When the Empire Windrush arrived at Tilbury from the Caribbean on 22 June 1948, Britain, with its new reforming Labour government, was a country short of workers. Men and women were needed to rebuild an economy weakened by the war years, especially in those sectors ocrucial to the reconstruction programme. These included the production of raw materials such as iron, steel and coal, as well as food. There was also a huge backlog of essential maintenance and repair work and severe shortages in the construction sector. In the service sector, both men and women workers were needed to run public transport and to staff the new National Health Service (NHS). It was this prospect of employment that attracted many of the Windrush passengers to leave the Caribbean.

However, the initial reaction to Windrush was not welcoming. In the immediate post-war years, the government had recruited white Europeans, displaced during the war, to fill labour vacancies rather than looking to the Empire. And while some press headlines welcomed the Windrush passengers, the government was alarmed by the prospect of a visibly different population although reassured by the assumption that the several hundred men and some women who disembarked would be temporary visitors rather than ‘here to stay’.

Economic necessity negated this assumption. Exacerbating the labour shortages, the total working population had fallen by 1.38 million between mid 1945 and the end of 1946, as many married women and older people who had delayed retirement left the jobs they had filled in the war. People were also leaving the country. In the later 1940s and into the 1950s, many families emigrated to parts of what was then known as the ‘Old’ Commonwealth (including Australia, New Zealand and Canada), countries that were themselves short of labour and anxious to encourage white settlers from the United Kingdom in an effort to maintain their old colonial links and European notions of citizenship and identity. As these territories were recruiters rather than sources of white British workers, attention turned to citizens of ‘New’ Commonwealth countries, especially, in the early post-war years, residents in the Caribbean, as a potential source of new employees.

The migration of colonial citizens began slowly. From 1948 when the Empire Windrush arrived until 1952, between 1,000 and 2,000 people entered Britain each year, followed by a steady and rapid rise until 1957, when 42,000 migrants from the New Commonwealth, mainly from the Caribbean, entered. The numbers declined by almost a half in the two succeeding years but by 1960 had increased again to 58,000, and then in 1961 more than doubled, in anticipation of the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act that would restrict opportunities for entry. By 1961, according to the national population census, the number of people living in England and Wales who were born in the Caribbean was just over 161,000: 90,000 men and just over 71,000 women.

So what did these early migrants from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and other Caribbean countries that were then part of the British Empire, do in the UK when they came to what they saw as ‘the Mother Country’?

The most common sectors in which people from the Caribbean found jobs included, for men, manufacturing and construction, as well as public transport. Many Caribbean women found employment in the NHS as nurses and nursing aides, as well as in public transport and in manufacturing, especially in the growing white goods industries in cities.

People, in the main young, left the Caribbean for a range of reasons, attracted by job vacancies in the UK but also seeking new opportunities for a different life. Some left to escape societal oppression, to evade familial restrictions or escape poverty; others found the decision to leave harder than they had imagined, as for many it involved leaving close family and friends behind. These men and women (some of whom had fought or worked for the UK during the war, and were initially leaving the Caribbean independently rather than being actively recruited) felt that they were ‘coming home’, to join an imperial family to which they assumed they belonged. Instead they came to a country that, despite changes and improving living conditions, was marked by structural inequalities and discriminatory attitudes and behaviour. Although they were British citizens, official papers discussing early Caribbean migration, labelled potential recruits as ‘coloured colonial labour’ and often stereotyped them as inferior to British workers. The 1953 Report of the Working Party on Coloured People Seeking Employment in the United Kingdom alleged, for example, that African Caribbean in-migrants found work difficult to obtain because of their ‘low output … high rate of turnover … irresponsibility, quarrelsomeness and lack of discipline’.

In fact, almost half of all the men who came from the Caribbean to the UK throughout the 1950s had previously worked in skilled positions or possessed excellent employment credentials. However, many found their access restricted to jobs the local population considered undesirable, including street cleaning and general labouring, or to jobs that demanded anti-social hours such as working night shifts. Over half the men from the Caribbean initially accepted jobs with a lower status than their skills and experience qualified them for.

It is clear, however, that these early post-war workers made a huge contribution to the British economy and economic growth, not only in the immediate post-war period but also across decades of continuous employment. As the demand for both skilled and unskilled labour continued to grow throughout the 1950s as the economy recovered, employers and managers in key sectors actively began to recruit in the Caribbean, rather than waiting for workers to arrive in the UK. London Transport, for example, recruited more than 3,500 Barbadians in the ten years from 1956, paying workers’ fares to the UK and then recovering them though a deduction from their wages: a common practice that tied economic migrants to particular employment and which continued throughout the succeeding years.

The British Hotels and Restaurants Association recruited in Barbados, and the NHS sent managers to various parts of the Caribbean to recruit already trained nurses and young women to come to Britain to train as nurses. Hospital matrons and British politicians also visited the Caribbean, and by 1955 16 British colonies had set up selection and recruitment agencies to ensure a good supply of candidates to train as nurses in Britain. It was evident that the NHS could not meet the health needs of the population without recruiting foreign-born women and men.

Capturing the nature of employment as the economy grew over the 1950s, Peter Fryer suggested that ‘willing black hands drove tube trains, collected bus fares, emptied hospital patients’ bed-pans’.[1] But how willing were these newly recruited workers, and how were they treated? Their opportunities for promotion and access to better paid jobs with greater responsibilities and prospects were often limited by discriminatory attitudes.

Oral histories undertaken with women who came to the UK to nurse reveal evidence of their direction onto a less prestigious training pathway, as well as harassment, bullying and discrimination on the wards. However, these histories also reveal the intense pride women felt in their work as well as in their contributions to the NHS and to the health of the UK population in general.

Brie and Georgiana who left the Caribbean in the early 1950s to train as nurses in the UK told me that they experienced a range of discriminatory attitudes and behaviour, and were often restricted to undertaking some of the most menial tasks during training:

‘We were told to clean lockers and the beds, we were made to go and clean the wheelchairs and the commodes…we did a lot of menial jobs’.

Patients too were too often difficult:

‘When I first started coming in the country and was nursing, the older patient was not used to black people so they were very nasty. They will take their things and throw at you or call you black and whatever and things like that, but you look beyond that because you know what you want out of your life eventually’.

This stoicism and pride in their work helped these young women survive:

‘Black people, we were treated differently … but we didn’t worry because we know what we wanted to achieve and what we had to do and we did it, and we did it by making jokes with each other and laughing and doing our work properly’.[2]

Men too often found that their skills were unrecognised, although in later years, some individuals who took manual jobs in construction or in factories did move into other types of work. Clinton Edwards, who had been in the RAF during the war, returned to England on the Empire Windrush. He found a job as a welder but instead of welding he was given a shovel and a wheel barrow and told to clean up.

Disliking this work, he re-enlisted and after another eight years in the RAF joined British Oxygen as a lab technician welding metals. As he told the interviewer: ‘my life in England has been good and I enjoy my work, and my work mates and they treat me nice’.[3] And as Brie, Georgiana and Clinton explained, their life was in the UK, as that was where their children and grandchildren lived.

Over seven decades, men and women like Clinton, Brie and Georgiana and many hundreds of thousands of their compatriots have made not only a life here, but also a key contribution to British economic growth and to a substantial shift in British culture and social attitudes.

Professor Linda McDowell

Written by Linda McDowell

Professor Linda McDowell is a human geographer at Oxford University where she works on identity and labour market change in the UK. She is a feminist scholar interested in gender divisions of labour. Her books include Redundant Masculinity?, Working Bodies, Working Lives and Migrant Women’s Voices. She is currently working on a project on precarious employment in seaside towns in England.