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Windrush 70: The generation that changed a nation

HISTORIC TIMES: The 1970s and 80s saw the children of Windrush migrants develop a black British culture

THE CONNECTION between the Caribbean and Britain has been close for more than 400 years.

When Britain needed a helping hand during the war with Nazi Germany, the British appealed to the Caribbean people who responded positively.

More than 15,000 men and women volunteered to leave home and join the fight against Hitler, and thousands more served as merchant seamen.

The Royal Air Force gained more recruits from the Caribbean than any other part of the British Empire, with around 400 ying as air crew.

After the Second World War ended in 1945, most of the servicemen and women were demobbed and were obliged to return to the Caribbean.

However, the economic situation in the Caribbean was dire. They could only hope for a better life abroad and they knew that Britain needed people to help rebuild the country after the war.

The SS Empire Windrush answered their hopes. In 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the ravages of war. Housing was a huge problem and it stayed that way for the next three decades.

There was plenty of unskilled work available for the ex-servicemen who decided to return to Britain after the government, faced with labour shortages, appealed for people from the Caribbean to come to “the Mother Country” and work. However, for the new arrivals from the Caribbean, the experience of discrimination was common.

But alongside the conflicts and racism, another process was taking place. Excluded from much of the social and economic life around them, they began to develop systems that enabled them to not just survive the tough conditions but thrive.

Pardna, a co-operative method of saving common in many parts of the Caribbean, enabled them to buy their own homes. This was a direct consequence of seeing signs on notice boards which said ‘No Irish, no blacks, no dogs’.

At the same time, they began to participate in institutions to which they had limited access such as the local councils, trade unions, professional and other associations. Other migrants joined British Rail, the newly formed NHS, London Transport and other public transport establishments that had begun to recruit almost exclusively from the Caribbean.

By the start of the 1970s, African and Caribbean men and women were a familiar and an established part of the British population, and they had achieved more than mere survival.

One indication of their effect on British life is the Notting Hill Carnival. The carnival took place in
the same streets where they had been attacked and pursued by angry crowds of teddy boys in 1958.

As it developed and grew in prominence, it became clear that here was a Caribbean festival where people of all backgrounds were welcome. Also, throughout the 1970s, the children of the rst wave of post-war Caribbean migrants began to develop a ‘black British culture’ which is now part of mainstream pop culture.

When the passengers of the Empire Windrush walked down the gangplank onto British soil they could not have imagined that they, and their children and their grandchildren, would play such vital roles in creating a new concept of what it means to be British.

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