Between 1948 and 1970 nearly half a million people left their homes in the West Indies to live in Britain. The West Indies consists of more than 20 islands in the Caribbean, including Jamaica, Barbados and Trinidad. These people changed the face of modern Britain. They were all British citizens and, although they had never lived in Britain before, they had the right to enter, work and settle here if they wanted to.
West Indians came to Britain for many different reasons. Some were seeking better opportunities for themselves and their children. Some came to work for a while, save money and return home. Some had been recruited because Britain was short of workers to run the transport system, postal service and hospitals. Other West Indians were returning soldiers who had fought for Britain during the Second World War (1939-1945).
Not all white Britons welcomed the black Britons. Many West Indians found that the colour of their skins provoked unfriendly reactions. For example, despite the desperate shortage of labour, some still found it difficult to get good jobs. Often they were forced to accept jobs which they were over-qualified for, or they were paid less than other white workers.
West Indians also experienced difficulties in finding suitable places to live. Since few had much money, they had to find cheap housing to rent near to their workplace. This was often in the poor inner cities. Even if they did have enough money to rent better quality housing, many had to face the fact that some landlords refused to rent to black people. They would be confronted with insulting signs in house windows that said ‘Rooms to Let: No dogs, no coloureds’. This meant that a lot of West Indians were forced to rent homes in the most rundown areas.
In 1958, in areas where larger numbers of West Indians lived, there were outbreaks of violence against them. In particular, in Nottingham and London mobs of white people attacked black people in the streets, smashing and burning their homes.
West Indians had been invited to come to Britain, so they also felt that it was their home too. To be discriminated against was a shock which they had not been prepared for. Some returned to the West Indies, but many remained – despite the difficulties they faced. They have worked hard and made a contribution to British life.
The documents included here only show a very partial glimpse of the life experienced by West Indians during this time. Pupils will have many other questions. Teachers may wish to ask their pupils to write a list of questions they would like to ask one of the people in the Windrush passenger list if they were available for interview.
Other activities that are possible on the theme of immigration or multi-cultural Britain are:
- Pupils can use an atlas to find Jamaica, Trinidad or other West Indian islands. They can then trace the journey of the Windrush to Britain. The Empire Windrush started at Trinidad and headed north up the Caribbean via Kingston, Tampico, Havana and Bermuda
- Pupils could find out from classmates, family or neighbours if they have other relatives or friends who came to Britain, where they came from and the reasons why they came. The information gathered could be presented to the class
- Pupils can discuss the experience of moving to a new town or country; talking about how the West Indians would feel about moving and what they would like or dislike about being in a new place. Pupils could start by talking about their similar experience such as moving house, or starting a new school
- Pupils could produce a leaflet to explain to anybody coming from another part of the world what to expect when they arrive in Britain
- An exciting display could be produced on the theme of what Britain has gained from immigrants from the new Commonwealth countries – music, food, literature, fashions, new customs and pastimes
Teachers should bear in mind that the documents and the vocabulary used are of their time and as such care should be taken to make this point to pupils and to stress the appropriate vocabulary to use.
Our archived Moving Here site has photos, maps and documents on migration experiences of the last 200 years.
Windrush – The Passengers
For the Windrush passengers who made their life in Britain, the journey to Tilbury was just the beginning.