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The coming of Windrush Day

23, June 2018

On 22 June 2018 the Prime Minister Theresa May announced the establishment of a Windrush Commemoration Committee, chaired by Baroness Floella Benjamin, OBE to provide advice to the government on how best to create a permanent and fitting tribute to the Windrush generation and their descendants.

The committee is a joint cross-party and community project supported by funding from the Ministry of Housing, Local Government and a body of British Caribbean representatives. The reason Windrush attracted this attention was of course on its 70th year anniversary. It was 21 June 1948 that HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury Docks carrying nearly 492 men and women who arrived in Britain from the Caribbean.

Perhaps the main point was to establish an annual Windrush Day, and for this first occasion a National Service of Thanksgiving was held at Westminster Abbey in the morning followed by a Windrush reception at Downing Street. Other options included a migrant museum which was realised in 2017.

The focus is two-fold, to honour the fallen heroes of the Caribbean that fought alongside British troops in the wars before Windrush, and to honour the work and sacrifices of the Windrush pioneers and protect the legacy of Caribbean migrants who came in response to labour shortages to help rebuild this country.

The Windrush generation transformed the face of the UK from health and transport services to politics, business, literature and culture. Their legacy lives on in their descendants and the communities they have built across the country. The ship’s image has come to symbolise the UK’s diversity and for years to come Windrush Day will bring people together from all walks of life.

Windrush Day celebrated across the country will allow communities to continue to show respect for the generations that came before them that contributed widely to their community as well as the country as a whole. For decades the earlier generations helped to rebuild the country and for decades more provided the rich cultural heritage that Caribbean descendants take pride in today.

A year earlier on 22 June 2017, the African and Caribbean War Memorial in Brixton was erected as the UK’s memorial to the service personnel of both World Wars. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon said at the event to unveil the new memorial at Windrush Square:

The UK is indebted to all those servicemen and women from Africa and the Caribbean who volunteered to serve with Britain during the First and Second World Wars. It is thanks to their bravery and sacrifice that we are able to enjoy our freedoms today. We should also congratulate those who have worked tirelessly to place this memorial in the heart of Brixton.

As far back as 1914 Black volunteers presented themselves at recruitment centres to serve in the Army and Navy. They were soon joined by volunteers from the Caribbean. The West Indies not only contributed men to the war effort but people from the islands made significant donations despite significant economic hardship. For WWII some 16,000 people from the Caribbean volunteered for the British Armed Forces.

However nothing happens in London without some form of conflict, and deciding the perfect spot for the national memorial was no different. Arthur Torrington co-founder of the charity Windrush Foundation with the late Sam B. King, voiced opposition to Baroness Floella Benjamin’s assertion that the station at Waterloo was the most appropriate situate for the memorial.

He pointed out that she did not consult the Windrush Foundation who have been promoting Windrush education and events since their inception in 1996. Sam would have wholeheartedly agreed with him that Windrush passengers arriving at Tilbury Docks (of which Sam was one,) travelled through Fenchurch Street and not Waterloo. 236 went to Clapham (staying at the Clapham South deep shelter,) the remaining 256 to Brixton.

Brixton was the first Windrush community in 1948 because arrivals finding temporary accommodation visited the local employment exchange and secured work. Windrush Square in the centre of Brixton was the most pertinent location for the memorial, deflecting Baroness Floella Benjamin’s suggestion for Waterloo and the original plans to erect the memorial at Tilbury Docks.

Up until the unveiling of the Windrush Memorial, there were around 70,000 various war memorials in the UK with not one being dedicated to the contributions made by more than two million African and Caribbean service personnel from both world wars.

However the memorial was temporarily displayed outside the Black Cultural Archives at 1 Windrush Square at 11:11 am, on 11 November 2014, to mark Armistice Day marking the centenary of World War I — a ceremony attended by Sam King (1926–2016). After which the memorial lay in storage while planning applications went ahead.

The committee considered several options for commemorative events and are the beneficiaries of a yearly grant of £500,000 to award to charities and communities seeking to hold commemorative and educational events. In 2019 50 projects received funding.

Principal Officer for Pentecostal & Charismatic Relations Bishop Dr Joe Aldred of Churches Together in England, said:

Over successive generations the British Caribbean community has shown resilience and contributed so much to British life. Windrush 70 will honour this contribution and the hugely positive impact the Windrush Generation and their descendants have had to make this country stronger.

His Royal Highness Prince Charles, Prince of Wales, visited the Black Cultural Archives in February 2017 and said of the memorial:

It’s so encouraging that now, at last, you have a centre such as this, which allows you to develop so many opportunities but also to bring the message to so many people in this country and elsewhere about the remarkable contribution made over so long, by people of African and Caribbean descent who have contributed so much to this country.

Jak Beula, CEO of the Nubian Jak Trust said:

More than 2 million African and Caribbean Military Servicemen and Servicewomen’s participated in WWI and WWII but have not been recognised for their contribution. The unveiling of this memorial is to correct this historical omission and to ensure young people of African and Caribbean descent are aware of the valuable input their forefathers had in the two world wars.

Paul Reid, Director of the Black Cultural Archives said:

As the national heritage centre dedicated to the preservation of Black history, we will continue to tell the stories of their service and to ensure their contributions and the legacy of this historical narrative becomes part of a more inclusive British history, and remains accessible to all through our archive collection.

Follow #WindrushDay events on Twitter.

The Windrush Foundation designs and delivers heritage projects that highlight African and Caribbean peoples’ contribution to UK life.

The Migration Museum project