From Tilbury to the pew and pulpit: how the Church met the Empire Windrush

by
22 June 2018

Seventy years after MV Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury, David Muir reflects on the reaction of the Church of the ‘Mother Country’

JIM GROVER

One of the photographs in Jim Grover’s “Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” exhibition

One of the photographs in Jim Grover’s “Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” exhibition

THE “Windrush generation” is a term that has been widely used in the media and political discourse over the past three months. We have told horrific stories of how the children of that generation have lost jobs and livelihoods, been denied health and medical services, and been consigned to detention centres to await deportation to the Caribbean (Comment, 13 AprilNews, 20 April).

The consequences of these British citizens’ shabby treatment were felt at the heart of government. The Prime Minister apologised, and, making a U-turn, agreed to meet Commonwealth leaders from the Caribbean, and apologise and promise that no one would be deported. The Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, having apologised in the House of Commons and distanced herself from her department’s “hostile environment” policy, fell on her sword.

In the political noise from recent weeks, it is important that the achievements of the Windrush generation and their children do not get lost. On Friday, the nation marked the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the MV Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks with a service in Westminster Abbey. The preacher was the Revd Joel Edwards, the first black Pentecostal general director of the Evangelical Alliance, who arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the 1950s, aged eight.

The celebrations have been personal for me: I came to Britain from Guyana in 1966. Walking around Jim Grover’s celebrated exhibition at the OXO Tower — a collection of photographers, “Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” (News, 25 May)I found myself reflecting nostalgically on familiar objects that most Caribbean families had in their homes: the sepia photographs in the uniform frames, and the inexpensive paintings depicting the Last Supper located in an over-colourful and over-crowded “front room”.

For most of my generation, the “front room” was always locked until special visitors came. I found myself looking for that beloved item that my parents — and I suspect other Caribbean parents — kept on top of the wardrobe: the “grip”. This was the suitcase that they brought with them from the Caribbean, with the intention that, after three to five years, they would have made enough money to return home. Alas, the three years turned into five, ten, 20, and, before they knew it, they were retiring in a different Britain from the one that they came to all those years ago.

JIM GROVEROne of the photographs in Jim Grover’s “Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” exhibition

At the exhibition, I was fortunate to meet Alford Gardner, a passenger on the Empire Windrush. In conversation with Grover, he spoke of a “brilliant life” in the UK. Born in Jamaica on 27 January 1926, one of ten children, he was one of many Jamaicans who responded to the call for help from the “Mother Country” during the Second World War. At 17, he joined the RAF as a motor mechanic engineer, and arrived in England in 1944, completing his initial training in Staffordshire before being posted to Moreton-in-Marsh, in Gloucestershire.

His “Certificate of Discharge” (No. 713306) states that his general character during service and on discharge was “Very Good”. and that his work as a mechanic was “above average”. Before returning to Jamaica in time for Christmas 1947, he completed a six-month engineering vocational course in Leeds.

Like another RAF man from Jamaica, Sam King, Alford bought his £28 ticket for his place on the Empire Windrush just a few months later. The ship was taken by the British Navy after the Germans surrendered. King tells us in his autobiography, Climbing Up The Rough Side of the Mountain, that this former German troop ship was “beautifully laid out, well organised”. Some of the fixtures still bore the German “SS” markings.

The Empire Windrush left Jamaica on 24 May 1948 (Empire Day), and finally arrived at Tilbury on 22 June with its 492 predominantly Jamaican passengers seeking a new life in the “Mother Country”.


ON THE day that the Windrush arrived, the London Evening Standard carried the headline “Welcome Home”. A film crew from Pathé News managed to get the Trinidadian calypso singer Lord Kitchener (Aldwyn Roberts) to give a rendition of his new song “London is the place for me”. But, on the same day, 11 Labour MPs wrote to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, complaining about the “discord and unhappiness” that this wave of Caribbean immigrants would cause. The letter read:

 

Dear Prime Minister

May we bring to your notice the fact that several hundreds of West Indians have arrived in this country trusting that our Government will provide them with food, shelter, employment and social services, and enable them to become domiciled here. . . Their success may encourage other British subjects to imitate their example, and this country may become an open reception centre for immigrants not selected in respect to health, education, training, character, customs. . . The British people fortunately enjoy a profound unity without uniformity in their way of life, and are blest by the absence of a colour racial problem. An influx of coloured people domiciled here is likely to impair the harmony, strength and cohesion of our public and social life and to cause discord and unhappiness among all concerned.

 

Two-thirds of the Windrush passengers were, like King and Gardner, ex-servicemen who had fought for Britain during the War. Yet these Labour MPs felt that, in peace time, they were totally unsuited to settling in the “Mother Country” that they had so recently fought for.

The letter set the tone for the prejudice and discrimination that the Caribbean community would subsequently face, a decade before the brutal murder of Kelso Cochrane by a group of white youths in Notting Hill Gate, in May 1959, and two decades before Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, in April 1968.

ALAMYMV Empire Windrush arrives at the Port of Tilbury on 22 June 1948

 

THE archives of the Church Times reveal the post-Windrush Caribbean community’s struggle for acceptance amid discrimination. Headlines included: “Coloured outcasts of Stepney” (9 June 1950); “Stranger in our midst” (18 March 1955); “Expert conference on the integration of West Indians” (10 October 1958); and “Church reaction to restrictions on West Indians” (21 February 1958). But there are also signs of hope: “Ministry of Reconciliation: Christian Britain must welcome immigrants” (29 March 1968).

Behind these headlines were real people in the Church of England struggling to understand and integrate the new immigrants — these “strangers in our midst”. Ten years after the Windrush pioneers settled in Britain, the Children’s Page of the Church Times (10 October 1958) featured a fictional story (some might call it banal and a little sentimental) by Alex Shore, “Black Boy and White”. Promoting multi-culturalism and good race relations in the Church, it tells the tale of a West Indian boy, Jonathan, who is befriended by a white boy, Harry. CHURCH TIMESA story featured in the Children’s Page of Church Times, 10 October 1958  

The West Indian family have recently arrived in the country, and, in a “small village”, Harry and Jonathan attend the same school and church. When the latter falls ill, he is visited by his white friend. Jonathan is so pleased that his friend, “a White boy”, has come to see him that he “began to get well from that day”.

In this story of acceptance and friendship, the boys make and share cultural artefacts for the church bazaar, which pleases the Vicar to such an extent that he arranges for the “West Indian gifts” to be displayed on a “separate stall”.

What is the moral of this tale, the authorial intent? What is Shore really trying to tell his audience about the state of race relations in Church and society, or about interpersonal relations among black and white Christians? The story ends: “Jonathan was happy and so proud of his White friend. And Harry was pleased, for he had told his mother (when he heard of the way in which some Coloured people were being treated) that he would try to make this little West Indian boy happy in his country.”

 

Proposals and suggestions to bring about this “happiness” went beyond the children’s page. In 1951, the British Council of Churches organised a three-day conference to consider racial discrimination. The front page of the Church Times for 6 April that year reads: “Racial discrimination prevails in English cities today: Coloured people’s problems”.

At one of the sessions, chaired by the Bishop of Liverpool, Dr Clifford Martin, accounts of discrimination were given, at a time when signs declaring “No Blacks. No Irish. No Dogs” greeted those seeking accommodation. Fr Neville Palmer SSF, speaking about his work in Stepney with West Indians, recalled: “A young West Indian I know went to a house to ask for a room. The woman who answered the door slammed it so hard in his face that the handle broke off. The Jamaican picked it up and handed it to her. Later, he confessed to me that it was only the fact that he had an aged mother living in the West Indies that prevented him from taking his own life.”

It was not long in the proceedings before the sensitive topic of sexual politics was raised. Fr Neville reported that one West Indian had told him that “the only women they have the chance to meet are outcasts from English society.”

Whether to protect West Indian men, or to keep them away from English women, the solution proposed by this churchman appeared practical, even though it flew in the face of those wanting to restrict immigration from the Caribbean: “To allow men who are married to bring their own wives to this country, and to permit a carefully selected number of Coloured women to come to England, with whom the unmarried might contract marriages and so enjoy a full family life, such as they would have in their own country.”

Not supporting this solution to the pressing problem of “sex relationships among the Coloured people in the East End of London” would, according to Fr Neville, lead to them “making alliances with prostitutes and mentally defectives which can only result in a lower type of mentality in the next generation”.

There were two other matters worth noting from this important gathering. A. H. Richardson, from Liverpool, argued that “there is no such thing as a Coloured problem: rather, there is a ‘White problem’ brought about by the attitude we adopt towards Coloured people in the spheres of human employment and marriage relationships.” For him, it was the question whether all people, regardless of their pigmentation, were accepted as “equals in the sight of God” and in the social and economic system in Britain.

Second, there was the matter of evangelism and the “tentative proposal” that “Coloured people” should have their own churches. In respect of the former, Dr Martin saw the presence of “Coloured and colonial” people as a great opportunity for evangelism. For him, this new home mission field was “every bit as important as that of the missionaries who sail to overseas countries to convert Africans and West Indians”.

On whether black people should have their own churches and live in “self-contained communities”, there was a difference of opinion. The Vicar of Christ Church, Moss Side, the Revd Michael Meredith, supported the idea, having failed to integrate the two communities. But the Rector of Liverpool, the Revd Robert Nelson, opposed it, arguing that the duty of the Church was to bring the two groups together into the worship and life of the community. Anything less than this was a “compromise”, directly “contrary to the Pauline definition of the nature of the Church”, and, equally important in the context of what was taking shape in South Africa, would result in “our own brand of apartheid”.

CHURCH TIMESBishop Paul Burrough, then Chaplain to Overseas Peoples in the diocese of Birmingham, visits a family in the diocese. In 1960, he lived in a caravan, moving to a different parish every month

 

THE Church of England, like many other Churches, was not immune from the racial discrimination that black people experienced. The response was mixed. In some instances, it was exemplary, as in the testimony of Wilfred Wood, the Church’s first black bishop of Caribbean heritage. In his book Faith for a Glad Fool, he recalls his experience as a young man coming to Britain in 1962, and living with an Anglican priest and his family in a “rambling Victorian cottage”. Members of this family, who treated him as one of their own, are described as “magnificent, and they could not have been kinder.”

But the other side of the coin was racism and rejection. Bishop Wood also recalls the experiences of those who arrived in the 1950s, turning up at church only to find that people drew “away from them as though they were contagious”. This, he says, caused people to resort to reading their Bibles at home, eventually joining other churches to pray together.

There is a view that experiences such as these gave rise to the development and growth of Black Majority Churches, but this is only a partial explanation, as many of the leaders of these Churches came to the UK as missionaries. CHURCH TIMESA Church Times report from Birmingham, in April 1960. It described the city as having “ the best record in the country for its treatment of Coloured people”

Anglican political pragmatism is evident in the Convocation of York in January 1959, where a motion dealing with multi-racial communities was altered, lest it be interpreted as opposing the increased number of West Indian immigrants in the country (“Text of motion altered to avoid misunderstanding”, Church Times, 23 January 1959).

In the 1960s, a series of headlines in the Church Times suggested that not a great deal had changed in the integration of black people into churches. Under the headline “London’s Churches Fail W. Indians” (15 November 1963), the paper reported on a study by the Revd Dr Clifford Hill for the Institute of Race Relations: West Indian Migrants and the London Churches. The study described the experience of most West Indians as a “bitter pill” to swallow: “It is like discovering that one’s mother is a liar and a hypocrite.”

Most damning of all was the account of the patronising attitudes of English Christians to black people, and the impact of these on race relations. These views, Dr Hill said, “have done more damage to the cause of racial integration than all the sneers and blasphemies of their English workmates in factory workshops”.

In a 1968 collection of impressions edited by Dr Hill (Race: A Christian symposium) and featured in the Church Times, a West Indian social worker described how, for many Jamaicans who were visiting churches, “the reception he gets as a stranger, the participation of the congregation, are not unlike the weather on a cold and bleak February.”

 

 

THERE are lessons to be learnt from this period about the reception of difference in the Church of England. In 2013, the Archbishop of Canterbury acknowledged the failure to welcome arrivals from the Caribbean, noting that “We did not recognise that we belonged to one another. That we were called by Christ to love one another. And so the Church of England lost the new life that they brought and that God was trying to offer us through them” (News, 25 October 2013).

The national adviser to the Committee for Minority Ethnic Anglican Concerns, Dr Elizabeth Henry, has spoken of the ongoing legacy of these “broken links”.

But there is also much to commend and celebrate. Today, the Church of England has a black Archbishop of York, and some gifted people from the Windrush generation in its fold. These include the Chaplain to the Speaker of House of Commons, Prebendary Rose Hudson-Wilkin; Dr Henry; and the C of E’s first national minority-ethnic vocations officer, Rosemarie Davidson-Gotobed.

They follow in the footsteps of other Caribbean leaders, such as the Revd Hubert Mitchell (chaplain to the West Indian communities in the dioceses of London and Southwark, in the 1960s), and the Revd Ronald Campbell (recruited from Jamaica in the summer of 1958 amid growing racial tensions on the streets of London).

The question for the Church, and for them, is whether its structures and cultures allow them to exercise their gifts and abilities fully for the whole people of God, and not just as window dressing for the Church of England.

Dr. R. David Muir is a Senior Lecturer in Public Theology at Roehampton University and Co-chair of the National Church Leaders Forum (NCLF).

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