Ship that Changed the Face of Britain

Sam King, a Jamaican immigrant who was to become a London mayor
Sam King, a Jamaican immigrant who was to become a London mayor

by Ray Setterfield

May 27, 1948 — The United Kingdom has long been established as a multi-racial society and it was on this day that a major step forward was taken in this development. The Empire Windrush, a former German cruise liner, set sail from Kingston, Jamaica, and headed for England.

On board were 492 passengers – plus an unknown number of stowaways! – who hoped to make a new and better life in the colonial motherland. They arrived after nearly a month at the port of Tilbury on the River Thames, just outside London.

This was the spot where, 360 years earlier, Queen Elizabeth I delivered her famous speech to the troops preparing to repel a Spanish Armada: “I know I have the body of a weak, feeble woman; but I have the heart and stomach of a king and think foul scorn that any prince of Europe should dare to invade the borders of my realm.”

By contrast, the new arrivals on board the Empire Windrush were – officially, at least – welcomed by an England ravaged by the Second World War. They were the first wave in a drive to recruit labour from the Commonwealth to cover employment shortages in state-run services like the fledgling National Health Service and public transport.

Obviously, there were problems; not least a chronic housing shortage. To help offset this, the Government opened up a disused deep air raid shelter under Clapham Common in London and more than 200 of the immigrants made a temporary home there. To the east of the common lies the suburb of Brixton, where many of the Windrush passengers settled and today, Brixton forms one of Britain’s biggest West Indian communities.

By the 1970s, West Indians had become an integral part of British society, involved in everything from culture to politics and from commerce to athletics.

One of those first arrivals was Sam King, who had served in the Royal Air Force during the war. He decided when it was all over that farming in Jamaica was not for him and he set his sights on England.

To get there, he sold his last three cows, raising enough to buy his ticket on the Windrush, which cost £28.10s. That’s about £600 ($865) in today’s money.

King was, in fact, investing in an exciting future. Eventually honoured by the Queen with both an OBE and an MBE, in 1983 he was elected Mayor of the London borough of Southwark.

Published: April 24, 2016

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