Arrival of SS Empire Windrush

The Empire Windrush, carrying some 500 passengers from Jamaica, arrived at Tilbury Dock on 22 June 1948.

Empire WindrushOne misty morning in June 1948 a former German cruise boat, the Empire Windrush, steamed up the Thames to the Tilbury Dock, London, where she disembarked some 500 hopeful passengers from Kingston, Jamaica: 492 was the official figure, but there were several stowaways as well. Many of them were ex-servicemen, who had served in England during the war. The new arrivals were the first wave in Britain’s post-war drive to recruit labour from the Commonwealth to cover employment shortages in state-run services like the NHS and London Transport.

One of them was a future Mayor of Southwark, Sam King, who had served in England with the wartime RAF. His family had sold three cows to buy his ticket which cost £28.10s in the old money (upward of £600 today). Looking back on the experience years afterwards – in Forty Winters On, published by Lambeth Council – he recalled that as the ship drew towards England there was apprehension on board that the authorities would turn it back. He got two ex-RAF wireless operators among the passengers to play dominoes innocently outside the ship’s radio room and eavesdrop on incoming signals. They heard on the BBC that Arthur Creech Jones, Colonial Secretary in the Labour government of the time, had pointed out that: ‘These people have British passports and they must be allowed to land.’ He added that they would not last one winter in England anyway, so there was nothing to worry about.

The newspapers were already keenly interested in the voyage of what they embarrassingly called ‘the sons of empire’ and the Colonial Office, the Home Office and the Ministry of Labour were busily engaged in trying to dodge responsibility for the newcomers, whose imminent arrival they viewed with alarm. Eventually the Colonial Office, defeated in these arcane bureaucratic manoeuvrings, reluctantly opened the deep air-raid shelter under Clapham Common and about 230 of the new arrivals moved into it. The others had organised some sort of job and accommodation for themselves beforehand. The labour exchange nearest Clapham Common happened to be the one in Brixton, in Coldharbour Lane.