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Photograph: Howard Grey

Hear the stories of the Windrush generation from the people who were part of it

Seventy-five years ago the Empire Windrush arrived from the Caribbean to the UK

Isabelle Aron
Written by
Isabelle Aron

Today is National Windrush Day, a date that marks 75 years since MV Empire Windrush arrived at Essex's Tilbury Docks. The boat carried more than 1,000 passengers, many of whom were West Indian service personnel and civilians. On June 22 1948 their new lives in Britain began and London’s cultural and political makeup changed forever. 

The Black Cultural Archives has been preserving the histories of African and Caribbean people in Britain since 1981. Based in Brixton’s Windrush Square, it hosts exhibitions and events celebrating black culture. It also works with 18- to 25-year-olds through its Youth Forum. Four members of the BCA's Youth Forum – Mahmoud Ally, Kyle Frank, Cartèlea Howell and Flourish Igwe – worked on a project where they interviewed people from the Windrush generation to document their experiences. These extracts tell their stories. 

Photograph: Howard Grey

Eubert Crosby

Born in 1928 in Trenchtown, Jamaica, Eubert came to the UK when he was 19 years old.

What did you know about the UK beforehand?

‘Not a lot. Only that you could come here and get a job. You have to understand that all we wanted was just to get a job.’

What happened when you arrived?

‘We came off at the port and we happened to go to a pub in Fulham. We were having a drink and these two white guys – the sweetest guys I ever met – said “Where are you from? Can we buy you a beer?” I told them I had no work and they told me to take the 105 bus to the Hoover factory. I went there the next morning and got myself a job. I worked there for 27 years. The factory closed down, but they paid us off. So I bought my little house in Fulham where I’m still living today. I changed my car every two years before I retired. And I sent my grandma and grandad money every month.’

Did you leave family behind in Jamaica?

‘I had a little boy before I left Jamaica but I sent for him and he came here. And I sent for my girlfriend and I married her. She wanted to get into nursing, so she got a job at St Stephen’s Hospital. We have two daughters and three sons, and we’re still living in that house. My eldest daughter worked in the bank until she retired. And do you know about football? Ashley Young is my grandson.’

Why did you decide to come to the UK?

‘People from Jamaica used to go to the United States to do farm work. But I couldn’t go because I failed the tests. Coming to England, I wasn’t gonna fail nothing. I raised the money and jumped on the boat to London. It’s the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m glad I’ve never gone back – I’ve got ten acres of land in Jamaica, with bananas and grapefruit growing on there. But I’m living a very nice life here. People say Jamaica’s got sun and England’s cold, but you can’t live on sun.’ Interview by Mahmoud Ally

Photograph: Howard Grey

 Cinrel Tomlin

Born in 1926 in Jamaica, Cinrel came to the UK when he was 25 years old.

How did you hear about coming to the UK?

‘The opportunity was printed in the paper. They booked your passage and that’s how I ended up here. Getting a job was the most important thing. But we had nobody to talk [to] about healthcare or national insurance. Apart from that, I don’t remember regretting coming to London. I learned a lot.’

Did you have to leave your family behind?

‘My brothers all came over like me. Three of them retired in Jamaica. But I stayed and it’s done me a lot of good. There was no use going back to Jamaica – there was no work.’

How many people were on the boat with you?

‘About 60 of us. I didn’t know them, but we all moved to Brixton, Camberwell or Peckham, so I met them all again. We got on a ship from Jamaica to Southampton then a train to London. The first place you went was the Labour Exchange to sign on. They said they had plenty of jobs. And they gave you a card to go to these jobs. And they didn’t like you because of the colour of your skin. So they didn’t give you the job.’

How did that make you feel?

‘If a man don’t want you to exist because of the colour of your skin, it makes you feel very bad. I didn’t think of class or colour before I came here. Where I come from, we have nothing like that. But over here it’s different. We were very good at dancing. The white boys were jealous and they’d beat you. They thought we were taking away the white girls.’

What differences do you remember noticing?

‘There were more jumpers and coats in England and you’d wear a belt, which you wouldn’t in the West Indies. I changed my style to [be more] British. But I liked it.’

How much do you think the Caribbean has influenced British culture?

‘A lot. They’re buying things now that they never used to eat, like yams. But I don’t think they know how to cook it!’

Do you identify as British or Caribbean now?

‘Some people class us as British, some class us as Caribbean. I class myself as Caribbean. That’s the way I feel: I’m a Caribbean person.’ Interview by Kyle Frank

Photograph: Howard Grey

Valerie Tomlin

Cinrel’s daughter Valerie was born in 1951, after her parents arrived in London.

You’re a child of the Windrush generation. What does that mean to you?

‘It’s important for historical reasons. When I heard about the recent Windrush scandal, I was so angry I immediately went on social media. Firstly, I think there was some confusion about who the Windrush generation are. Many of the people identified in the media, who were labelled as immigrants, were in fact British citizens travelling on British passports. They came as children with the same rights as other British citizens, until they fell victim to the 1971 Immigration Act.’

What do you think the term ‘Windrush’ means in British life and history?

‘The Windrush generation are often seen as the first Black migrants to the UK, which is incorrect. Black people lived in Britain long before 1948. The phrase has become a convenient marker of the arrival of a large number of British citizens from the Caribbean. Those who arrived in post-war Britain made a visual impact in cities like London, Birmingham and Manchester. Historically, Black people were scattered in cities like Bristol, Liverpool and London, all linked to the British Empire as part of a triangular trading route involving the Caribbean and Africa, which contributed to Britain’s wealth. This trade included freed and enslaved labour from the plantations and others from Africa. Black faces were visible on the streets long before 1948.’

Did you learn about Black history at school?

‘During my own education in British schools
I learnt nothing about Black people’s historical presence. I had to go through my own process of self-education to learn about people like Samuel Coleridge-Taylor who held a prominent position in British society.’

What was it like growing up in London in the ’50s?

‘As a child, I always classified myself as the only one – the only black person. That was my experience growing up. Things began to change during the 1960s as there were more Caribbean students at my secondary school. In the world of work, I continued to be the only one. I was constantly straddling my Caribbean culture with a deep sense of not belonging to British culture.’ Interview by Mahmoud Ally

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