked. I always wished they were younger. I hadn't got a girlfriend.

"I never blamed them. …

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