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These archive photos show the Windrush generation arriving in London

Written by
Time Out London contributor

This month marks 70 years since the arrival of the first of the Windrush generation, the Caribbean immigrants who came to the UK on HMT Empire Windrush. With a shortage of workers after World War II, there was a migration of people from the Caribbean to the UK between 1948 and 1971 to fill jobs. Their arrival had a huge impact on London and the UK. As well as helping to rebuild the country after the war, they brought Caribbean culture – influencing music, food and fashion in the capital and further afield.

To commemorate the seventieth anniversary, the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton is hosting exhibitions and events around the Windrush generation. These photos are part of the BCA’s collection and were taken by Howard Grey, who captured the arrival of some of the ’60s Windrush immigrants. Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff speaks to the photographer about that day.

I took these photographs of Windrush migrants arriving at Waterloo station in 1962. I was 20 years old and an adventurous, cocky little bastard training to be a photographer in London. I wasn’t able to get the photographs developed until I was in my seventies when advancements in scanning technology meant I could finally print them – 50 years later!

I watch a lot of science programmes on TV and they were enhancing the pictures from Mars. And I thought: I wonder if I can do that? I put the negatives in the scanner and did three exposures – the shadow areas, the midtones and the highlights. I could combine them all and thus had the perfect pictures. The memories of that day came flooding back.

The problem was that it was a dark, overcast day. If you go to Waterloo station today, you’ll see glass roofs, but back then they were covered in grime. When I came to print the photos, there was nothing there on the negatives – only the highlights, things like white shirts or teeth or bits and pieces of clothing.

This was the first, and really the only, time I tried my hand at documentary photography, so I walked into Waterloo with no preconceptions. I had seen in the news that this was going to be the last Windrush immigration before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 [which would limit migration] so I didn’t know if they were going to be rowdy, but actually, it was all very ‘English’ and quiet. When I arrived around lunchtime the train hadn’t got in and people were sitting around in their Sunday best, waiting for their relatives, looking at the clock.

Then the doors and gates opened and they were allowed to meet their relatives. In the photos, you’ll see kissing and all that. There was lots of laughter. What I realised when I saw the pictures recently was that their expressions are dramatic. Except for the greetings pictures, those young men, who had been travelling for two months, were anxious. They had never seen this kind of society before.

The story goes – it is hearsay – that the immigrants I photographed were sons and daughters of middle-class West Indians (doctors, lawyers) who sent their children over to make their way in life. They presumed the British would look like the colonials – in smart clothes and tiaras – and, you know, very wealthy. But I think when they got off the train, they realised there were British ticket collectors and dustmen too.

Being the son of Jewish immigrants, I had empathy for the West Indians. I’m third-generation photographer, and my grandparents (both sets) were from Ukraine. They fled for their lives from the pogroms by the Russian and Ukrainian authorities. My father’s side were photographers and had studios in Kiev, my mother’s side were tailors. Being Jewish immigrants in the UK, things weren’t too good in terms of employment, hostility and street crime. I remember seeing a department store with a job sign reading ‘No Jews, no blacks need apply’.

When I heard about the recent Windrush scandal and people being deported, my first thought was: How would I have felt if my grandparents were thrown out of London?

I grew up on the Isle of Man. My father was a holiday photographer. I helped him, and must have taken 2,000 or 3,000 photos by the time I was 16. By then, when I won a three-year paid scholarship to Leicester School of Art, I knew how to point a camera. I got headhunted after 18 months at art school. There were no real commercial photographers in London in 1958 so I was able to carve out a niche for myself. Although I didn’t ever take any more photographs like them, one thing the Windrush pictures did give me was an advantage in my lighting techniques.

It’s wonderful to commemorate things for the anniversary. It was a major event for London and the rest of the country. It’s a bit surreal that my photographs are part of that – because I abandoned them! But nothing would please me more than to see the positive reactions to them when they’re shown outside the Black Cultural Archives. 

Photos: Howard Grey

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