By Richard Hay (Ridge Radio’s DJ Ricardo)
On 22 June 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex, after sailing from Jamaica in the West Indies. 1,027 passengers were on board (plus two stowaways), including ex-WWII servicemen, many of whom served in the RAF and had previously visited England during their commission. Others were from wealthy families: they had to pay £28 for the trip, and carry a £5 sailing fee, to travel.
Some passengers were coming to England to learn a trade or complete their education, while many were seeking a job. There had been a call from the ‘Motherland’ to come and help Great Britain after the war, mainly as doctors, nurses, and porters in the NHS, which was established on 5 July 1948, in factories, and in transport services, on the buses and railway.
They must have had feelings of excitement, anticipation and trepidation. The nearest employment exchange was in Brixton and many of the arrivals settled there. There was an initial affinity with Brixton as it also had a good reputation for entertainment, theatre and music venues. Those that had nowhere to live were put up in the air raid shelters in Clapham Common Tube Station.
My parents, Douet Surgeon Hay and Daphne May Hay, arrived here by ship in the 1950s.
(Above: Richard Hay’s father Douet Hay (left, with brother Vincent) soon after their arrival in England)
My mother travelled on the SS Auriga in 1955 and while on board sent a postcard back to her mother in Jamaica, reading ‘My dear mother. How keeping, hope fine. Well, I am still sailing. Pray for me, I am Sissy.’ (Sissy being my mother’s nickname.)
I remember that they first lived at St.Stephen’s Terrace in Stockwell, before moving to Geneva Road in Brixton. Many other Jamaicans lived in Geneva Road too, as well as in nearby Somerleyton Road. The houses were large, high and dowdy, with many people packed into the rooms. Unfortunately, the occupants were often met with racist attitudes from the British people, including slogans such as ‘Keep Britain white’ painted onto walls in both streets, and signs saying ‘ No coloured, no Irish, no dogs’ at accommodation available for rent.
My dad was a welder by trade. My grandmother, Daisy Hay, had been an entrepreneur, owning several shops and houses in Kingston, Jamaica, and had insisted all her children learnt a trade: welder, tailor, dressmaker and cobbler. My mother worked in the Rediffusion factory making televisions, before training as a nurse. My dad worked as a welder in Earlsfield, before the company relocated to Tolworth in Surrey.
Because of the racism they also faced in the UK’s banking system, meaning they often could not access financial services or loans, the West Indian community used their own version of banking, called ‘pardner’, which originated in the Caribbean. Pardner is a form of rotating saving scheme, where a group of people pay a weekly amount (the hand) to a ‘banker’ (a senior member of the community) and, at regular intervals, one member of the group receives the full payout. It was through this method that my parents were able to save and purchase a house on Beechdale Road, SW2, to house their increasing family.
On disembarking the Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, Lord Kitchener sang ‘London is the place for me’. It certainly was for many immigrants but so too was Cardiff, Bristol, Derby, Nottingham, Liverpool and elsewhere across the UK. Between 1947 and 1970, almost half a million people left the Caribbean, which was part of the British Commonwealth at the time, to set up a new home in Britain as British subjects.
However, a fight for compensation from the Home Office is now underway, after investigations beginning in 2017 uncovered the ‘Windrush Scandal’. It found that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens had been incorrectly detained and deported after Theresa May’s government introduced its ‘hostile environment’ policy in 2012. Lack of paperwork, through children travelling on parents’ passports and the destruction of landing cards and other documents by the Home Office itself, made it almost impossible for many people, including those who travelled on Windrush and other ships, to prove their right to remain in the UK in as much detail as this legislation demanded. This was totally against the spirit of the original invitation made by the British government, back in 1948.
2023 marks the 75th anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival. There will be many celebration events occurring in June: please visit windrush75.org/ for further details.