What the Windrush Scandal Meant to My Family

Reflections from a mixed heritage family on generational trauma and allyship

Author’s image: Installation at Tilbury Port by Eve Wright titled Tilbury Bridge, Walkway of Memories

The Windrush scandal, in case you don’t know, was a political scandal that had its roots in the period between 1948 and the early 1970s. The British government encouraged and *invited* Commonwealth citizens to come to the country and help the ‘Motherland’ out as it struggled with post-war labour shortages.

The generation known as ‘Windrush’ was named for the ship Empire Windrush which sailed from Jamaica and docked at Tilbury in Essex on the 22nd of June 1948. Incidentally, all the photos in this article are from the author’s visit to an installation of memorabilia from the Windrush generation, created on one of the original walkways at the Port of Tilbury

These vintage photographs of the passengers leaving the ship have become an indelible visual record of Britain’s social history and that of my own family. Over time, the Windrush generation came to refer to that whole movement of people from the Caribbean.

These were people like my mother-in-law and father-in-law, who came over from Jamaica and Dominica respectively, to work in various infrastructure sectors such as the newly formed NHS and public transport. My in-laws worked in the Post Office and an engineering firm. As citizens of the Commonwealth, they were deemed British subjects and had an automatic right to live and work in the UK.

Despite being encouraged to come over, the Windrush generation were not particularly welcomed. People faced discrimination and outright aggression in some cases. Many people who had travelled over were young. My mother-in-law was a young teenager. My father-in-law, under twenty years old. England was a very different place from what they were used to.

As a side note, my grandparents were immigrants from Turkey in the late 1930s. My grandmother told me she had never seen anything like the countryside that she did on her train journey from Dover to London. She said that everything seemed so small and dirty due to the steam trains, factories and coal fire smoke. In fact, when she got off the train in London, she wanted nothing more than to hide behind a pillar so that my grandfather (who had travelled ahead) would not find her and then she could back home to Istanbul.

My grandmother was lucky with someone to meet her. Windrush travellers were often alone. It’s also worth pointing out that my grandmother was white, like me. Neither of us would ever have the lived experience of being Black and the racism and discrimination that goes with it. For more insight into what that means, I’d highly recommend you read this article by Tré Ventour.

The Windrush scandal reared its ugly head in 2017. As part of the previous Home Secretary, Theresa May’s hostile environment to immigrants, launched in 2012 it began to emerge ‘that hundreds of Commonwealth citizens, many of whom were from the ‘Windrush’ generation, had been wrongly detained, deported and denied legal rights.

The journalist Amelia Gentleman, ‘investigated and began reporting their experiences. As these shocking stories hit the headlines, Caribbean leaders took the issue up with then-prime minister, Theresa May. There was widespread shock and outrage at the fact that so many Black Britons had had their lives devastated by Britain’s deeply flawed and discriminatory immigration system.’

I have a copy of the subsequent book The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman. I haven’t read it all. Each story pierces my heart. The stories are of state cruelty to human beings. Elderly people were detained. Some were deported. Some were denied healthcare and refused their pensions and benefits. Others lost their homes. People suffered unbearably. Some people have died. It is a stain on the country’s conscience. How Theresa May sleeps straight in her bed, I will never know.

It all came down, in the end, to stupid bits of paperwork. Just as the Home Office demand that refugees seeking asylum in the UK today need all the paperwork as a ruse to keep people out, so they demanded from the Windrush generation a paper trail from the 1950s onwards to ‘prove’ they arrived legally.

Many people didn’t have these documents. Do you have documents going back over 50 years of your life, pre-digitisation? I know I don’t. The Home Office then used the many insurmountable difficulties people had providing this paper trail as a reason to detain them as in the heartbreaking case of House of Commons cook Paulette Wilson who lived and worked in the UK for 50 years. Rest in Power Paulette. Your name will not be forgotten in my family.

So what the Windrush Scandal meant for me was the dread question I asked my partner in the kitchen one day.

“Does your mum have a UK passport or a Jamaican one?”

Author’s image: Installation at Tilbury Port by Eve Wright titled Tilbury Bridge, Walkway of Memories

I asked with true fear. My mother-in-law worked as a cook for a large Post Office sorting centre in North London. She worked nights. She raised two children. She arrived in the UK, not on a ship, but on a plane, alone aged 14 or 15. She would not be someone who prioritised paperwork because she would have been busy surviving in the day to day world.

Thankfully, all was well. She has raised two great children who look after her. Her paperwork was in order. She was one of the lucky ones. My family were not affected by the deep trauma of the Windrush Scandal. But many many were and it is to them I dedicate this article.

What we were reminded of, haunted by might not be too strong a word, was the fear of expendability that the State, the British Government can create in citizens, particularly those who are Black Britons.

So what now? What is this about allyship in the title? Isn’t the Windrush Scandal old news?

Absolutely not.

For me, allyship is about amplifying what happened to people like Paulette Wilson. Not forgetting. It’s also about saying, this is still going on. The racist British state didn’t just stop its discriminatory behaviour against people from the Caribbean (and other countries too) because it got caught out with the Windrush Scandal.

And on the Windrush Scandal, it’s still going on. The government set up a fund for the victims, but of course, it’s dragging its heels in paying anyone any compensation at all. Even the government’s sources say only 25% of people have received a payment, but it could be fewer.

According to this report, up to 15,000 people were potentially affected. Until recently, four years after all this came to light, only 5% of people had received any compensation. At the time of the report, twenty-three people eligible for compensation had died. One of those people was Paulette Wilson. Remember, the woman in her sixties who had come here as a child but lost her home, and her pension and was detained and threatened with deportation.

Paulette Wilson did not get justice. She has the same surname as my mother in law. She sticks in my mind, along with the others who were cheated of their rights as citizens and died no doubt in part as a result of the stress and trauma they were put through.

To salve what’s presumably left of their consciences the Government have commissioned a Windrush Memorial Statue for Waterloo Station in London. It’s not for me to comment on that. Apparently, and understandably it has divided the Caribbean community.

Given what they’ve been put through, I think we need a memorial to those people who were victims of the Windrush Scandal. I am glad Paulette Wilson has hers in the form of a blue plaque on the wall of what used to be the infamous Rivers of Blood speechifier Enoch Powell’s office. Nice work.

As allies, we need to remember all their names. We need to not forget. We also need to understand the consequences of our actions as voters. The hostile environment policy was created by politicians that have been voted in. Government policy affects lives. We see that in the experiences of those innocent people caught up in the Windrush Scandal. We have seen that during the pandemic, where elderly and disabled people have been sacrificed.

Please never think or say your vote does not count. It counts as much as your life. And through the policies of the government that you vote in, your vote can affect the lives of people you will never know or meet.

Please vote. And please think hard about who it is you are voting for and what policy platform they stand on before you do.

The author and her youngest daughter on the Walkway of Memories, Tilbury Dock, 2021

This is still going on. People are still being deported back to Jamaica when their whole lives are in Britain. We are told this only happens to so-called criminals, but this is patently untrue. The inhumane Hostile Environment continues and it is enacted by the Conservative Government that the country, which I am frankly often ashamed to live in, voted for.

Author’s note: I was going to write this as a piece of text for my research studies, to illustrate the point that all research is personal. The problem with that is that it will lie around in some file on my computer, unread, languishing, perhaps forgotten. So I thought why not put it on Medium, for free, and I can grab the thoughts I have now and rework it for academia some other time.

Additional Sources:

British Library Windrush Stories

The Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants: Windrush Scandal Explained

The Guardian: Hostile Environment: Anatomy of a Policy Disaster

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