No account of the history of post-war migration and the making of modern Britain would today omit the Windrush.  Yet that was not always the case.

The Windrush’s arrival in Tilbury in June 1948 coincided with the British Nationality Act’s passage through parliament. So it generated much more attention than that of the SS Ormonde in Liverpool in March 1947, or the Almanzora in Southampton, each bringing around 200 Caribbean passengers to Britain. Pathe newsreel footage captured calypso artist Lord Kitchener giving his first public rendition of ‘London is the Place for Me’, which he had written on the voyage.  The Evening Standard sent a plane to greet the Windrush: its ‘Welcome Home’ headline emphasised how many of these new arrivals were RAF servicemen returning to Britain.

Relatively little was then heard of the Windrush for the next four decades. One exception was a Sunday Times magazine profile of the Windrush generation to mark its twentieth anniversary just weeks after the highly controversial Rivers of Blood speech by Enoch Powell that year.  

But Black Britain had little or no public voice during the first three or four post-Windrush decades, with the first post-war black and Asian MPs only entering the Commons in June 1987.  The fortieth anniversary of Windrush was marked in Lambeth Town Hall, championed by Windrush passenger Sam King, whose vision was that the ship’s journey should become as iconic as that of the Mayflower to America. King co-founded the Windrush Foundation in 1996. Windrush Square in Brixton was renamed to mark the 50th anniversary in 1998.
That fiftieth anniversary of Windrush had a catalytic effect, taking the ship’s story from academic to mass public attention with a major BBC series and book by Mike and Trevor Phillips. This established Windrush as the key symbolic origins moment for post-war Britain, black Britain and Commonwealth migration.  Indeed, the BBC’s publicity material for the series described the story of Windrush as an “untold story”.

That ceased to be the case as a cascade of cultural representations followed early in the new century, from Andrea Levy’s seminal novel Small Island in 2004, later adapted for stage and television, through to the papier-mache Windrush in Danny Boyle’s Olympic opening ceremony, its scenes of men in tailored suits and trilby hats, carrying suitcases. It was a scene reprised in the Birmingham Commonwealth Games opening ceremony of 2022.  2014’s Paddington film, a story of migration and refuge, including ‘London is the Place for Me’ among other calypso classics. Sam King MBE was again among those who led a broad civic, inter-faith and inter-ethnic coalition that marked the 65th anniversary in 2013 by pledging to mark Windrush Day each year as “an inclusive celebration of the Britain that we are proud to call home”, reflected in annual commemorations and broad civic efforts for the 70th and 75th anniversary years.

That Windrush Day was later adopted by government, given official recognition as National Windrush Day in 2018. This exemplifies how the Windrush scandal of that year again awareness of the Windrush story while shifting its contemporary meaning again.

The Windrush scandal arose from a failure of governments to properly document the status of pre-1973 arrivals to Britain, often particularly those who had arrived as children in that era.  Part of the lesson of the scandal was that understanding history matters. Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned Review identified a lack of knowledge of the history of Commonwealth migration, race and Empire among decision-makers and officials as a central cause of the injustice done to those whose status was not understood.

The unveiling of a new Windrush National Memorial at Waterloo Station in June 2022, marked a new phase of recognition of the place held by the Windrush in our national history. The legacy of the scandal has therefore shaped the profile and public understanding of the seventy-fifth anniversary year. Yet the 75th anniversary commemorations have sought to reflect the experience and lessons of the scandal in a broader context of three generations of contribution to British society – ensuring that what Windrush means for the past, present and future of modern Britain is a story of pride as well as prejudice.

Sunder Katwala took part in From War To Windrush 75an afternoon of talks and performances marking the 75th anniversary of the landing of the Empire Windrush in the UK, created in partnership with the Windrush 75 Network.