Windrush stories

By Samuel Johnson

Today marks the fourth national Windrush Day in the UK, as well as the 73 years that have passed since the SS Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury Docks in Essex in 1948 carrying the first Caribbean migrants to the UK – to help re-build the Motherland, Great Britain, after the Second World War.

On board, people were filled with excitement and trepidation on what this new chapter of life would bring them. Expectations were high and had been build on a psychological contract between country and citizen, and they believed in it as British people.

There was the written contract on which dreams had been built and futures planned. They were economic migrants but had not become immigrants yet as they had arrived on Britain’s shores with British passports.

Racist commentary was just a part of everyday life and deeply embedded in politics and society, and that said all I needed to know about either race or politics at that time. I never really understood the inferences of these words nor how it would impact my life. I knew that they were somehow provocative but simultaneously found the words people used to refer to me and other people of the Windrush generation intriguing.

The NHS faced the same challenges back then, as has throughout the pandemic. A huge backlog of unmet health needs and a shortage of nurses. By 1948 there were 54,000 nursing vacancies. Britain called and my parents Andrew and Pauline with their 4 children in tow, along with many more, answered.

They would go on to have four further children of which only three would survive. My Mother had secured a job in Aneurin Bevan’s new National Health Service as a midwife at Sherwood Hospital in Nottingham. By 1949 the ministries of Health and Labour were working actively with the Colonial office, the Royal College of Nursing, and the General Nursing Council and were actively recruiting Caribbean Women.

Britain’s dependence on a global clinical workforce was reflected in British immigration law. Even Enoch Powell, famed for his ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech delivered to Parliament on 20th April 1968 during his tenure as Health Minister from 1960-1963, actively recruited Caribbean nurses.

I was regularly told to go back to where I was from. A sentiment I failed to grasp as I hardly left the neighbourhood in those early years and was never minded to.  We are not born with prejudices or values – according to the behaviourist theorist Morris Massey there are three periods during which values are developed as we grow.

But I am particularly interested in Massey’s ‘Imprint period’, from ages 0-7. Children are like sponges, absorbing everything around them and accepting much of it as true. Whilst the confusion and blind belief at that age can be traumatic for some, in me it awoke the desire to challenge injustice and a vocation to ‘fight’ for equal and fair treatment.

“Give me a child till he is seven years old,” said St Ignatius Loyola – the Jesuit – “and I will show you the man.” I guess that’s how I got to be who I am today.

Overall though, Pauline and Andrew would have been proud the way things worked out for their children. All seven went on to obtain postgraduate degrees. It’s easy to stand tall when you do so on the shoulders of giants.

Our giants are the Windrush generation, so it is important to recognise the contributions they made which helped shape the Britain we know today.


Could you live different? You do have a choice
History is silent, but the future has a voice
Genetics sculpt your body
Your past creates your mind
Value diversity, as we’re only here for a while

Samuel Johnson

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