The story of HMT Empire Windrush (1930–1954)

Next June will mark the 75th anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Harbour, carrying on board some 800 passengers who gave their last country of residence as somewhere in the West Indies, and many of whom would migrate as workers and would settle in Britain and help steer its economic recovery after the Second World War. But this was only one journey in the vessel’s history and this blog examines its colourful, chequered, and varied life since its maiden voyage was made in 1931 to its sinking in 1954.

Empire Windrush actually started its life as a German vessel called Monte Rosa in December 1930. It was the last of five Monte-class passenger ships built between 1924 and 1930 and operated by the Hamburg Sud Shipping Company. The Monte class ships were all named after mountains in Germany and South America, Monte Rosa being the second highest mountain in the Alps. All five ships were originally intended as emigrant ships sailing to and from Germany and South America but in reality two became German cruise ships, enjoying great success in the 1920s. By 1931 when Monte Rosa was put into service, the cruise industry was struggling after the advent of the Great Depression so for its early years, Monte Rosa became an emigrant ship.

On the outbreak of the Second World War she was converted as a troop ship and deployed for the invasion of Norway in 1940. She was also used for the deportation of nearly fifty Norwegian Jewish people in 1942, the majority of whom would perish in the Nazi concentration camps. In March 1944 she was attacked by the RAF – sustaining at least one torpedo – yet she made safe harbour in Denmark. Only three months later she sustained more damage by a mine explosion, damaging her hull, and then another mine explosion in the Baltic damaged her in February 1945. At the end of the war, she was seized as a prize of war by the British forces, and, in February 1947, she was reassigned as a British troopship, registered in the Port of London, under the new name HMT Empire Windrush, with its official number 18156.

On its arrival at Tilbury on 22 June all 1,027 passengers were met with a media frenzy heralding the beginning of the British multiracial society. It continued as a troopship until 30 March 1954 when she sank in the Mediterranean after an explosion and outbreak of fire.

Only two years prior to its loss, its mechanical reliability had been called into question following a series of complaints leading to a lack of confidence by passengers. On two occasions in the early 1950s the ship had been delayed at Singapore to effect mechanical repairs. One the first occasion, there was a delay of eight days to carry out engine repairs and on the second, the ship was found to have a fractured auxiliary compressor valve and connecting rod.

Her last voyage set sail from Yokohama in Japan in February 1954 and was bound for London with stops at Hong Kong, Singapore, Colombo, Aden and Port Said. It took ten weeks to reach Port Said with nearly 1,500 people on board – 222 crew and 1,276 passengers, including military personnel and some women and children. It sailed from Port Said on 23 March equipped with 22 lifeboats with a total capacity for 1,571 persons. On the morning of 28 March at 6.15am there were reports of three heavy thumps from below decks and the lights in the passage went out. Very thick black smoke was seen coming from the after funnel and very soon after as the fire spread, passengers were ordered to the lifeboats and the order to abandon ship was given at 6.45am. According to reports there was no sign of panic at any time. The Master was the last to leave the vessel at 7.35am. Rescue vessels arrived quickly at the scene and picked up all survivors and landed at Algiers. No lives were lost other than four crew who were killed in the engine room by the blast and fire.

Public inquiry into the loss of the ship Empire Windrush on 28 March 1954, witness statements. Catalogue ref: T 52/129

The Report of the Court of Inquiry into the loss of the Empire Windrush on 27 July 1954 made three recommendations – significantly increasing the number of smoke helmets provided on board cargo and passenger ships; the regular full examination and inspection of uptakes and funnels in all vessels; and the dispersal of emergency controls and connections.

Fires: mv Empire Windrush Inquiry, 1954–1966. Catalogue ref: BT 239/33

The Empire Windrush or Monte Rose was the last surviving Monte-class ships when she sank. The Mote Cervantes sank near Tierra del Fuego in 1930 and the other three were destroyed during operations in the Second World War. Monte Sarmiento and Monte Olivia were both sunk by air raids in Kiel and the Monte Pascoal met a similar fate off the Danish coast in 1945. 

Just as her arrival was reported at Tilbury Harbour 16 years earlier, the media reported her last voyage.

We’ll soon be announcing our plans to mark Windrush 75 – follow our social media channels or sign up to our mailing list to stay in touch and find out more.

This blog has been published to coincide with the United Nations’ International Migrants Day on 18 December.

10 comments

  1. Neil Nicholls says:

    The ship certainly had an interesting history. It is also part of my personal history as I went from the UK to Egypt in 1951? on the ship, with my brother and mother, to join my father in Ismailia. He was in the Royal Air Force.

    I am sure that many service families used the ship, along with many soldiers, some of them badly injured, returning from Korea. So I shall watch with interest to see if the passenger lists for that period become available in the National Archives, or elsewhere.

    Along with the fascinating information about the Windrush generation, the ship certainly figures large in the military history of the UK.

  2. Max Holloway says:

    An excellent & educational read.

    Construction of Monte Rosa in a Jewish shipyard pre-Nazi Germany and early years emigration narrative, are more than interesting when considering the ‘echo’ docking of Empire Windrush at Tilbury in June 1948.

    The blog identifies that arrival as “heralding the beginning of the British multiracial society” and acknowledgement of that pivotal moment in British history, lays behind the campaign to recover the ship’s iconic stern anchor from the Mediterranean… to be a touchstone for future generations.
    http://www.WindrushAnchor.com

  3. Aynsley Brown says:

    A very interesting article about an unremarkable ship that left its name to history.

  4. Bruce Peeke says:

    I think that the tags should list ‘troopships’. This could then include other ‘Empire xxx’ ships, including the Empire Medway on which I returned in late 1951 at the end of my National Service from Mombasa to Southampton via Dar-es Salaam, Mauritius, Aden and Port Sudan. We spent Christmas Day moored in the Great Bitter Lake in the middle of the Suez Canal where there was a fire in the engine room. I believe she was scrapped soon after and was formerly German like the Windrush.

  5. David Hollinshead says:

    I always understood my dad went to Eygpt on Windrush when he did National Service after WW2. I will be very interested to learn more about it.

  6. Janice Locke says:

    Very interesting.
    Like Neil, I too was on the Empire Windrush, heading for Egypt in 1951 with my mother, to join my father (then a Sergeant in the Royal Air Force) in Isamailia. So a very brief part of my life.

  7. Melvyn Evans says:

    As an 8 year old, I travelled on The HMT Empire Windrush with mother in December 1948 to join my father, who was serving in Aden. Does that make me one of the “Windrush Generation “?

  8. Neil Nicholls says:

    Bruce Peake is right. The tags should be expanded to reflect the ship’s full history. After all, the heading of the article covers 1930 to 1954, and just to concentrate on one voyage, albeit one important in the cultural history of the UK, would not do justice. The New Zealand Steamship Company should be another tag.

  9. Kevan Kenny says:

    I was a passenger aboard the Windrush on her final return voyage to UK in 1954. I was 10/11 months old travelling with my parents from Hong Kong. I have been trying for many years to find out where the passenger list is now archived so that I can verify my story. Any help or assistance would be gratefully received.

    1. The National Archives says:

      The last passenger list we have arrived in the UK on 4 December 1953. We don’t have the passenger list from the ship’s very last voyage and the likelihood is that it doesn’t survive, as the vessel never reached its final destination.

      You could try contacting the Archives of the New Zealand Shipping Company which then owned the vessel – these records are in the custody of the NZ National Archives: https://natlib.govt.nz/records/22472244

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