22 June 1948: the Empire Windrush arrives

After the Second World War ended, Britain desperately needed workers to rebuild the country – the transport system and the newly created National Health Service were especially short-handed.

And so, once again, it enlisted the help of its colonies, and in 1948, the government passed the Nationality Act, which  gave Commonwealth citizens the right to settle in Britain.

Soon after, an advert in a Jamaican paper advertised £28 tickets to Britain for those who wanted to go looking for work in the ‘mother country’. Hundreds applied to immigrate, though many were only intending to stay for a year or two.

The Empire Windrush, a cruise ship turned troop carrier, was on its way from Australia to England via the West Indies. It docked first in Kingston, Jamaica, and then Trinidad, before setting sail for England carrying (officially, at least) 492 passengers. Among those on board were Trinidadian calypso greats Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts), who wrote enthusiastically of his new home, and Lord Beginner (Egbert Moore).

The ship docked in Tilbury, east of London on this day in 1948, and became a symbol of a new multicultural Britain, and beginning the first large wave of immigration to Britain for centuries.

However, although Britain had plenty of jobs that needed to be filled, the same couldn’t be said for housing in the country’s war-damaged cities. As a stop-gap measure, many of the new arrivals were housed in an air raid shelter near Clapham Common. The nearest town centre – and Labour Exchange – was Brixton. As a consequence, many people settled there and the area’s character changed for good, with new looks, smells, tastes and sounds.

By 1956, Britain had welcomed over 40,000 immigrants (though perhaps welcomed is not the right word). From then to 1962, when controls were tightened, some 472,000 had settled from all over the former Empire.