Behind every great city are the extraordinary efforts and contributions of its inhabitants. London is a place of constant change and renewal, and each generation and wave of migration brings something new. Diversity is one of our city’s greatest assets and with London celebrating Black History Month it’s particularly important that we take the opportunity to honour the contributions and achievements of the Windrush Generation.
It’s important too to reclaim the narrative. The ongoing calamity of the government’s “hostile environment” has caused such needless and undignified suffering for people who have given so much. People who – quite literally – built our city have been met with unforgivable cruelty. Consequently, so much of what we now see in the media relates to the devastating cases of people who have built their lives here and have been treated so poorly by the Home Office, that we risk losing sight of their rich achievements and deep sacrifice.
It has been over 70 years since HMT Empire Windrush arrived in Tilbury from the Caribbean. These arrivals were the first wave in the UK’s post-war drive to employ people from the Commonwealth to address labour shortages in public services such as the NHS. The NHS has long had a ravenous appetite for workers from abroad. Figures from 1977 suggest that 12 per cent of all midwifes and student nurses in the UK were recruited overseas, with 66 per cent of those coming from the Caribbean.
I came to Britain as a child from Monserrat. As an adult I followed in the footsteps of more than half a million people who answered the call to save our then ailing health services and went on to work as a nurse. I know all too well the contribution my generation made – and the need for effective public recognition.
Crucially, it’s a history that also needs to be told from the perspective of the people who made it: a story being told compellingly across the country in events at venues such as the British Library, the University of London and – in the case of the women who made the NHS – Manchester’s Z-Arts Theatre, where the story of three generations of Caribbean women in the health service can be heard. The impact the Windrush Generation had on the NHS is being heard from the perspective of the Windrushers, and let this be a reminder to us all that our stories won’t be told unless we come together and tell them.
The Windrush Generation didn’t only care for our sick, of course. Its members became active across every sector, at every level. One of the most visible manifestations of this was on London’s transport network. Men and women were recruited directly from Barbados, at the invitation of the island’s government, to work as bus conductors, underground staff and canteen assistants. To put it in the words of Eric da Costa Thompson, who came independently from Barbados, “We were not just sweeping the platform. The next stop was to become a guard then a motorman (train driver) then an inspector.”
London Transport was the first organisation in the UK to operate a scheme recruiting staff from the Caribbean. TfL’s workforce has continued to reflect the capital’s changing population and growing diversity, where Poles and Pakistanis work side-by-side with Brits and Bajans. In the late 1950s, this recruitment scheme helped influence other public sector employers – notably British Rail and the NHS – to promote workplace diversity. Figures from 1968 estimated that London Transport had about 9,000 black staff employed in a workforce of 73,000. Many Transport for London staff today are the sons, daughters and grandchildren of the Windrush pioneers.
From TfL to the health service and beyond, we all owe a great debt to those who made and remade our great city. Black History Month may be synonymous with prominent historical figures such as Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou and Martin Luther King, but London continues to have its own story to tell. The advantages enjoyed by us all were bestowed by the contributions and resilience of the women and men of the Windrush.
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