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Windrush Day: Remembering the Hopes, Struggles and Impact of the Windrush Pioneers

On this day, 76 years ago, HMT Empire Windrush (originally the MV Monte Rosa passenger liner and cruise ship) brought hundreds of passengers from the Caribbean to the United Kingdom following the Second World War. The ship’s name has come to represent an impactful British Caribbean generation, known as the ‘Windrush Generation.’ This marked the beginning of mass migration of Caribbean immigrants who helped rebuild Britain as we know it today.   

Empire Windrush. Photo credit: Sea Breezes Magazine 

The Second World War is frequently described as the deadliest conflict in human history, levelling cities and towns, demolishing bridges and railroads, and devastating the countryside. Societal transformation was desperately needed to restore technological, political, and economic stability. The Windrush Generation is often credited with making long-lasting, profound contributions to British society by addressing workforce shortages in construction, public transport, factories, manufacturing, and healthcare. 

1948, the year the Empire Windrush arrived in the UK, was also the year the NHS was founded. The Windrush Generation’s healthcare professionals and patients have a powerful intertwined history that has shaped modern Britain. Many Caribbean immigrants had medical training and qualifications, helping to address crucial shortages in the British healthcare system. Doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals from the Windrush Generation contributed their expertise, skills, and compassionate care to the NHS, ensuring that quality healthcare was accessible to everyone. Today, the NHS is the fifth largest employer in the world, with one in five workers of BME heritage.

However, the journey across the Atlantic for a promising life came with a lot of pain. Upon arrival, many people of the Windrush Generation faced hostile and racist treatment. Many were barred from work and faced racist abuse; houses were poorly insulated with no central heating, and they were frequently told there was no room for Black people or their families. This meant that many Caribbean arrivals were forced to live in run-down areas with very little money. In some extreme circumstances, some dealt with attacks and vandalisation of their homes.

Caribbean Women of the NHS. Photo credit: Medium

The alienation of the Windrush Generation continued into the next century, surfacing prominently in 2017 during the Windrush Scandal. The 1971 Immigration Act gave Commonwealth citizens living in the UK indefinite leave to remain – the permanent right to live and work in the UK. Despite this, many people from the Windrush Generation were falsely deemed ‘illegal immigrants’ and received threatening letters stating there were no records of their permission to stay, with a risk of deportation. Those unable to prove their legal status were prevented from accessing healthcare, work, and housing. Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman investigated and began reporting on their experiences. As these shocking stories made headlines, leaders of many Caribbean nations took this up with then-Prime Minister Theresa May.

Photo credit: The Independent

Despite an apology, the launch of the Windrush Compensation Scheme, and recommendations to revise the UK’s “hostile environment” immigration policy – which remains active – not enough has been done to compensate the generation and their descendants who helped restore Britain for decades. Many are still faced with a lack of legal recognition, limited access to services, employment barriers, political disenfranchisement, and great uncertainty. According to the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, there is a huge backlog of cases to be resolved, and only 5.8% of those believed to be eligible for compensation have received a payment. Many people from the Windrush Generation still live in a state of anxiety and have little to no rights, and some may die before receiving any compensation.

In the face of racial discrimination and hostile immigration policies, many members of the Windrush Generation successfully established communities and networks across the UK, leaving a lasting cultural legacy. Notting Hill Carnival, which was initiated in response to the racially charged Notting Hill Race Riots of 1958, has grown into the largest street party in Europe. Windrush Square in Brixton hosts the Black Cultural Archives. Furthermore, the vibrant cultural music brought by the Windrush Generation, including reggae, ska, and calypso, has profoundly influenced British culture.

Photo credit: BBC

Caribbean food traditions also took root in Britain, becoming an integral part of the cultural landscape. Initially ostracised from public spaces, Caribbean immigrants held communal gatherings, known as blues parties or "shebeens," in their homes. Despite difficulties in importing traditional ingredients, they adapted by using locally available foods and influences from the Indian community, leading to popular dishes like curried chicken and rice and peas. These gatherings eventually grew into public events, contributing to the vibrant street food scene and culminating in the Notting Hill Carnival, where Caribbean culinary traditions continue to thrive.

Today, we ensure that the Windrush Generation is celebrated and appreciated for their transformative cultural and economic contributions to British society. The Generation paved the way for modern multiculturalism and Black British culture. We continue to remember members of the generation who are no longer with us, those fighting for citizenship rights, and the descendants of the Windrush Generation, to ensure their stories are remembered and honoured.

To learn more about the Windrush Generation, visit the National Windrush Museum at Greenwich University, the first museum in the UK to preserve the legacies of Windrush pioneers and their descendants.

Photo credit: Royal Museums Greenwich.

Artist: Kareen Cox. A celebration of the Windrush Generation and their contributions to British society and culture.

Christabelle Quaynor

Policy and Influence Officer

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