February 09, 2011

Feb 9 – The Great Migration of Black People to Britain

I am currently reading a wonderful book, which I highly recommend: The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson. It tells the story of the migration of African-Americans, from the Southern States to Northern ones, over several decades.

Many of you, who are reading this Blog, know that I have lived in London for over twelve years, which seems like a long time; but I am still learning so much about British history. Reading Ms. Wilkerson’s book has led me to wonder about the migration of Black people to Britain.

In the Beginning

Black people in Britain could date back as far as The Roman Empire; but the first mention of a Black person to be in England was, ‘John Blanke, the blacke trumpeter’, who appeared on the payroll of King Henry VIII in 1511. He was an African who was described as ‘wearing the royal livery and mounted on horseback’ as part of the Westminster Tournament Roll.

By the start of the 17th century, many more Black people had arrived in London after being freed from slavery on Spanish ships. This sudden inpouring created so much alarm amongst White Londoners that Queen Elizabeth I decreed that, “all Negros and black Moors were to be arrested and expelled from her Kingdom.”

In the 17th and 18th centuries, slave trading was strong – especially in port cities, such as Liverpool and Bristol. Liverpool is not only home to The Beatles, but also Britain’s oldest Black Community, which formed when slaves became free and set up trade, homes and families. One prominent activist for the early Black community and abolitionist was Nigerian-born, Olaudah Equiano (a.k.a. Gustavus Vassa), a freed slave, merchant, author and explorer.

Olaudah Equiano

The 19th century was a very difficult time for Black people in England, as they experienced terrible racism, including the ‘results’ of a ‘scientific study’ ludicrously claiming that Black people’s brains were smaller – thus making them less intelligent than White people. At that time, Black communities began to decline, and tended to stay settled in dockside cities. By the time World War I occurred, the communities began to thrive somewhat, as more merchant seamen and soldiers arrived. Another prominent member of the Black community was Trinidad-born, Dr. John Alcindor, who had his research on cancer, tuberculosis and influenza published in The British Medical Journal; and was a vocal proponent for equal rights for Black people in the early 20th century.

Dr. John Alcindor

The Great Migration – MV Empire Windrush

When World War II started, the Black population in Britain was 15,000. By the time World War II ended, Britain was rebuilding and had a labor shortage.  The Nationality Act of 1948 was also passed, at the time, giving all subjects of the British Empire the right to British citizenship and to settle in Britain.

The British government decided to recruit people from The Caribbean to address the need for laborers, so an ad was placed in Jamaican newspaper, The Daily Gleaner, to say that 300 passage berths to England would be available, on the MV Empire Windrush, for the sum of £28.50 (approximately $115.00 US Dollars in 1948) per passenger. The economy was weak in The West Indies, so competition was fierce for those 300 places.  In the end, The Windrush sailed to England, in May 1948, with 492 passengers and 6 stowaways on board – all with the hope of a better life. Unsurprisingly, most of the passengers were young men (including many ex-servicemen) who would be able to handle the hard labor. Some left their families behind, with the promise that they would send for them – if not return home to Jamaica – when it was financially possible. 

MV Empire Windrush docking at Tilbury

The Windrush docked at Tilbury, in Essex, in June 1948. Some people, in the government, raised the question as to their authority to migrate, so it was a difficult start. Of those who did not acquire manual labor jobs, some were able to reenlist in the Armed Forces; and still others found jobs in the public sector which offered them reasonably well-paid work such as in hospitals, the Post Office, London Transport and the railways.

The other issue was finding places for the new arrivals to live. The government was initially forced to house 230 Windrush settlers in a deep air raid shelter in Clapham Common (South London). The nearest labor exchange to the shelter was Brixton, so as a result, many of the settlers set up home there, making it one of Britain's first Caribbean communities and today, quite multicultural.  Other settlers managed to find rooms in homes of the more open-minded war widows and wives of servicemen still abroad, who had to take in boarders to make ends meet.  An award-winning book by Andrea Levy, entitled Small Island, tells one such story. The book was also made into a BBC film, which received critical acclaim

The arrival of The Windrush was the start of The Great Migration from The Caribbean to Britain, which peaked in 1961, when 66,000 migrated, just before The Commonwealth Immigrants Bill was passed in 1962. Today, the Black population (a.k.a. Afro-Caribbean today) in the UK is estimated at 1.5 million, which is just over 1% of the total British population. Seventy percent of Afro-Caribbeans are concentrated in multicultural London; and the world-renowned, multicultural Notting Hill Carnival, is one of the largest festivals in the world, enjoyed by hundreds of thousands, each year, by visitors from across the globe.

Notting Hill Carnival

Many of The Windrush settlers still live in Britain; and while it was a rather shaky start for them, they have managed to thrive with their families and have helped to make especially the major cities, such as London, to be wonderful melting pots, which, for the most part, simmer along fairly nicely.

Windrush Settlers 60 Years Later

Sources: Wikipedia, National Archives, The Sun, Black Presence, Google Images


  1. Absolutely a wonderful and informative read that I thoroughly enjoy and will share with my children this evening. Zena, your blog is fascinating as well as enlightening.

    Thank you for taking your passion of reading and exploring to sharing. Please catapult the blog to the next level next year. I'll assist however you see fit for me to do so.

    With love, respect and admiration. Your friend,


  2. Thank you so much, Urs! I can't tell you how much that means to me. Love, Z