London is the place for me

In 1948, a ship landed in London bringing over 400 immigrants from the Caribbean. Life in London hasn’t been the same since...

Some of the first immigrants from the Caribbean arrive at Tilbury, London, on board the Empire Windrush, on June 22, 1948. Photograph by Getty Images/Popperfoto

Caribbean immigrants in London

“The past is another country,” wrote LP Hartley, and perhaps never was this much-quoted dictum more applicable than in the case of Great Britain BC. By this I don’t mean the pre-Christian period (which was, of course, somewhat different from today), but what somebody has rather cleverly abbreviated to BC—“before colour.” Walking through any British city, it is hard to imagine a time when almost everybody was white. Maybe if you go somewhere in Norfolk or Cornwall, such a strange uniformity may exist—but not in the great majority of places.

But our culturally mixed society is a fairly recent phenomenon. And if it is possible to pinpoint a particular date when BC Britain began to turn into to the society we recognise today, then it might be June 22, 1948—only 60 years ago.

On that day a dilapidated former troop-carrying steamship, the Empire Windrush, docked at Tilbury, downriver from London. On board were 490 men and two women from the Caribbean, mostly from Jamaica, but with some also from Trinidad. These were the pioneers, the first in a migratory wave that would bring hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the English-speaking Caribbean to the UK.

Many of these pioneers already knew what they were letting themselves in for, having been stationed in Britain, mostly as military personnel, during the war. All had been expressly invited by the UK government to help in the reconstruction of war-scarred Britain and its economy. Some were re-enlisting in the armed forces. There were engineers and public transport workers, builders and factory hands, and later nurses. There were also a couple of boxers, a dance band, and two calypsonians—Lord Kitchener and Lord Beginner.

BBC television cameras and the British press were there to witness the arrival of what the media hoped would be a suitably “exotic” contingent of immigrants, and Kitchener obliged with a song of praise for London:

London is the place for me
London that lovely city
You can go to France or America
India, Asia or Africa
But you must come back to London City…

Kitchener’s imagination aside, post-war Britain was by all accounts a cold, miserable sort of place (read Andrea Levy’s superb Small Island for a taste of those times). With rationing still in place and bombed-out buildings stark evidence of the recent war, London must have seemed a long way away from Kingston or Port of Spain as the 492 disembarked from the train that had brought them from Tilbury to Victoria Station.

From there some headed to pre-arranged addresses; but those who had nowhere to go—about 40 in total—were taken to what was previously an underground bomb shelter at Clapham Common, South London, where bunks and subterranean gloom awaited them.

In nearby Brixton, there was the nearest Labour Exchange and a long list of job vacancies.

But housing vacancies were less easy to find, as there were few council-owned properties, and a general shortage of accommodation due to war damage. Worse, despite the generally welcoming attitude of many Londoners, there were plenty of landlords and landladies who wanted nothing to do with people of unfamiliar appearance and culture. The first symptoms of an ingrained racism appeared in boarding-house notices proclaiming “no coloureds.” The hostility encountered by migrants was captured in novels of the period such as Sam Selvon’s bitterly comic The Lonely Londoners (1956).

The prejudice and suspicion of some Little Englanders did little, however, to deter others from leaving the Caribbean in search of work and opportunities. The census of 1951 recorded 15,301 people of Caribbean origin in the United Kingdom; by 1961 this figure had risen to 171,800. The following year, the Commonwealth Immigrants Act imposed major restrictions on migration from the region, but by then there were flourishing Caribbean communities in south and west London, Manchester, Birmingham and several other British cities.

The transformation of Britain BC into a multicultural society was not (and still isn’t) a painless process. Only 10 years after the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, there were “race riots” in the West London area of Notting Hill. A community of people from the Caribbean had settled there from the early 1950s onwards, and there was soon a thriving West Indian scene in the shabbier streets of bedsit land around All Saints Road, where Caribbean food, rum and music brought the still mainly male migrants together.Their adversaries were elements of the local white working-class youth, mainly Teddy Boys, who resented this vibrant—and to them, alien—culture in their neighbourhood. On hand to fan the flames of racism were supporters of Oswald Mosley’s mostly discredited fascist movement, the Union Movement, and Colin Jordan’s White Defence League, who saw in this potential conflict a chance to revive their ailing fortunes.

At first there were occasional attacks on members of the black community—a brick through a window, an unprovoked punch. In August 1958 the situation suddenly escalated. A mob of several hundred white youths went on the rampage in a solidly West Indian district, damaging property. The trouble continued over the next fortnight, finally fizzling out on September 5.

Almost inevitably, there are two versions of how the police responded to these events. Official records tell us that 140 people were arrested, and that of 108 individuals finally charged with grievous bodily harm and weapons offences 72 were white and 36 “coloured.” Nine white youths were handed “exemplary” jail sentences of four years for assault and public affray.

The non-official version insists that the police largely failed to intervene and to protect the Caribbean community and indeed went out of their way to pick on black individuals who were prepared to defend themselves against arbitrary aggression.

Whatever the truth, the riots had a positive outcome. Largely due to the indefatigable Claudia Jones, a Trinidad-born activist, feminist and communist, London’s Caribbean community was galvanised into action. In January 1959 Jones organised the first Mardi Gras celebrations in the UK, in St Pancras Town Hall. It must have been quite a shock for Londoners aboard buses and tube trains as hundreds of costumed revellers made their way across town to take part in the festivities. From there the positive and defiant expression of Caribbean culture grew stronger each year, surviving Claudia Jones’ tragically early death in 1964. Indeed, it was in 1965 that the Caribbean community effectively reclaimed the streets of Notting Hill with the first outdoor carnival in August that year—an event attended by about 1,000 people. The Notting Hill Carnival of 2007 was attended by around a million people (although the very size of the event makes crowd estimates difficult). Now the biggest single outdoor event in Europe, it is testimony to the spirit of Claudia Jones and those early pioneers—and a colourful reminder of how far we have come from the monochrome gloom of Britain BC.