Next month, on the 22nd of June, Britain will celebrate Windrush Day. Windrush Day is new: the British government instituted it only last year, on the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the demobbed troop ship HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks in 1948 — and only partly coincidentally, in the 70th anniversary year of the NHS.
From that ship disembarked some 1,029 passengers, two of whom had stowed away. You may have seen reports that 492 ‘West Indians’ arrived on the Empire Windrush; in fact, a total of 802 passengers came from somewhere in the Caribbean. Photographs reveal that the great diversity of the Caribbean region was well-represented on Windrush: we see amongst the crowds on deck faces reflecting African, Asian, European, South American, and mixed heritage. 539 passengers reported that they previously resided in Jamaica, 139 had previously lived in Bermuda, while others came from Trinidad, British Guiana and other Caribbean islands. 119 listed England as their last country of residence, and 66 passengers on the Empire Windrush were Poles displaced to Mexico during WWII. Dozens of the Caribbean men had served in the RAF. Other Caribbean passengers listed occupations ranging from ‘household domestic’ (96 – the largest group, including many women) to ‘mechanic’ (85, the second largest group), ‘scholar’ (18), ‘civil servant’ and ‘boxer’ (3); the ship transported a single hatter, judge, and potter, and two piano repairers. 274 fell into other smaller occupational categories. A bare majority of the Caribbean passengers who reported a specific destination knew they were heading for London. As British subjects, all entered the country legally, as they were entitled to do by the British Nationality Act of 1948.
The ‘empire’ in Empire Windrush, is important – though it certainly does not feature very often in the official annual celebratory narrative of events! Britain was still a major imperial power in 1948, with colonies around the world but especially in the Caribbean, Africa, the Pacific region, and Southeast Asia. India and Pakistan had only become independent in 1947, while Sri Lanka and Myanmar gained their independence just months before the Empire Windrush landed its passengers on English soil. Forty-six formal colonies remained, and the sun still never set on the British empire.
And a rebuilding Britain, with its newly expansive Welfare State, had perhaps never in peace-time needed the people it had colonised more. In particular, the new National Health Service that would open its doors on the 5th of July 1948 depended on migrant workers from its very first day. Doctors, nurses, builders, carpenters, cleaners, cooks, clerical staff and porters from the colonies and Commonwealth were absolutely essential if the State was to fulfil the promise made to the British people: that everyone in Britain, regardless of their ability to pay, would have universal access to all necessary medical care free at the point of need.
It is this significant contribution that we here at the People’s History of the NHS will be celebrating between now and the 22nd of June. Every week, we will post five portraits and life-stories shared as part of Inès Elsa Dalal’s ‘Here to Stay’ exhibition, commissioned by the Sandwell and West Birmingham Hospitals NHS Trust. Every week, we will accompany these amazing images and accounts with a blog addressing the history and heritage of Windrush for the National Health Service. And on the 15th of June, we will open to the public two physical exhibitions celebrating Windrush right here on the University of Warwick campus. Put the date in your diaries, and we will tell you more as we go along!
You can read a summary of the passengers’ details here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-43808007, or view the original passenger lists yourself in person at the National Archives (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9152210) or search them on Ancestry.
The National Archives also has a variety of materials on Windrush available digitally: for instance, you can look at Prime Minster Clement Attlee’s response to concerned Parliamentarians here: https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/education/resources/attlees-britain/empire-windrush-2/
If you are interested in learning more about the Polish passengers, you can start here: https://www.britishfuture.org/articles/windrush-poles/ or here