Empire Windrush – 70 years on
22nd June 2018 is the 70th anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush, which transported large numbers of men from the Caribbean to the UK. The men had been encouraged to travel to the UK to fill the job vacancies which had sprung up during the post war period.
Although the Windrush arrived in 1948, it wasn’t until 1954 that significant numbers of immigrants from the Caribbean began to settle in Ipswich; the first immigrants were single men, or men who had made the journey without their families. Many of these men were employed by Ipswich engineering firms which were thriving and keen to recruit staff. Suffolk Archives Ipswich branch houses a metal cabinet crammed with newspaper cuttings, dating from the 1950s. One of these files, marked simply “Immigrants” presents a picture of the immigrants’ lives in Ipswich seventy years ago. These cuttings detail experiences which took place hours or days before the newspaper went to print; the documents suggest that public figures used the letters page of the local press as a rapid means of sharing their views with the Ipswich community.
In November 1954 the EADT reported “Since May,  a steady stream of immigrants from the West Indies have been settling down in Ipswich to find a job and a home, and the town has become one of three main centres with London and Birmingham of coloured “gravitation” in Britain.”
Mr Fisher, Manager of the Employment Exchange reported that “We have had about 180 of the young men at our offices, and we have managed to fit them into the diversity of Ipswich industry. A handful have packed up again and moved elsewhere.”
In another article, Mr Fisher stated that most West Indians had been taken on the pay rolls of two major engineering firms, Ransomes, Sims & Jefferies and Crane’s Limited. Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies produced a wide range of agricultural machinery, which was exported across the world and Crane’s manufactured iron pipe fittings and bronze and steel valves. Mr Dawson, Works Director at RSJ reported that “We have about 60 of these West Indians in unskilled and semi skilled jobs, for which we have given them the necessary training”.
In May 1956 the Suffolk Chronicle and Mercury updated readers: Mr Fisher reported that when the West Indians first arrived they were mainly placed in engineering works. “.. now…. they have jobs in nearly all the differing industries in the area and some of them are even trying to break into agriculture.” Mr Fisher estimated that there were about 450 to 500 immigrants in the town at that point.
Catherine, who was interviewed for the Ipswich Caribbean Experience project in 2005 recalled that her husband was informed “that he could go to Crane’s Ltd and he would always get … a job there, which he did the next morning.” Other immigrants were employed in the warehouses of Burton, Son and Sanders Ltd (suppliers of bakery ingredients) and in the timber yards of William Brown Ltd.
Several of the articles note that housing was a major challenge, with many workers living in hostels. Albert, who was interviewed in 2005 for the Ipswich Caribbean Experience project remembered that housing was “dire, very dire. You couldn’t get anywhere to live. …..we had ten, fifteen, twenty chaps living three in a room, so housing was very difficult.”
The Ipswich Caribbean Society
In early 1955 three young Ipswich men – Kenneth Glass, Pat Collinson and Ted Reynolds – arranged a party for West Indians in the town. Mr Glass stated that “The purpose was to provide an opportunity for British West Indians to meet Ipswich folk from the churches generally”. He was keen to stress that the possibility of a future fellowship “will depend on the West Indians themselves.”
The immigrants were welcomed at the party by the Mayor, the Rev Bird (the president of the Ipswich Free Church Council), Mr Onions, Secretary of the Ipswich YMCA and Mr Dee (Secretary of the International Friendship League.) Rev Bird stated that “This town has been made more fascinating and more beautiful by the coming of your people from the West Indies. We hope you are going to be tremendously happy in our midst” (EADT 24/1/1955)
Shortly after the party, the Ipswich Caribbean Society was established. It was reported that the Society would take on responsibility for accommodation and welfare matters. Committees were established to address housing, sports and social activities. A number of West Indians were appointed as office bearers or committee members. By March 1956 the Society was holding weekly socials in the Unitarian Church Hall; it was also running evening classes and a welfare service. (EADT 19/3/1956)
The Rendezvous Restaurant
The cuttings file also documents a dispute which arose when a West Indian man was asked to leave the Rendezvous Restaurant in Tackett Street on 10th February 1956. He was part of a church group who had advised the restaurant that a black man would be present. Norah Annie May Collins–Sniechouska, the owner of the restaurant defended her actions in a letter to the local press which included the questions: “How many of my patrons would really think my restaurant was of “the right type” if it was the regular haunt of coloured people? How many people in Ipswich really prefer to eat their meals at the same table as a coloured person?”
In response, the Ipswich Trades Council passed a resolution “That this meeting strongly deplores the action of the Rendezvous Restaurant and any other restaurant operating a colour bar and calls upon the general public and all visiting Forces to dissociate themselves from this and any other manifestation of the colour bar”. (EADT 25/2/1956) The file includes letters from the International Friendship League, members of St John’s Livingstone Fellowship and private individuals, abhorring the action of the restaurant owner.
Anyone interested in viewing the cuttings file or any other material relating to the experience of the Windrush generation in Ipswich should contact Suffolk Archives Ipswich branch.
The National Archives website holds registrations for some 380,000 individuals who registered their British citizenship in the UK, the majority of them being Commonwealth immigrants who arrived in the UK between 1948 and 1971. See their website for further details https://blog.nationalarchives.gov.uk/blog/empire-windrush-70-years/