The really important historical trends that shape our lives, such as technological, economic and social change, usually happen at such a gradual pace that we tend not to notice them on a daily basis. Yet in the long run, they often have a more profound impact than any singular event.
Nevertheless, humans seem to have a need to point to an event and say, “That’s when everything changed.” This despite the fact that the event in question may not have seemed all that important at the time.
Take for example the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush to Tillbury on June 22nd, 1948. The boat carried 492 people from the West Indies who were actively encouraged by the British Government of the time, to come to the “mother country” to help fill labour shortages that existed after World War 2.
It is now widely seen as the the event that symbolizes the beginning of mass, non-white immigration to the UK.
However, at the time – as the British Pathé clip below shows – it was seen as less important than the arrival of Ingrid Bergman and Alfred Hitchcock at Heathrow to film the now largely forgotten Under Capricorn.
The video mentions a few interesting things, such as: the fact that the arrivals are mostly ex-servicemen, that they know England (aka the “mother country”) well, and that the Colonial office had to be prodded into giving them a cordial reception.
Yet, the true highlight is the king of calypso, Lord Kitchener singing: “London is the place for me … I’m glad to know my mother country.” Ultimately, Lord Kitchener would return to Trinidad in 1962, but the majority of those who came on the Windrush stayed in Britain.
Today over 1/3rd of Londoners were born outside the UK and over 40% classify themselves as non-White. This makes London one of the world’s most multicultural cities and is arguably it’s greatest strength. You can’t call yourself a global city if you don’t have a significant number of representatives from all over the globe living in it.
Yet, the road from there to here has not always been a smooth one. The 1958 Notting Hill and 1981 Brixton Riots are but two examples of the racial tensions that to some extent still exist in London today.
These tensions were in evidence right from the moment the first workers from the Windrush set down on British soil. While they were invited to come to work in the UK with promises of being part of the British colonial family – they faced discrimination from a local population that was often hostile to their arrival.
London Underground and British Rail are often held up as two of the model employers in the story of immigration to the UK, because they provided many of the first jobs to the new arrivals from the West Indies. Yet, here again the story is a little more complex.
While it’s undeniable that both organisations did provide employment, it was not always a smooth process. Blacks were mostly given the least desirable jobs and that was if they could get them.
This 1956 clip from the BBC’s Panorama shows just how much of an up hill struggle most new immigrants faced in London.
Given the treatment they received, I find it amazing that they decided to stay at all. Fortunately, they and waves of immigrants from all over the world since have. London would be a much worse place if they hadn’t.