…and West Indian Migration to Britain

Recently, I obtained a photograph of the troopship Empire Windrush arriving in Bermuda (where I spent my childhood), in the course of her famous voyage to Britain in June 1948 with West Indian migrants. In the course of researching this visit, I found that much of the published material on this trip was incorrect.


It is claimed Empire Windrush was the first ship to bring West Indian migrants to Britain after the war, but there were at least two earlier voyages, by Ormonde and Almanzora. During World War II, about 10,000 West Indians from British islands and colonies were recruited to serve in the British Army, Royal Navy and RAF. With the end of the war, they had to be returned to their Caribbean homes, and this was done over a series of voyages. However, conditions in Jamaica in the 1940s were far from good and those returning there faced a very uncertain future with regard to employment. Ormonde, on her final trip as a troopship, made a voyage to the Caribbean with returning servicemen in WINDRUSHlate February 1947 and on the return trip, carried civilian and military passengers and 108 West Indians who had paid a special low fare and were accommodated in the troop dormitories. When Ormonde berthed in Liverpool on 31 March 1947, the only press interest was the number of stowaways found on board, as reported in the Melbourne Age newspaper on 2 April:


Making her last voyage before being prepared for immigration runs to Australia, the Orient liner Ormonde received this police message as she was leaving Jamaica — “There may be a stowaway or two aboard”. By the time Liverpool was reached, 49 had been found. Members of the crew called their trip the “stowaway special”. Even at Liverpool, nine were discovered trying to leave the ship. The Jamaicans said they wanted to get to Britain because they had been told it was “a land of plenty”.

The voyage by the Almanzora, her last as a troopship before being withdrawn and scrapped, was at the end of 1947, going first to Jamaica and then to Trinidad. At Kingston, civilian and military passengers were embarked, along with about 200 men who had paid the low fare to travel to Britain in the troop quarters. However, when the ship arrived in Port of Spain on Saturday 6 December, stowaways found during the trip from Jamaica were to be put ashore. The following report appeared in various newspapers on 7 December: Port of Spain (Trinidad), Sat.

Thirty stowaways, including one girl and two boys, armed with sticks and a razor were subdued by police using tear gas and batons when the British ship Almanzora arrived from Kingston (Jamaica) today en route to England. The stowaways, all of whom are believed to be Jamaicans, were gaoled after a bitter fight. Fire broke out aboard the ship after the stowaways had been removed, but it was extinguished by firemen and a naval detachment. Stowaways shouted: “We want work”, when police boarded the vessel to arrest them. Later, the girl, Norma Coombs, of Kingston, told a reporter, “We of Jamaica are seeing trouble. There is no work for many of us, and we have to try to reach England to find it”. Lloyd Walters, who with his brother Alfonso, both aged under 12 years, was among the persons arrested, said he had been returned to Kingston from New York three weeks ago, after a previous attempt to stowaway.

Almanzora embarked more passengers in Trinidad, both civilians and British service personnel returning home, and arrived in Southampton on 21 December. The local press paid no attention to the fare paying migrants on board, their interest again being on the stowaways found during the voyage, who had managed to stay hidden when the ship stopped at Port of Spain, as reported by AAP:-

Thirty-one West Indian stowaways were landed when the liner Almanzora arrived at Southampton today from Jamaica. They are believed to have hidden in the ship at Kingston. Some wore Royal Air Force battledress, borrowed from servicemen among the liner’s 677 passengers. The stowaways were arrested.“EMPIRE WINDRUSH”

The next voyage to carry West Indian service personnel home and return with migrants was the one made by Empire Windrush. The often-repeated statement that Empire Windrush was on a voyage from Australia to Britain via the Panama Canal when she was diverted to ports in the Caribbean to embark migrants, is totally wrong. Empire Windrush never came to Australia at any time in her career and also never went through the Panama Canal.

I can only speculate on how such an incorrect assertion could have been made. One possibility is that Empire Windrush was managed for the Ministry of Transport by the New Zealand Shipping Company, whose passenger liners operated between Britain and New Zealand via the Panama Canal. This could have led to the assumption that Empire Windrush was following the same route, though why the voyage was claimed to have originated in Australia cannot be explained.

The correct details are that Empire Windrush went to the Caribbean directly from Britain, having previously made a trip from Bombay, as confirmed in a Reuters report that appeared in numerous newspapers around the world, including the Melbourne Argus on 13 April 1948:-Embarkation Staff Leaves IndiaBombay (Reuters)Setting the seal on the withdrawal of British forces from India, members of the British section of Embarkation Headquarters (Bombay), who embarked more than 60,000 British troops and families on UK-bound ships since the evacuation began last August, have themselves now left for Britain. They sailed aboard the Empire Windrush. With them have gone a “tail-end” of 151 British officers and warrant officers, 400 British and other ranks, and 450 wives and children of British servicemen.

I have not been able to ascertain the date Empire Windrush arrived in Britain, but it is confirmed that the ship was then designated for the voyage to the Caribbean, to take home men who had served in the RAF during the war. In a broadcast on the BBC Overseas Service, it was stated:-

“The Colonial Office have announced that the last big draft of airmen for repatriation will sail from Tilbury on May 8th on the Empire Windrush. The Officers-in-Charge will be Flight Lieutenant Johnny Smythe, a West African who still carries around several bits of shrapnel in his lungs and side from his war service, and Flight Lieutenant J J Blair of Jamaica who won the DFC.” It was stated that the 500 “ordinary airmen” had completed a variety of vocational training courses, and all were keen to get back to their respective homes in Jamaica, British Guiana, Trinidad, Barbados, British Honduras and Antigua.

Empire Windrush actually departed Tilbury on 6 May and the next morning arrived in Southampton, where the former RAF men came aboard, being accommodated in the troop dormitories. Also embarking were 257 civilian passengers, two-thirds of them women and children, all travelling in the cabin accommodation. The male passengers were listed on the ship’s manifest as having a variety of occupations, including administrator, teacher, bank official, manager, typical of the people the British Government sent overseas to maintain colonial governments and their economies.

Embarkation Staff Leaves IndiaBombay (Reuters)

Empire Windrush departed Southampton on 7 May, but despite having civilian passengers on board going to Bermuda, went past the island without stopping, the first destination being Trinidad. This was because it was feared that if the ship did stop in Bermuda, it was possible that some of the ex- RAF men from Jamaica might try to sneak ashore and stay.

At the time, there were very few opportunities for travel from the West Indies to Britain, and the fare was quite high. While Empire Windrush was on her voyage to the Caribbean, advertisements began appearing in newspapers in Trinidad and Tobago, British Guiana, British Honduras and other British colonies in the area, offering a cut-price fare of £28/10/- on Empire Windrush for men who wanted to work in Britain, though many of the positions available were low-paid. When this advertisement began appearing in the Jamaican newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, long queues formed at the office where bookings were being taken. The special low fare was only offered to men, who would be accommodated in the quarters usually allocated to troops. Women wanting to migrate were required to travel in two-berth and four-berth cabins, so they had to pay £43, only slightly under the usual fare of £48.


Empire Windrush arrived in Port of Spain on 20 May, and the former RAF personnel from Trinidad disembarked, along with those going on to Antigua, Barbados, British Guiana and British Honduras. Many of the civilian passengers also left the ship, some giving places like British Guiana and British Honduras as their final destination.

During the afternoon, 75 West Indian men who had taken up the special fare offer embarked, as did 119 civilian passengers who, having paid the regular fare, were allocated cabin accommodation. They included the wife of the governor of British Guiana, Lady Ivy Woolley, and 52-year-old Nancy Cunard, whose father had been the heir to the famous shipping line family fortune, but she had been disinherited due to her notorious relationships with political activists and writers. Nancy Cunard had been visiting a cousin in Barbados and was allocated a two-berth cabin which she would share with a travel writer, Freya Stark.

Empire Windrush departed Port of Spain on 20 May and arrived on 24 May in Kingston, where the remaining former RAF men disembarked, as did some more civilian passengers. The ship had been scheduled to depart the same day, but engine problems delayed this to 27 May, when 417 Jamaicans, all but two of them men, came aboard under the cheap fare scheme, while 182 embarking civilians and service personnel were given cabins.

It is a strange paradox that at a time when thousands of Britons were leaving their home country and migrating to Australia, New Zealand, Canada and other countries, there were so many West Indians desperate to leave their islands in the Caribbean and migrate to Britain. As Empire Windrush was taking on board hundreds of people desperate to find a better life in Britain, Ormonde, which had made the fi rst trip to Britain with West Indian migrants, had departed Tilbury on 21 May with 1,071 British migrants bound for a better life in Australia, arriving in Fremantle on 19 June, two days before Empire Windrush would reach Tilbury. POLISH REFUGEES

When Empire Windrush finally managed to get away from Kingston, she did not set a northerly course, instead heading west to the port of Tampico in Mexico to collect Polish passengers going to Britain. In 1943, some 1400 Poles, mostly women and children, who had been removed from Poland by Soviet forces earlier in the war, were transported from Siberia via India and the Pacific to Colonia Santa Rosa, a refugee village near the city of León in Mexico. On 27 March 1947, the British Government passed the Polish Resettlement Act, which granted Polish troops who had contributed to the Allied war effort the right to permanently stay in Britain, and arrangements were made to bring their dependents to join them.

The date that Empire Windrush reached Tampico is uncertain, though taking other sectors and subsequent confirmed dates for the voyage into consideration it is most likely that she berthed there on 31 May. Ten Poles who had embarked in Britain left the ship in Tampico to join family there. A party of 66 Poles embarked, 38 women and 25 children going to Britain to join husbands and fathers, and one married couple with their daughter. They were all allocated cabins for the voyage. The same day, Empire Windrush departed Tampico, the next destination being Bermuda. However, a recurrence of engine trouble forced the ship to divert to Havana in Cuba, where it arrived on 2 June. At this time, a rather strange story circulated about the ship and her passengers, published in Australian newspapers on Saturday, 5 June:-

Troops on Way to Europe Havana (AAP) A force of 1500 troops, mostly Jamaican port police, are sailing for Europe in the New Zealand Shipping Company’s Empire Windrush. The Empire Windrush, which came from Tampico, entered Havana for water and provisions. She is operated by the British Ministry of Transport. According to Reuters correspondent, because the Empire Windrush is a naval transport and made a “forced entry” for provisions and water, it was not required to give its destination, that of “Europe” apparently being satisfactory. The ship sailed yesterday morning.

It would be interesting to discover exactly how such a totally fictitious story could have not only been devised, but also believed. Next day it was reported:-

Havana report that NZ Shipping Co’s Empire Windrush is sailing for Europe with 1500 troops aboard is denied here. Reuters at Kingston said: “Empire Windrush embarked about 900 passengers at Jamaica. There was no military personnel aboard except a few RAF officers who had been in charge of the demobilisation at Jamaica of former RAF men.”

With engine repairs completed, Empire Windrush departed Havana on the morning of 4 June. In the hot weather, conditions on the ship were far from comfortable. Freya Stark wrote that the ship was “desolatingly efficient” with megaphones blaring and military regimentation. “It really is sordid. It is a godsend to have Nancy Cunard. We omit breakfast and lie with very little on in our cabin till lunch and then sit in hot shade with typewriter …. Heat … as bad as Delhi last night, the sheets scorching; and poor miserable people are down below in decks that descend to E without a breath of outside air”. There was no entertainment other than that provided by the passengers themselves. In this, the migrants were fortunate as among the West Indians were a number of calypso singers, the best known having the stage name of Lord Kitchener.

One stowaway from Jamaica would become quite well known after she was located on the ship. Initially identified as WINDRUSHEvelyn Wauchope, a 27-year-old dressmaker from Jamaica and a widow, her name was actually Averilly Wauchope and she was 39. As a stowaway, on arrival in Britain she would be arrested and could serve up to 28 days in prison, but the migrants and some civilian passengers organised a special benefit concert featuring the various calypso musicians that raised enough money to pay her £43 fare, plus an extra £4 for her to keep.

Empire Windrush arrived in Bermuda on 8 June, but instead of going to a berth anchored in Grassy Bay, and the disembarking civilian passengers were taken in to Hamilton by tender, having been on board the ship for a month. With the local Government fearful that some of the West Indian migrants might try to stay, only the transit passengers in cabins were allowed to go ashore by tender for a few hours, while 168 civilian passengers were taken out to join the ship. The same afternoon Empire Windrush departed, but that night, further engine problems arose, and the vessel was forced to return to Bermuda on 9 June. This time, Empire Windrush was allowed to dock in Hamilton, remaining alongside for three days while repairs were completed, and all the passengers were allowed to go ashore.


Bermudians went all out to show the West Indians hospitality, the major social event, with plenty of food and drink, being a dance on the night of 10 June at the Unity Patio in Happy Valley, just outside Hamilton. When the West Indians returned to the ship that night, a number of adventurous young Bermudian men decided to join them. Eight managed to get on board and stow away, but others were stopped by local officials. Empire Windrush departed Hamilton on 11 June, and the Bermudian stowaways managed to remain undetected for the voyage to Britain. There were now officially 1,027 passengers on board Empire Windrush, 684 males over the age of 12, 257 females over the age of 12, and 86 children aged 12 and under. Exactly how many stowaways were on board apart from the eight Bermudians is unknown. The British Nationality Act 1948, which would confer the status of British citizen on all Commonwealth subjects, recognising their right to work and settle in the United Kingdom, had been passed by Parliament, but would not receive Royal Assent until 30 July 1948 and come into effect on 1 January 1949. While Empire Windrush was on her way to Britain, there were comments in Parliament as to whether the West Indians on board had any right to come to the country, and some MPs argued that they should be turned away on arrival. However, it was pointed out that most of them were ex-service personnel who had served King and Country in wartime, they had British passports, and would only be likely to stay for a year or so anyway. They had been promised jobs would be waiting for them, and some intended to re-join the military.

Empire Windrush reached the Thames late on 21 June and remained at anchor in the river overnight. Just before Empire Windrush reached her berth at Tilbury on 22 June, two of the Bermudian stowaways jumped overboard, swam ashore and managed to elude the waiting authorities. The six other Bermuda stowaways were also able to slip past the authorities and stayed in Britain like the other migrants. Eight days after Empire Windrush arrived, 145 of the male migrants had found work. The largest employer was London Transport, while others found work in factories and mills outside London. When the National Health Service commenced in July it became a major source of employment for many migrants. Nancy Cunard had planned to go to France, and wanted to employ Averilly Wauchope there as her maid, but the former stowaway declined the offer and soon got a job at the Colonial Girls’ Hostel at Earls Court.

The voyage of Empire Windrush was not followed by a flood of ships with more migrants, primarily because very few berths were available. PSNC liners on the service to South America, did bring some migrants from Jamaica, Orbita disembarking 180 at Liverpool in October 1948. It would not be until a year after Empire Windrush arrived that another ship would bring a large number of migrants from the West Indies to Britain.




The former Cunard White Star liner Georgic, now operated by the Ministry of Transport, had begun transporting migrants from Britain to Australia in January 1949, returning to Liverpool with a small number of paying passengers. The first round trip was made via the Suez Canal in each direction, but on her second trip, Georgic was rerouted at short notice, as reported by the Melbourne Age, on 10 May:-

Special orders for the migrant liner Georgic to return home by Panama instead of the normal route through the Suez Canal were received by the master (Captain R Sell) when the ship arrived in Melbourne yesterday. The order is unusual as a liner rarely returns home via Panama. The message received by the captain gave no information, as to the change of plan. It will take the Georgic three days longer to reach England on the return, as the Panama route is more than 1,000 miles longer than the normal shipping route. The orders came from the British Ministry of Transport, which controls the Georgic.

Georgic went from Sydney to Auckland, then across the Pacific, through the Panama Canal for the only time in her career, and on to Jamaica. On 11 June at Kingston, 253 black West Indian migrants embarked on Georgic, including 61 women, 26 men who had been in Britain previously, mostly in the RAF, and 30 men who had come from Trinidad to join the ship. Instead of being offered a reduced fare for the voyage to Britain, these migrants had been charged £50, which most people wishing to migrate could not afford. A number of other passengers also embarked for the voyage to Britain. The reason for the migrant demand can be found in an article that appeared in numerous newspapers at the time of the Georgic voyage:-

It is estimated the West Indies has a surplus population of 250,000, of whom at least 50,000 are unemployed. For them England is Eldorado. Last June, when the ship Empire Windrush arrived with 417 Jamaicans, mostly unskilled labourers, the Colonial Office issued a statement. “A serious view is taken of the arrival of colonials whom it will be difficult, if not impossible, to place in employment”, it said. When it was revealed that another 2,000 Jamaicans were waiting to embark, unofficial action was taken to stop shipping companies providing too cheap passages. But with the fare now raised to £50, the rush continues. In addition, dozens of stowaways are constantly arriving with a few pounds to pay a fi ne or prepared to spend seven days in gaol as the price for their relative prosperity.

When Georgic arrived at Liverpool on 25 June, it was reported in British newspapers that the ship had brought the “biggest number of colonial immigrants to arrive on one ship since the Empire Windrush”. An interesting report of the arrival by an unnamed scribe appeared in a number of British newspapers:-

As I watched the squat, broad-funnelled motor vessel Georgic edged into the landing-stage from where the RMS Parthia had just departed for Canada, I recalled last year’s early morning arrival of the Empire Windrush. Immediately all differences were obvious. The Georgic, once a Cunarder, is now Government-owned for immigration to Australia in one of the great Empire links. Looking upwards from the dockside the first impression was unity under the British flag. An Australian air contingent come to Britain for RAF advanced training (dark blue uniforms), New Zealanders and colonial officials and their wives, and girls and lads arriving for studentships in law, agriculture, and engineering particularly, and among the crowd jostling friendly for places on the deck-rails, waving to friends and relations were 100 to 150 (perhaps more) West Indians, arriving in Britain for the first time for adventure, to seek good fortune and to make friends in Britain. The most remarkable contrast between this ship and last year’s Windrush was the good humoured, mixing of all occupants. I won’t pretend that the West Indians aboard (not the only eager immigrants) were without grievances. But these were gaily expressed. For instance, almost all cabins on the top three decks were occupied by Anzacs. Jamaicans and Trinidadians had second choices on the lower decks. The 10-day voyage from Kingston was hot and irritating. All this was expressed in a merry specially written calypso sung for the captain during the ship’s concert party. Hurrying down the companionways I met many Jamaicans. Smartly dressed, hopeful of good jobs in Britain, they were grateful to hear of the hostel hospitality provided by the Liverpool Corporation, but didn’t expect to remain there long. I decided not to question how much money these immigrants arrived with. This was a too personal address for these smartly turned-out Empire adventurers. A marked contrast between the Georgic and the Empire Windrush was the mixing of all types. Aboard the Windrush many hopeless men were not only uncertain of the future, but also frankly unlikely to obtain any but the lowliest of jobs in Britain. (Actually, most of last year’s immigrants found jobs with official assistance). The attitude of the Georgic crew towards their job of carrying Empire and Commonwealth peoples was amusing. “We left with thousands and are returning with thousands for Britain”. It reminds me of the remarks just published in the Royal Commission Report on Population which emphasised the need not only of emigration to the Commonwealth, but also the immigration to Britain of the best from overseas, some for training and experience in Britain, and others as a notable addition to the population of the British Isles. The Georgic is the best example of two-way traffic in eager people.

Over subsequent years, the number of ships bringing migrants from the West Indies to Britain would steadily increase, and the trade would prove quite lucrative for several shipping companies.


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