The Myth of Caribbeans Helping to 'Rebuild' Post-War Britain

In the 1980s, a strange story began to circulate about the immigrants who came to Britain from the Caribbean Islands in the post-war years: the so-called ‘Windrush Generation’. It conveyed the notion that their arrival in this country was motivated by an altruistic desire to help ‘rebuild’ Britain after the ravages of the Second World War. According to this reading, all those men and women from Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and other parts of the Caribbean came not in search of a better life for themselves, but rather at the invitation of the British government, which was desperate for their help due to a shortage of personnel to operate buses and work in hospitals. This false perspective is now the prevailing and accepted narrative concerning Caribbean immigration to Britain. A good summary of this idea is found in a presentation delivered at the British Library in London a few years ago. Titled How Caribbean Migrants Helped to Rebuild Britain, we are told that, “after World War Two, Britain was a country short of workers and needed to rebuild its weakened economy,” and that, “in the service sector, both men and women workers were needed to run public transport and to staff the new National Health Service (NHS).”

This extraordinary idea, that Britain invited immigrants from the West Indies to fill jobs for which no British workers were available, is now taught in schools during Black History Month, and may be found in many children’s books. The ‘Windrush Generation’ saved our country from ruin. Invariably, public transport is mentioned, and we are reminded of all the black drivers and bus conductors working for London Transport in the 1950s. The problem is, of course, that there is not a word of truth in all this. The sole beneficiaries of this immigration were the immigrants themselves and the countries from which they came. Britain gained nothing from the whole business. Examining one aspect of the matter in detail will demonstrate the truth of the matter, and since public transport is the one example that is always cited, perhaps this might be a good place to begin.

The story as it is now told is that London Transport was very short of staff, and so they turned to the West Indies and began recruiting people there. In other words, they invited immigrants to come and fill vacant positions for which they could not find enough British workers. The truth is almost exactly the opposite of this. While London Transport did experience some difficulty finding enough staff in the late 1940s and early 1950s, they solved this not by turning to the Caribbean, but to Ireland, Scotland, and the north of England. This worked very well. By the mid-1950s, ten years after the end of the war, things had stabilised. This was not at all the case in the Caribbean though. Islands like Barbados and Jamaica were experiencing increasing unemployment, which brought with it the threat of poverty, social unrest, and political violence. The governments of those nations were anxious to reduce unemployment and the best way of doing this was to send unemployed men to Britain. This is what led to the recruitment of black workers by London Transport, rather than any inherent need to import West Indians.

In 1955, worried about soaring unemployment, the government of Barbados contacted London Transport and asked them to come to the island to recruit staff. So keen was the government of Barbados to send their unemployed citizens to another country that they even offered to pay the fares of those taking up jobs with London Transport. Two things are worth considering here. First, this request from the Barbadian government was made ten years after the end of World War II, when Britain was more or less back on an even keel. Second, we note that it was the Caribbean nation which initiated the scheme in order to solve a problem which they faced. It was not that Britain particularly wanted immigrants from that part of the world; this was being done as a favour to a Commonwealth country.

The truth is, Britain did not invite immigrants from the West Indies to come to this country, nor did they want them. It is suggested that the very first of the ‘Windrush Generation’, those who arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush itself in June 1948, had come in response to advertisements for jobs they had seen in Caribbean newspapers. This is quite untrue. From 1947 onwards, men from the Caribbean had been stowing away on ships to England in the hope of finding work. There was not enough work in Jamaica and Barbados and some of these travellers faced starvation if they remained in their own country. Following the passing of the 1948 British Nationality Act, those living in the islands of the Caribbean who wished to come and live in Britain realised that there was no impediment to their doing so. In the April 6th issue of the Jamaican Daily Gleaner, tickets to Britain were advertised on the Empire Windrush, and hundreds of people bought them with a view to settling in this country. No offers of work were made in the advertisement.

The large numbers of West Indian immigrants who flocked to Britain in the 1940s and 1950s were not encouraged to come here. The truth is that they had poor prospects if they remained in their own countries and thought that they might do better in Britain. The idea that we organised or promoted this immigration and that it was advantageous to this country, is a myth that only appeared as late as the 1980s. It has now, for political reasons, become established as historical fact, and those who question it are denounced as racists.