23 May 2017 | 15.1 °C

The West Indies Ships That Arrived Before The Windrush

The West Indies Ships That Arrived Before The Windrush
A postcard of HMT Empire Windrush. Image courtesy of the Imperial War Museum.

Heavily discussed at the time, the docking of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948 is often viewed as the most symbolic moment in the history of West Indian immigration to the UK, notably London. The ship's 493 passengers have rightly been heralded for building themselves new lives while possibly aware of the increased discrimination they'd face for trying to do so.

Think also, then, of the bravery of those people who set sail from the Caribbean even before the Windrush made its fateful landing — and whose voyages have been even less publicised, both at the time and throughout history.

A big gamble

A 1954 image of Ralph Lowe, courtesy of Hannah Lowe.

It's not hard to work out why people took the Ormonde from Jamaica to Liverpool in March 1947. The choice — insofar as it was one — was between a desperate lack of jobs in a hierarchical colony, or the land of hope and glory they'd been taught to admire from birth. Many of the men may have already had a taste thanks to wartime service.

Nonetheless, this was still a leap into the unknown. Jamaica's Daily Gleaner advertised outbound tickets, but no returns.

Ralph Lowe was one of those 108 passengers who went quids-in, paying his £28 fare to cross the Atlantic along with other Jamaicans, Bermudans, and Trinidadians. He settled in London and — aptly enough — made a career as a professional gambler.

Sadly, the fates of his co-travellers are less known. There were few fixed abodes recorded on the ship’s passenger list. Many of those bearing London postcodes simply proved to be youth hostels. Lowe himself entered the Colonial Service Club in Marylebone.

His daughter, the poet Hannah Lowe, encapsulates this mystery in Ormonde, a poetry anthology whose title piece includes the following lines:

and all the passengers step from the ship
and through a coverlet of mist then slip
like whispers into tenements and backstreets

Windrush Square in Brixton pays tribute to these pioneers. Photo: James FitzGerald

The pay-off

Later that year came the Almanzora, docking at Southampton on 21 December 1947. Like the Ormonde, it was an ex-troopship, and like the Ormonde, it carried a number of ex-troops from the West Indies who had fought for Britain in the second world war.

In his memoir, Now You Know, Allan Wilmot recalls how hard it was to live in London as a black man who was 'only' a former serviceman. Life hadn’t been easy while stationed in the UK during the war, in the Navy and then the RAF. Non-white soldiers were routinely abused and Wilmot himself had actually endured speculation as to whether or not he lived in a tree.

But this seems to have been nothing compared to the jobless desperation he now faced. Forget his distinguished service for the Empire: doors were now slammed in Wilmot's face, available jobs became suddenly unavailable, and the "no Irish, no coloured, no dogs" signs of historical infamy were produced.

Wilmot says he would catch the final train to Uxbridge simply to sleep on it overnight, before riding back to Waterloo to do his laundry. His tale was to prove one of extraordinary resilience. Some odd jobs led to occasional singing work in the West End, his musical career soon developing into something fully-fledged.

With The Southlanders — a Caribbean vocal group whose name acknowledged that all of its members now lived in south London — he enjoyed a quarter-century of stardom, briefly listing George Martin as his recording manager at Abbey Road Studios, and sharing stages with the likes of Cliff Richard, Petula Clark and Bob Hope.

Others on the Almanzora were to achieve unlikely fame too, though unsurprisingly not of the same degree. One Ken Hunter, a fellow muso, is said by Wilmot to have systematically overcharged for his London performances; his career ultimately stalling there and then.  

Pioneering

Even those individuals who set sail from the Caribbean after the second world war were not the first West Indians to reach British shores.

There are records of black people in London dating back to Roman times, and non-white characters appear in diverse artworks of the last several centuries. Wildly divergent estimates by the end of the 1700s put London's black population at many thousands; high enough to attract discussion and, it seems likely, concern.  

Detail from frame four of William Hogarth's Marriage à la Mode (1743) - an artwork that indicates black people were not as uncommon in London in bygone centuries as sometimes thought.

In fact, black Londoners were for some time deemed 'weird' enough that relatively detailed records exist of them. Harold Moody, a doctor in Peckham in the first part of the 20th century, set up the League of Coloured Peoples — which is known to have provided housing to those in need. That was before either the Ormonde or Almanzora docked on British shores.

And then there were perhaps two or three thousand West Indians who didn't require transport ships to ceremonially migrate to Britain, since they remained here after their wartime service and didn’t go home after being demobbed.  

What you glean from Wilmot's story is that this all helped. While Wilmot faced homelessness, those who arrived just six months later on that more documented ship were accommodated in the comparative luxury of the Clapham deep-level shelters. Meanwhile, prototype job centres became community hubs. The future mayor of Southwark, Sam King, recalls being offered five jobs almost straight away at the Tooting Labour Exchange.

We'll never know for sure how the brave Windrush arrivals would have got on without having had their forebears. But surely every pioneer who'd popped up in London had helped normalise the presence of West Indian faces here. Only two generations later, the city now doesn't blink at multiculturalism.

Last Updated 15 April 2017