Why Windrush Day is so crucial to the people of South London

Low tunnels under Clapham South Tube station – empty but for some bunk beds and scattered furniture – are a crucial landmark to why Windrush Day is so important to South Londoners.

They were home and shelter for a few vital months for many of the families which ended up staying here after arriving on these shores in His Majesty’s Troopship Empire Windrush.

The shelters were built between 1940 and 1942 and were used to house up to 8,000 people during the air raids of the V-1 and V-2 bombs in the latter years of the war.

The tunnels closed in May 1945 and was subsequently used as a military and civilian hostel.

The subterranean shelters also housed Jamaican people who arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush in 1948 as well as in 1951 during the Festival of Britain, providing accommodation for large numbers of tourists and children who arrived in London.

Many of the newly arrived families used the nearest Labour Exchange, in Brixton, to find the work they craved – as their native Jamaica was suffering a recession. And a large portion ended up finding jobs and homes there.

On that first trip, the ship’s records show 802 passengers gave their last place of residence as a country in the Caribbean.

Among the passengers was Sam Beaver King, who was travelling to the UK to rejoin the RAF. He would later help found the Notting Hill Carnival and become the first black Mayor of Southwark. There were also the calypso musicians Lord Kitchener, Lord Beginner, Lord Woodbine and Mona Baptiste.

RAF officer John Henry Clavell Smythe, on the ship as a welfare-officer, later became Attorney General of Sierra Leone. Also on board was Nancy Cunard, heiress to the Cunard shipping fortune, who was on her way back from Trinidad.

Former teacher Laura Steele of education resources experts PlanBee explains that those who took the brave decision to leave their homes in the Caribbean in 1948 laid the foundations of modern Britain.

In 1948, Britain was just beginning to recover from the devastating effects of the Second World War. Cities across the country had been badly bombed, and there were many public buildings and homes that needed to be rebuilt. However, there was a huge shortage of labour. During the war, almost 265,000 military men and women, and 67,000 civilians had been killed, with a further 284,000 wounded. The working-age population had been greatly depleted.

To deal with the shortage of working-age men and women, the British government decided to encourage people from the British colonies to migrate to the UK. The British Nationality Act of 1948 gave everyone who lived in the UK, or any of the British colonies around the world, the same rights to live and work in the UK. British colonies included many of the Caribbean islands, including the Bahamas, Barbados, Trinidad and Jamaica.

HMT Empire Windrush

On 15th April 1948, a small advertisement was placed in a newspaper announcing a ‘passenger opportunity’ to sail from Jamaica to the UK on the HMT Empire Windrush. The price of a ‘troop deck’ ticket was £28 (equivalent to around £1,000 now).

Around 500 Jamaicans bought tickets for the HMT(Her Majesty’s Transport) Empire Windrush. At the time, Jamaica’s economy was struggling, and the island was still feeling the effects of a devastating hurricane a few years earlier. Many decided to accept the British government’s invitation to come and live and work in Britain, with the hope of a better, more prosperous life. Some of those who bought tickets did so because they had served in the British armed forces during the war and now wanted to rejoin. Others were simply curious to see the ‘Motherland’.

Many of the Windrush passengers were men, but there were also women and children making the crossing. The occupations of those travelling to Britain ranged from mechanics, carpenters and engineers to boxers, actresses and a piano repairer.

The 8,000 mile journey from the Caribbean to Tilbury Docks in Essex took 30 days. The Windrush dropped anchor on 21st June, 1948. Many of the new arrivals stayed in the capital, finding employment with the NHS and London Transport, and settling into homes in Brixton and Clapham.

The arrival of the Windrush passengers was a landmark event and it marked the start of many more people from British colonies, including India, migrating to the UK.

Many of those who had migrated only planned to stay in Britain for a few years before moving on, but a large number ended up settling permanently, having families, and considering Britain their home. This has resulted in the vibrant, diverse and multicultural modern-day society we have today.


The Windrush, originally MV (“Motor Vessel”) Monte Rosa, was a passenger liner and cruise ship launched  on 13 December 1930 in Germany, with single-class passenger accommodation of 1,150 in cabins and 1,350 in dormitories. It was designed for the growing middle-class holiday market, offering cheap accommodation to families on cruises.

She was operated as part of the state-owned Kraft durch Freude (Strength Through Joy) programme, which provided leisure activities and cheap holidays.

When visiting South America, the ship was used to spread Nazi ideology among the German-speaking community there. When in port in Argentina, she hosted Nazi rallies for German-Argentine people. In 1933, the new German ambassador, Baron Edmond von Thermann (in German), arrived in Argentina on the Monte Rosa. He disembarked in front of an enthusiastic crowd wearing an SS uniform; he would spend his time in office promoting Nazi ideology. The ship was also used to host Nazi gatherings when docked in London.

During World War II she was operated by the German navy as a troopship, for the invasion of Norway in April 1940. She was later used as an accommodation and recreational ship attached to the battleship Tirpitz, stationed in the north of Norway, from where Tirpitz and her flotilla attacked the Allied convoys en route to Russia. In 1942, she was one of several ships used for the deportation of Norwegian Jewish people, carrying a total of 46 people from Norway to Denmark, including the Polish-Norwegian businessman and humanitarian Moritz Rabinowitz. Of the 46 deportees carried on Monte Rosa, all but two died in Auschwitz concentration camp.

On 30 March 1944, Monte Rosa was attacked by British and Canadian Bristol Beaufighters close to the Norwegian island of Utsira. The RCAF and RAF crews claimed two torpedo hits on Monte Rosa; the ship was also struck by eight rockets and by cannon fire. One German Messerschmitt Bf 110 fighter was claimed shot down and two Beaufighters were lost. The two crew of one aircraft were killed, the crew of the other survived to become prisoners of war Despite her damage, Monte Rosa was able to reach Aarhus in Denmark on 3 April.

At the end of the war, she was taken by the British Government as a prize of war and renamed the Empire Windrush. In British service, she continued to be used as a troopship until March 1954, when the vessel caught fire and sank in the Mediterranean Sea with the loss of four crew.

In June 1944, Norwegian resistence fighters Max Manus and Gregers Gram, attached Limpet mines to Monte Rosa’s hull while the ship was in Oslo harbour as it was prepared to carry 3,000 German troops back to Germany. The pair had bluffed their way into the dock area by posing as electricians, then hid for three days before attaching their mines. The mines detonated when the ship was near Øresund, damaging the hull.

In September 1944, 200 people died on board – to save the ship.

The vessel was damaged by another explosion, possibly from a mine. A Norwegian boy with German parents, Odd Claus, who was being forcibly taken to Germany, was one of those on board when this happened. In his 2008 memoirs, he wrote that it was carrying German troops, but Norwegian women with young children, who were being taken to Germany as part of the notorious plot to make the race more Aryan – the Lebensborn programme. The ship’s captain closed the watertight bulkhead doors to control flooding and stop the ship from sinking – and that is how the passengers died.

After its Windrush generation service, it was used to transport troops from the Korean War.

At around 6:15 am on Sunday 28 March, after it had docked in Port Said, Egypt, there was a sudden explosion and fierce fire in the engine room that killed the third engineer, two other members of the engine-room crew and the first electrician.

The rest of the 1,541 people on board were successfully evacuated and the still blazing ship was towed towards Gibraltar. The ship sank on Tuesday, 30 March 1954, after having been towed a distance of only around 16 kilometres. The wreck lies at a depth of around 2,600 m.





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