The land of milk and honey?

In the late 1940s many West Indians travelled to Britain seeking employment. This diaspora, commonly known as the Windrush Generation, has received some attention under the historical spotlight. However, following the uncovering of the Windrush scandal by Guardian journalist Amelia Gentleman, the glare of historical investigation has increased.

Yet scant if any consideration at all has been paid to West Indians who, after arriving in England between 1947 and 1948 respectively and following a period of severe distress, decided to return home. This blog post will provide a small insight into the experiences of three Jamaicans who returned to Jamaica in March 1949.

On 29 March 1949, Acting Corporal Lawrence from Kingston Water police station arrested three men after they cleared immigration. Later that day, all three appeared before His Worship Mr E A Issa JP at the Petty Sessions Court on a charge of stowing away on the SS Jamaica Producer from London to Kingston, Jamaica. After two days of sailing out of London, they were discovered by crew members. Although they were in breach of the law, whether they were prosecuted or not rested on the captain’s discretion. Being aware of this, the stowaways wrote him a letter begging for mercy in which they also detailed the reasons for stowing away on his ship.

A list of passenger names for the Jamaica Producer.
A list of passengers for the Jamaica Producer. Catalogue ref: BT 27/1640

All three were unemployed, homeless and underwent long periods without adequate sustenance. Being incredibly destitute, they claimed to have continuously requested help from the Colonial Office, but to no avail. One of the men also spoke to a newspaper reporter and provided him with more details of his plight.

Lorraine Rochester, a 21-year-old former temporary government clerk, could only find three weeks and two days work in England. For a short period, he slept on a kitchen floor. On New Year’s Day, 1949, Mr Rochester found himself on a snowy Waterloo Bridge and spent time living in bombed-out buildings. This experience left Lorraine and his fellow stowaways looking old, dirty and extremely dishevelled.

Appearing in court following their arrival in Kingston, all three sported extremely long beards and wild haircuts due to ‘heads that had not seen the barber for some time’ 1. Their appearances belied the nattily dressed men who had previously travelled to England in 1947 and 1948. Radio engineer Edmund Hudson and motor mechanic Michael Elliot paid for their passage on the SS Almanzora 2 and Lorraine Rochester paid for his passage on the SS Empire Windrush 3.

List of passenger names for the Empire Windrush.
List of passengers for the Empire Windrush. Catalogue ref: BT 26/1237/91

Images of men disembarking the SS Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks on 22 June 1948 portray well-dressed young men full of hope for the better life they sought in England. The Grays and Thurrock Gazette highlighted how they were ‘dressed in an odd assortment of clothes, many wearing ties of dazzling designs’ 4. The Daily Mirror highlighted the expensive clothing worn by many of the Windrush passengers. It noted that ‘there were even emigrants wearing zoot-style suits – very long-waisted jackets, big padded shoulders, slit pockets, and peg top trousers costing £15 to £20’. Some of these suits were purchased in America, where it was possible to earn £18 a week in factories supporting the American war effort 5. A lot of the suits were made out of high-quality Canadian blankets given to the Windrush passengers for bedding 6. Regardless of how or where these suits were obtained, they defined respectability and may have possibly enhanced prospective employment opportunities 7. Possessing an expensive-looking suit, however, was not a guarantee of gaining a job.

Less than two weeks before Windrush landed at Tilbury the Minister of Labour, George Isaacs, speaking in the House of Commons, gave no assurances that work could be found for West Indian migrants arriving on Windrush 8. Passengers who arrived on the Almanzora in the previous December found it extremely difficult to find work.

List of passengers for the Almanzora.
List of passengers for the Almanzora. Catalogue ref: BT 26/1231

Allan Wilmot served in the Royal Navy, Royal Air Force Marine Section. After returning to Jamaica after the Second World War and finding no opportunities at home, he returned to England on the Almanzora in December 1947. The country was in a state of rebuilding and the thought process of returning Jamaicans was that they could easily find a trade to get them started and gain employment. This was false hope and was just as problematic for them as was finding somewhere to live.

Unfortunately those men who previously served in the forces found it hard to find accommodation. Some men had contacts in various parts of the country. Those like Mr Wilmot and some of his friends were met with hostility. Their previous stay in England was in uniform and, as such, accommodation was readily available. Now when seeking somewhere to stay the signs in the windows said ‘No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish’.

Having arrived in December 1947, it was bitterly cold, and having nowhere to stay, Mr Wilmot and a friend would leave their belongings in left luggage and travel up and down the tube network all night. Other ex-servicemen provided them with blankets to keep warm. Wilmot soon found a job washing dishes in the Cumberland Hotel in London’s Marble Arch 9. Of course he was one of the lucky ones. There is no indication that the other Almanzora passengers mentioned in this post secured any kind of employment at all.

Unemployment was the reason these gentlemen, alongside Lorraine Rochester, who were all paying passengers on their respective ships sailing to England, decided to stow away back to Jamaica. Ironically, if they had successfully stowed away on their initial voyages in 1947 and 1948, they would have been sent to prison and, on release, would’ve been able to get on with their lives. Thirty-one stowaways on the SS Almanzora, on their release from HMP Winchester, received clothing coupons, ration books, accommodation and employment. They also received clothing and shoes from a prisoner’s aid charity in Southampton. Their illegal travel had paid rewarding dividends, in contrast to the SS Jamaica Producer stowaways returning home to Kingston, Jamaica. They faced imprisonment and the shame of failure, dishonouring their families, and possible eternal unemployment.

Notes:

  1. Essex Record Office SA 69/1/12/1. Interview with Allan Wilmot 3.5.2018.
  2. BT 26/1231/41.
  3. BT 26/1237/91.
  4. The Grays and Thurrock Gazette 23.6.1948.
  5. The Daily Mirror 23.6.1948.
  6. Stuart Maconie, ‘The Peoples Songs: The Story of Modern Britain in 50 Records’, Ebury Press (London, 2014) p 61.
  7. Rianna Norbert-David, ‘The Psychology of Windrush Style‘, accessed 3.11.2021.
  8. The Daily Gleaner 9.6.1948.
  9. Essex Record Office SA 69/1/12/1. Interview with Allan Wilmot 3.5.2018.

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