From the Caribbean to the South - 75 years since the Empire Windrush arrived in Essex

  • Christolina Ddungu and Stevell Weir tell their stories about coming to the UK in the 1960s and settling in Southampton.

This week (Thursday June 22) marks 75 years since an event which helped define modern Britain. 

The ship Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks in Essex in June 1948. On board were hundreds of passengers from the Caribbean. They made up one of the first large groups of post-war West Indian immigrants to come to the UK.

The government needed workers to plug the labour shortage created by World War Two - and help repair the country's shattered economy.

One of the passengers on board was RAF serviceman Alford Gardner from Jamaica. Like others around him he'd been in the armed forces and had already visited Britain during his wartime service.

  • Stevell Weir was 22 when he sailed into Southampton Docks from Jamaica in 1962.

"It was cold" he said. "That was the only thing that bothered me when I first came. It was a happy journey. Happy go lucky. There were friends from different islands who you didn't expect to see again. And there they all were and we were all going back to England. We were all going to find good jobs. Ninety per cent of us decided we would work five years and have enough money to go home."

Reporters at the time were so interested in Windrush's arrival that they even reported on the fashion of the men with ''dazzling tie designs'' as they started to disembark at Tilbury Docks.

A Newsreel reporter asked one on board: "Why have you come to England?"

The reply: "To seek a job."

"What kind of job do you want?"

"Any type so long as I get good pay."

Stevell Weir at the Black Heritage Southampton Association. Credit: ITV News Meridian

In the end many who had planned to work for just a few years stayed for good, Mr Gardner among them.

Families settled across the South, Thames Valley, and the country - and built communities. There was not always a warm welcome though.

Stevell Weir was 22 when he sailed into Southampton Docks from Jamaica in 1962. He did several jobs and remembers a lot of hostility in the early years

"We got called all the names you can think of", he said. "When we first came to England it wasn't nice. People passed you on the road and they spat at you and such like. Those were the things that got to me. People treated you differently. Like you were nobody. But I joined a cricket team and I was the only black person in that team and I was treated really well. It was only in the workplace. There you had to stand up and fight for yourself and that's what we did."

Christolina Ddungu with the suitcase she arrived with in 1960. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Christolina Ddungu's experience was more positive. She came to Southampton in 1960 from Trinidad when she was 15 to join her mother who was working as a nurse.

"I was the youngest little black girl in the area and there was no-one of my age group to mix with. But I got a job at C&A and the manager took a liking to me and said her two girls would take me out whenever I felt like it, which was quite lovely. To me it used to be a bit more friendlier in the 1960s. Everyone used to be happier."

Christolina still has the suitcase she arrived with as a teenager.

"I kept it. All my belongings were in there to last three weeks on the ship. I love my history and talking about where I am coming from. And it's proof to remind me and my children of how life was in the early days."

Windrush marked the beginning of modern mass migration and has now come to symbolise the generation of Commonwealth citizens who helped build today’s multicultural society. Thousands arrived before immigration laws changed in the 1970s. Many newcomers worked in the health or transport sectors. 

  • Christolina Ddungu came to Southampton in 1960 from Trinidad.

Events are being held in the Meridian region this week including a boat trip from Southampton and the launch of Southampton Black Archive's new website. 

The Reading Windrush 75 Project will be commemorating the anniversary also and honouring those who made their home in Berkshire. 

The project’s principal objective is to document and share the living memories and experiences of the many local Caribbean community members who have been part of Reading's development. Reading Museum is featuring an exhibition called Windrush Lives that includes local family keepsakes, pictures and audio exhibits. 

Don John, who founded Black History Month for Southampton said: "It is an opportunity to celebrate the legacy of the Windrush generation. They have contributed a great deal to culture, language and style. Contributed to technology, business and science. And a lot of people need to examine very closely how far the English culture has changed as a consequence of the arrival of Caribbean migrants."

Celebrations though take place amid continued bitterness over a scandal that surfaced in 2017 when it emerged that many citizens from the Windrush generation had been wrongly detained, denied legal rights and even deported.

They were unwitting victims of a government policy designed to root out undocumented migrants. Many lacked the documentation to prove their right to remain in the UK - even though they were British citizens. 

Social commentator Patrick Vernon said: "If you couldn't prove you were British it was automatically assumed you were an illegal immigrant and lots of the Windrush generation, the children of the Windrush generation that came to Britain in the 60s, 70s who came with their parents passports or aunts and uncles' passports as minors and especially those who didn't get a passport in their own right were assumed to be illegal immigrants and they weren't. They were here legally. They paid taxes, worked hard, and raised families."

Although then Prime Minister Theresa May offered an apology, a compensation scheme for those affected has been criticised for being slow and complex.

Stevell Weir's wedding in Southampton drew a large crowd. Credit: ITV News Meridian

Windrush was discussed at a recent forum in Southampton attended by people from younger generations eager to learn more about the past.

One of them, Ella Thomas, 20, said: "It's easy to not think about it and not question it, especially as times get more progressive. It's easy to forget. But things like today have shown how much your current identity is impacted by the generations that have come before."

As for Stevell Weir, he ended up working in the car industry and still lives in the street he first moved to. Part of a generation of Commonwealth citizens who reshaped society. 

"I have no bad feelings" he said: "Things have changed. I have a family and I am quite happy. I came to this country and I made my life here. I can go anywhere now and nobody bothers me."

Want a quick and expert briefing on the biggest news stories? Listen to our latest podcasts to find out What You Need To Know...