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Inclusive fairytales

The Windrush mythos obscures the real facts

Artillery Row

It is a foundational story that immigrants entered the country on invitation, rebuilding the UK after the devastation of the Second World War, making a welfare state possible, ushering in a New Jerusalem. Like a “British Mayflower”, the arrival of the Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948 at the port of Tilbury in Essex has the status of a new myth, supplanting Churchill, Waterloo and Trafalgar for a new, multicultural society. We are told that the migrants on the Windrush, arriving from the West Indies, were desperately needed and that the government had encouraged their transportation because of job shortages.

Such stories will doubtlessly feature in this month’s celebrations of the 75th anniversary of the steamer ship’s docking, with the “You called … and We came” poem placed alongside sculptures of heroic figures proudly standing as if they were mounting Plymouth Rock. The display suggests that the government at the time embraced the Windrush.

On closer inspection, however, the story is not fully accurate. It is first important to understand the position in law. The Aliens Act 1905 was the first piece of legislation in the modern era that placed restrictions on entry to the United Kingdom, primarily in response to the flow of Jewish people from the Russian Empire into the UK. It was followed by restrictions in the First World War and after it. Even so, the Act applied to aliens and not Empire subjects. Immigrants from the Empire were theoretically entitled to move freely into the UK, yet with administrative controls still in place and the additional hurdle of high transport costs. Immigration from those countries increased in the post-war period as a result of administrations issuing further passports, since they were able to co-operate less with the UK government, and at cheaper rates. As much as the UK attempted to dissuade prospective immigrants from leaving the West Indies, sending films stressing the harsh winter conditions and statistics that showed unemployment amongst West Indians living in the UK, immigration could not be prevented. The Windrush itself arrived shortly before the passing of the British Nationality Act 1948, which put the status of Empire subjects on a statutory footing.

The Committee suggested that they might be used for the groundnuts scheme in East Africa

In the immediate aftermath of the Second World War, the UK required further labour to fill shortages. Rather than recruit workers from the West Indies or from India and Pakistan, the Attlee government elected to start a scheme for resettlement for displaced persons from the continent, even putting in place an Act of Parliament, the Polish Resettlement Act 1947. In order to fill shortages in hospitals and sanitoriums, the government recruited women from Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia. Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, Polish, Ukrainian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Yugoslavian men and women came to work in industry. There was also significant Irish labour in this period – their immigration status being confirmed in the British Nationality Act 1948. The government therefore chose, as a matter of policy, to rely on workers from Europe, who they regarded as more assimilable, notwithstanding that the European refugees’ command of the English language was for the most part worse than the West Indians’. An Interdepartmental Working Group decided that there was not such a shortage as to justify recruiting from the West Indies, saying that the workers were “unsuitable”. One official later said in 1948 that they would be “far more trouble than they are worth”. The significant exception appears to have involved the recruitment of a fairly limited number of Barbadian nurses (which the “You Called … and We Came” poem describes – not the Windrush itself).

When the Windrush embarked, those onboard had not been recruited for labour but were, as the Cabinet Economic Policy Committee stated, “private persons travelling at their own expense”. The Committee suggested that they might be used for the groundnuts scheme in East Africa. The West Indians travelled to the UK in part because they had previously been in service there during the War. The West Indies was also at that time suffering from problems with unemployment. Those on the ship believed that they could take advantage of the cheap rates on the Windrush and their statuses as British subjects to fill labour shortages in the UK.

The Windrush was treated as a problem by the government and officials. George Isaac’s parliamentary secretary expressed privately, “We do not want to take any actions with this shipload of Jamaicans which will encourage others.” On 8 June, George Isaacs said, “The arrival of these substantial numbers of men under no organised arrangement is bound to result in considerable difficulty and disappointment” and “I hope no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example”. Failing to delay the arrival of the ship, the Ministry of Labour eventually decided to interview the West Indians before they disembarked. The officials determined that the best course of action was to disperse them across the country so that they would not gather at labour exchanges.

After being challenged in cabinet, Arthur Creech Jones, the Secretary of State for the Colonies, said “every possible step had been taken” to discourage these influxes. He observed that a senior officer of his department had visited the West Indies and explained difficulties in finding work, that there had been publicity in the Jamaican press about the difficulties immigrants would face and that before the Windrush had left Jamaica, its party had been warned specifically, too.

In reaction to the arrival, eleven Labour MPs wrote to the PM, Clement Attlee, saying that:

This country may become an open reception centre for immigrants not selected in respect to health, education, training, character, customs and above all, whether assimilation is possible or not.

The British people fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity in their way of life, and are blest by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.

In our opinion colonial governments are responsible for the welfare of their people and Britain is giving these governments great financial assistance to enable them to solve their population problems. We venture to suggest that the British Government should, like foreign countries, the dominions and even some of the colonies, by legislation if necessary, control immigration in the political, social, economic and fiscal interests of our people.

In our opinion such legislation or administrative action would be almost universally approved by our people.

Attlee responded by saying, “I think that it would be a great mistake to take the emigration of this Jamaican party to the United Kingdom too seriously.” He added, “If our policy were to result in a great influx of undesirables, we might, however unwillingly, have to consider modifying it. But I would not be willing to consider that, except on really compelling evidence, which I do not think exists at the present time.”

The government attempted to find other methods of restraining entry from the West Indies

While objections to the Windrush arrival were common, the British Nationality Act 1948, allowing freedom of entry, would remain unaltered for the next 14 years. The Act was a response to the new, separate Canadian definition of citizenship. The Act would formalise a unified citizenship, keeping the UK’s place at the head of the Empire and Commonwealth and retaining subjecthood. It was accordingly supported by the Conservatives as well as Labour MPs. In his previously mentioned letter to the eleven Labour MPs, Attlee stressed that “it would be a great mistake to take any measure which would tend to weaken the goodwill and loyalty of the colonies towards Great Britain”. There was not an appetite at the highest levels to alter the legislation, unless, in the words of James Chuter-Ede in 1951, any substantial inflow “might produce a situation in the United Kingdom rendering legislation for its control essential”. Large numbers of immigrants were not anticipated in the years following 1948, since the Act was not directly concerned with immigration.

Instead of altering the law, then, the government attempted to find other methods of restraining entry from the West Indies. According to Bob Carter, Clive Harris and Shirley Joshi, “governors were asked to tamper with shipping lists and schedules to place migrant workers at the end of the queue; to cordon off port to prevent passport-holding stowaways from boarding ship; and to delay the issue of passports to migrants”. In this period most of the movement of peoples from the West Indies appears to have been largely without encouragement. One prominent scheme in the 1950s based on recruitment was by British Transport in Barbados (and elsewhere), bringing in relatively low numbers. There was also recruitment by the British Hotel and Restaurants’ Association.

Despite discussion in cabinet in the 1950s, and Churchill’s insistence that “it is the most important issue facing the country”, it was only with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 that the Conservative government decided to make legislative changes in order to reduce the inflow. Henceforth, those seeking entry from the Commonwealth and colonies for work purposes would only be permitted to do so with a voucher, where they either had a job, possessed special skills in short supply, or were part of a separate group, the numbers of which would be set according to economic need. In reality, numbers were admitted still, including doctors and nurses, particularly from South Asia. However, the Act curtailed freedom of entry, which was an important change.

The Windrush was not the first ship of West Indian immigrants to reach the UK in the post-war period. Even so, it has managed to become a synecdoche for the 1947–71 immigration that led to Britain becoming a multi-cultural society. Although there is some evidence that there was recruitment in later years, the arrival of the Windrush itself was not encouraged by the government at the time. It was not considered to be a first wave preceding a greater influx. The Windrush myth, however, is now cemented in popular consciousness, filling a need for a foundational story of multiculturalism. It will be difficult to unseat that myth.

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