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June 22, 2022

Reflections on Windrush

Caroline, part of our Housing team, reflects on her family history as part of the Windrush Generation

The Context of Windrush

After World War II, it was Britain who asked their overseas territories to come over to help rebuild their Motherland. The British territories including the commonwealth came as British Citizens: “We did not come to Britain, it was Britain that came to us.” Many came wearing their veteran uniforms and medals, other men and women were skilled in a trade. 

Black people struggled to find anywhere to live. Signs in windows read “no blacks, no Irish and no dogs.” They had to rent rooms in houses in multiple occupations. They took on jobs at the British Railway or as bus drivers and conductors; they worked at Ford’s car dealership. They worked as labourers and carpenters on building sites, or at hospitals as auxiliary nurses and cleaners.

Banks refused to loan money and mortgages to black people. 

Racial tensions were particularly fraught during the 1980s. Various riots took place because black people, fed up of their experiences of discrimination and brutality from police and civilians, took to the streets. These included the Brixton riots and New Cross Fire riots in 1981, and the Broadwater Farm riots in 1985.

Caroline shares some family accounts

My five great uncles; my grandad; four of my aunties; four of my uncles; my mother and father: they all came to England on the Windrush boats in the early 1950s. As a child of the Windrush first generation (British Empire Child) and born in the UK, I heard family members’ testimonies of their early life in England.

The Windrush people were young, ambitious and proud people. They were fashionable, their garments colourful. When those brave black British citizens arrived, they immediately experienced terrible racism based on the colour of their skin. 

These men and women did not expect such a reception from England because they were British colonial citizens.

I am told that they were also surprised how the British people were dressed and they were not expecting to see poor working class British people. The British people settled in the Caribbean had held themselves in high status. It was said that in the early days British people would empty their potties by throwing waste through their windows onto the streets of London. It was the colonial people who had found the British to be ‘uncivilised’.

I am told that black people resorted to setting up their own banking system called The Pardoner. It was this system which helped many of them to be able to rent rooms and then go on to buy their own houses in the 1950s through to the 1980s as they were used to owning their own homes in the West Indies.

“The Windrush people were young, ambitious and proud people. They were fashionable, their garments colourful”

By the 1980s, many people of that generation became homeowners and landlords in their own right. It had been the only means of survival, and of being reunited with families who wished to join them from the Caribbean. I remember as a child living with one of my aunties, with my parents and siblings, in just one room. It was a house in multiple-occupation. In the 1970s, my parents bought their own house. 

I observed racism within the education system as black children were often expelled from school for various and inexplicable reasons. A common reason was their hairstyles which were perceived as unacceptable by their white teachers. Black children were labelled as being underachieving or removed from mainstream schools. Many were placed in special needs schools, branded ‘educationally subnormal’, and often left with little or no education. 

The racism was so bad that black people were frequently verbally attacked, beaten up, and even killed. Employers were often guilty of withholding or refusing to pay their black employees’ wages.

This led to the Jamaicans physically fighting back. A popular African historical narrative was that the unruly slaves during the slave trade were taken to Jamaica. Jamaicans were known as fighters who would rarely turn the other cheek.”

Caroline reflects

As an Empire child, when I reflect on the Windrush Generation and our contributions to British society and culture, I’m frustrated that we are still treated as immigrants in our own “Motherland” country.

Black people of my parents’ generation arrived in the country as colonial British citizens. As has come to light in the Windrush scandal, the first generation affected by the callous treatment of Black Britons were given biometric cards or shipped back to their parents’ country of origin instead of being granted automatic citizenship. The Windrush scandal was a product of the Hostile Environment – a policy that was set up to discourage people from coming to the UK and to encourage immigrants without leave to remain to leave by making life in the UK impossible.

This government is at fault for naming and treating the Windrush generation as nothing more than an incursion. The fact we are not automatically British citizens ought to have seen public outcry long before the scandal gained social currency.

Jamaica formed part of the English Empire from 1655, became a British Colony in 1707, and did not gain independence until 1962. Whilst nationality legislation after the world wars did not explicitly name race and ethnicity, it was plainly designed to continue the exclusion of black populations in the Commonwealth. And in spite of our contribution to the fabric of British society! What then set us apart from the white colonials granted a safe route to the motherland, if not the colour of our skin?