In June 1948, the HMT Empire Windrush docked in Essex with a unique passenger list. On board were hundreds of immigrants from the Caribbean, drawn to a Britain which was still recovering from the carnage of World War Two. Their arrival would mark a huge shift in British society, beginning a brave new wave of immigration to these shores. But here are some lesser-known things about Windrush and those who sailed on her.
WINDRUSH WAS A NAZI SHIP
It's rather ironic that the ship which signalled the start of multiculturalism in Britain was once in the service of Adolf Hitler. Before she was called the Empire Windrush, she was known as Monte Rosa - a German vessel intended to serve as a cruise liner in the 1930s. The rise of the Nazi regime saw the ship become part of one of the most unusual government initiative ever enacted by a brutal dictatorship: Strength Through Joy. This was effectively a state-sponsored leisure programme, providing subsidised holidays for good German workers.
World War Two saw the Monte Rosa brought into service as a Nazi troopship. She was instrumental in the German invasion of Norway and was even used to carry Jewish deportees out of the country - many would later perish in Auschwitz. In 1944, the Monte Rosa was even attacked by daring resistance fighters, who attached mines to her hull. The damage was only slight, and the ship was eventually captured by the British and given its new name: the Empire Windrush.
WINDRUSH WASN'T AN OFFICIAL PROGRAMME
Windrush, and the iconic images of impeccably suited Caribbean immigrants stepping off the boat, has become so enshrined in our public consciousness that it might be a surprise to learn their journey wasn't some big government initiative. In fact, in the words of historian Randall Hansen, "The Labour government had not expected the migrants and it was less than pleased." Indeed, the Minister of Labour even voiced his hope that "no encouragement will be given to others to follow their example."
The Windrush immigration only happened because the ship happened to be in the Caribbean and canny operators had placed adverts in local newspapers encouraging locals to book passage to Britain. Their sudden arrival caused much forehead-clutching in London - one prominent politician, Arthur Creech Jones, allegedly lamented that the government couldn't turn them away, as they had British passports, but that "there's nothing to worry about because they won't last one winter in England".
A group of MPs even sent a letter to prime minister Clement Atlee, warning that "this country may become an open reception centre for immigrants", and that "an influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life". By contrast, the media was warmly welcoming of the Windrush passengers, with one newspaper hailing the arrival of the "sons of Empire".
THERE WERE "WINDRUSH POLES"
Windrush is today synonymous with Caribbean immigrants, but it's a little-known fact the ship also carried a significant number of Polish people, and that day in June 1948 also signalled the beginning of Polish cultural identity in London. The story behind the presence of Poles on the ship is a strange one, stemming back to the darkest days of World War Two.
After the Soviet invasion of Poland in the early part of the conflict, countless Poles had been displaced from their native land. Many underwent an arduous, epic trek to join the Allies and become soldiers in the fight against the Axis powers, while the wives and children of these men were dispersed to safe havens across the world. Some of the Poles ended up in Mexico, of all places, and these were the ones picked up by the Windrush and brought back to settle with their husbands and fathers in Britain.
SOME PASSENGERS BECAME FAMOUS
A fair few of the Windrush passengers would hit the headlines over the years and decades that followed. One of the most note-worthy was Sam Beaver King, who'd served in the RAF during the war, and eagerly took advantage of the Windrush journey to return to his beloved Britain. He re-joined the RAF, then worked for the Royal Mail before getting into politics and becoming the first black mayor of the London Borough of Southwark. He was also instrumental in forging the event that would become the annual Notting Hill Carnival.
Another big name was Aldwin Roberts, a celebrated Calypso performer better known by his stage moniker Lord Kitchener. Hailed as one of the finest Calypsonians of all time, he became instantly iconic when he was filmed singing a song called "London is the Place for Me" just after stepping off the ship. Yet another significant passenger was Nancy Cunard, heiress to the shipping fortune, who was known as a bohemian society butterfly who mingled with the likes of Aldous Huxley and Ernest Hemingway, and was also known for her bold, fearless championing of black civil rights. Fitting, then, that she was on the journey that would inaugurate the black British experience in the 20th Century.