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Windrush: The birth of multicultural Britain

A NEW ADVENTURE: A Windrush settler prepares for bed at the Clapham South Deep Shelter after his journey to London

ON WEDNESDAY June 23, 1948, The Times newspaper reported the arrival of MV Empire Windrush under the headline ‘Jamaicans arrive to seek work’. The article said: “Of the 492 Jamaicans who arrived at Tilbury on Monday to seek work in this country, 236 were housed last night in Clapham South Deep Shelter."

“The remainder had friends to whom they could go with and prospects of work. The men had arrived at Tilbury in the ex-troopship Empire Windrush. Among them are singers, students, pianists, boxers and a complete dance band. Thirty or 40 had already volunteered to work as miners."

The report was not entirely correct. There were also settlers from other countries in the Caribbean including British Guiana (now Guyana), Trinidad, Bahamas and British Honduras (now Belize).

Evidently, more than 500 Caribbean men and women disembarked at Tilbury Docks, Essex. This country has been multi-ethnic for hundreds of years, but it was mono-cultural. June 1948 saw the dawn of not only of multicultural Lambeth, London, but also of Britain.

The Clapham South Deep Shelter in Lambeth is fewer than 50 metres below the Northern Line and it was Baron Baker who arranged the accommodation there for the Windrush men. He had volunteered for the Royal Air Force aged 19 in Jamaica, and served in WWII.

Baron remained in London after 1945 and was in a position to assist the men. The Colonial Office had made no preparation for them, and Baron suggested the use of the shelter. He said to Major Keith, from the Colonial Office: “The Air Raid Shelter had been used to
house German prisoners of war, and even myself, when I came to London sometimes and could not find accommodation. So why not open it for the people on the Windrush?”


Baker said: “Keith told me to get in touch with Joan Vicars, and I also got in touch with Fenner Brockway and Marcus Lipton (MP for Brixton) at the time. We had a long discussion about the situation. I told Major Keith on June 22, 1948, that I was going on board the Windrush that night."

"I added that if a telegram were not sent to me to say the shelter was open, then I would tell the passengers on the ship that none of them should dis- embark until I got assurance. I went on board that night, and about an hour afterwards I received the telegram. So it was not until the last moment that a decision was made to open the shelter.”

The Shelter was about a mile from the centre of Brixton and most of the migrants first found lodgings in the Borough. Some of them settled in other London Boroughs. They brought the Caribbean spirit of openly celebrating their culture in public but they, and other migrants who arrived over the following years, were attacked by racists.

The 1950s saw some of the worst violence, with race riots in Notting Hill and Nottingham. The settlers were not afraid to organise the first West Indian Carnival in Britain (1959), but in that year a young man, Antiguan Kelso Cochrane, was murdered. The police have still not brought anyone to justice for it.

Undeterred, the Notting Hill Carnival took to the streets in 1966 and, today, it is the larg- est street festival in Europe, attracting over a million people. ‘WINDRUSH 70’ will celebrate the people of Caribbean heritage who have made and continue to make outstanding contributions to the country.

Windrush Foundation is the organisation that will lead the celebrations, which will also see a British Library exhibition, TV programmes, and more. Windrush Foundation is looking for project volunteers – especially young black Britons – who will acquire a deeper understanding of post-war history and heritage.

The skills acquired include research, event-management, and filming, among others, which will empowering volunteers as they interact with others in the community.

For more information, e-mail

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