Arthur Torrington of The Windrush Foundation summarises the Windrush story to date.
When the late Sam King, aged 22, disembarked at Tilbury Docks, Essex, on 22 June 1948 having travelled on Empire Windrush, he had already obtained the names and addresses of dozens of his friends who were also on the ship. He looked forward to a new life in the UK and had known how life was in the country during the war against Nazi Germany. He had volunteered to serve in the Royal Air Force and didn’t intend to settle in Jamaica after being demobbed in 1947.
After 1948, he obtained the names and addresses of many RAF colleagues who had remained in the UK when WWII ended on 8 May 1945. Sending them Christmas cards each year was a ritual and a pleasure as he knew that the journey of the Empire Windrush in the Spring of 1948 would be recognised as an historic event and that the ship would become iconic.
It wasn’t until 1988 that he brought his friends together to commemorate in Brixton, Lambeth, the 40th anniversary of the journey. The Mayor of Lambeth hosted the event on 22 June that year. Then, in 1995, he and I formed a heritage organisation called ‘Windrush Foundation’. Sam was the one who came up with the term: Windrush Generation, and often referred to it as his generation. We organised the 50th and 60th Windrush anniversaries which were major events in 1998 and 2013, respectively.
After 25 years the organisation, which became a registered charity in 1996, Windrush, has become ‘all things to all people’ as the word entered new phases. It must be noted that Windrush is a village and civil parish in Gloucestershire, England, and lies in the Cotswolds on the River Windrush, from which the ship derives its name.
Windrush took on a greater significance when the MV Monte Rosa was renamed MV Empire Windrush by the British Government after it was taken as a war-prize at the end of WWII. The vessel had been a passenger liner and cruise ship launched in Germany in 1930 and operated by the German navy as a troopship during the War.
Since April 2018, there have been quite a few new organisations with the name ‘Windrush’, most of them with the aim of campaigning and working for victims of what was became known as the ‘Windrush Scandal’.
Members of the British public were informed by the media (prior to 2018) that the Home Office had wrongly designated thousands of Caribbean men and women as being in the country illegally. Thousands were wrongly detained; denied legal rights; threatened with deportation and in more than 80 cases wrongly deported from the UK. Most of those affected had been born British subjects and had arrived in the UK before 1973, from British Caribbean colonies. In addition to those who were deported many lost their jobs and homes, or were denied benefits and medical care to which they were legally entitled. A number of long-term UK residents were refused re-entry to the UK, and a larger number were threatened with immediate deportation.
Their plight was described by the media in March 2018 as the ‘Windrush Scandal’ and the victims ascribed the name: Children of the Windrush Generation, then later: The Windrush Generation.
The scandal came to public attention as a result of an extended series of articles in The Guardian newspaper, which followed campaigns mounted by Caribbean diplomats to the UK, and by individuals in local communities. Linked by critics on the hostile environment policy created by Theresa May MP during her time as Home Secretary, the scandal led to the resignation of Amber Rudd MP as Home Secretary in April 2018. The scandal also prompted a wider debate about British immigration policy and Home Office practice.
Most of the victims were over the age of 50, and ascribed a Windrush name. The British government seemed to have had no choice but to accept and adopt terms like Windrush Generation, Windrush Scandal, and Windrush Victims.
The government created the Windrush Task Force, Windrush Compensation Scheme, National Windrush Day, Windrush Lessons Learned Review, and other Windrush entities. Windrush became all things to all people.
The government went further in June 2018 by creating a Windrush Day Advisory Panel (WDAP) and a Windrush Commemorative Committee (WCC). The WDAP advises on how £500,000 of public money would be awarded to local council, church, and community projects to, according to the British government, “celebrate the contributions of the Windrush Generation.” The WCC advises on the creation of a permanent monument ‘to celebrate the Windrush Generation’. The Windrush Day operations are managed by civil servants at the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG). For Windrush Day 2019 and 2020, funds totalling £1 million have been given to projects for ‘Windrush carnival, street parties, tea parties, Windrush cricket, Sports day, domino tournaments, church services’, to name but a few events. No awards were made for anti-racism initiatives.
Since March 2018, Windrush and Politics have become intertwined although this wasn’t what the late Sam King envisaged when Windrush Foundation was formed in 1995 as an organisation aiming to:
“…design and deliver heritage projects, programmes and initiatives that highlight African and Caribbean peoples’ contributions to UK public services, the Arts, commerce, and other areas of socio-economic and cultural life in Britain and the Commonwealth. The London-based organisation was first to annually commemorate the arrival of the Caribbean men and women on the Empire Windrush on 22 June 1948 at Tilbury Docks, Essex. Also, the Foundation promotes good race and community relations, builds social cohesion, works for the elimination of discrimination and for equality of opportunity for all – placing particular emphasis on addressing issues of ‘race’/’ethnicity’, and cultural diversity.”
Sam King, himself a politician, was the first black Mayor of Southwark (1983/1984) and continued to serve the borough as a local Councillor over the years. The Foundation’s current project features a series of ten heritage online heritage events until December 2020, funded by National Lottery Heritage Fund.
It is apparent that ‘Windrush Heritage’ and ‘Windrush Politics’ will exist beyond 25 years.