“The past is another country”, they say. A traveller from 2021 who stepped down the gangplank and found themselves in 1948 – the year Empire Windrush and its contingent of Caribbean passengers arrived – is unlikely to share calypsonian Lord Kitchener’s sentiment that “London is the place for me”.
The London experienced by Kitchener and his fellow travellers from the islands was a very different place from today’s city of steel and glass tower blocks, unaffordable ‘luxury’ flats, designer clothes stores, chic restaurants and boutique hotels. It was a city that had been mercilessly pummelled by German bombs and rockets and had the burnt-out ruins and bomb craters to prove it. Some of the scars were still to be seen 25 years later.
Britain was all but bankrupt after the war, and everything was in short supply – food, clothes, money, heating, building materials, energy and style.
FOG, FLOODS AND FREEZES
It was fortunate the Windrush arrived in June. At least the ship’s Caribbean passengers had a few months to try to acclimatise and perhaps – if they could afford it – buy a warm jumper or coat (many had come completely unprepared for the cold). They were fortunate, too, to have missed the bitter freeze of January 1947 when temperatures reached -21°C and cross-Channel ferry services were stopped by ice floes! Thick snow was followed by a thaw that caused destructive flooding. The harsh winter crippled British industry, worsening an already dire economic and social situation. A further blow – certainly to Britain’s prestige – was the loss of the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the British Empire, after India gained independence in August 1947.
The visitor from 2021 (and from the Caribbean) would have been struck by the sheer monochrome drabness of 1948 London. It was a city of black and white – the buildings were black from soot and the people were overwhelmingly white. In autumn especially, the coal fires ensured the city was suffocated in an acrid yellow-green smog that penetrated the lungs. Trains ran to slowed-down ‘fog timetables’. Because drivers couldn’t see the signals through the gloom, ‘fogmen’ placed detonators on the rails to tell them where to stop. The murk was so dense that people got lost as they tried to cross their own street and couldn’t watch a film because fog had drifted into the cinema and obscured the screen.
And then there was the food. Or perhaps not, because so much of it was still rationed, and continued to be so until 1954. In a long parliamentary debate, Robin Turton MP complained: “Our people are now living on a very drab diet.” In Sussex, he said, a medical study found that 77% of housewives were undernourished. Manual workers were so poorly fed that they were no longer able to do a full day’s work. The British population was literally sick and tired; after five years of war and deprivation, the country was exhausted.
The diet can hardly have helped: lots of salt, lots of starch (though even potatoes were rationed at one time) and precious little nutrition. There was certainly very little variety, colour or flavour (spice? You must be joking!). Forget about mangoes and sweet potato, don’t bother looking for okra or yam, and abandon hope of finding soursop or guava or ackees. Bananas, a hugely popular fruit before the war, were still unobtainable; when they did arrive, some years later, children had to be taught how to peel them because they’d never seen them before. Even oranges, rice, avocados and pasta were considered exotic.
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In a restaurant or canteen you might be served Lord Woolton Pie, a wartime concoction of diced potatoes, cauliflower, swedes and carrots, covered with a crust of… more potato. The newly nationalised railways continued the tradition of serving Brown Windsor Soup – “a watery, tasteless gruel” made from leftover scraps of meat drowned in gravy browning and starch thickener. ‘Brown Windsor’ achieved almost mythic status as the very nadir of dreadful British cooking. It was found in every café and canteen, so any Windrush migrant who managed to avoid contact with it was clearly blessed with good fortune.
Photographs prove that the West Indian men were snappy dressers, and they managed to maintain a sense of style, as we can see in later pictures of dances and social events. It can’t have been easy, as clothing was rationed until 1949; even soap was rationed! You also needed your ration book to buy flour, bread, tinned fruit, mincemeat, syrup, treacle, chocolate biscuits, sliced bread, tea, sweets, sugar, cheese and meat.
THE ART OF QUEUING
Shopping was a time-consuming daily task, as you needed to visit several shops, each of which sold only a limited range of goods. Queuing was a way of life – and without your ration book you’d get nothing. Most dry goods, like tea, were sold loose rather than pre-packed. There was no self-service, so you stood at the counter and asked the shop assistant for half a pound of sugar and six ounces of bacon – which would be cut to order on a big slicing machine. There were no carrier bags; you brought your own basket. Larger households would have their meat and other items delivered by a boy on a bicycle.
Fresh fruit and vegetables were available only when they were in season. That meant cherries, strawberries and even fresh peas were rare treats that could be enjoyed for just two or three weeks a year. Refrigerators were only for the wealthy and domestic freezers did not exist, so it was impossible to keep food (including milk) for any time before it went off. Tinned fruit was hard to find, and anyway was rationed and expensive; other tinned goods, such as peas, were barely edible.
RACISM AND RACHMANISM
Finding somewhere to live was a major challenge. Around 200 of the Windrush’s passengers spent their first nights underground, in a deep-level shelter (once intended to be an express Tube line) at Clapham South. The one bright spot was that the urgent need to rebuild the country and run the transport and health systems while so many British men were still serving in the Forces meant that there was no shortage of work. The nearest labour exchange to the Clapham shelter was in Coldharbour Lane, which was why the West Indian community quickly coalesced in Brixton. However, when they tried to look for longer-term accommodation, the new arrivals often had the door slammed in their face by racist landlords.
One who was happy to rent to ‘coloured’ tenants was Perec (Peter) Rachman, who became known as the Lord of the Slums. He was also an immigrant, who became a British resident in 1948 and amassed a portfolio of decaying, damp, leaking, rat-infested properties in Notting Hill – along with profitable sidelines in clubs and prostitution rackets. Those who fell behind with the rent (which was invariably excessive) were dealt with in summary fashion by Rachman’s enforcer, the would-be Black Power revolutionary Michael X (Michael De Freitas), who was later executed for murder in Trinidad.
But even ‘respectable’ properties were spartan. Houses were poorly insulated and lacked central heating; in a rented property there might be a single small coal fire or electric heater. In 1948, a quarter of British homes had no electricity. Fitted carpets were a luxury; more often you would have a thin rug or linoleum over wooden floorboards. Many homes lacked indoor toilets or bathrooms – baths were taken in a tub in the kitchen or living room. Few homes had telephones, and televisions were all but unheard of.
Outside the house the options for amusement were limited, though dances, clubs, jazz and big band concerts – at places that decades later hosted soca shows, such as the Hammersmith Palais – and films at cinemas were all good options as they were relatively cheap, especially for nurses and servicemen in uniform. A wind-up gramophone and a stock of the latest 78s imported from the States and perhaps an old valve radio set (or you could make your own from a kit) would form the basis for a good party – along with a bottle of something, of course!
If you wanted a change of scene in central London you could walk along the river, but much of the riverside was occupied by warehouses, docks and various noxious-smelling industrial premises – all out of bounds to casual strollers. The river itself was full of activity, with cargo ships, tugs and ferries bustling to and fro, and liners down in what is now Docklands, but the water was poisonous with pollution. Parks offered some respite, but there was a shortage of clean, green spaces and few safe places for children to play. In the East End and areas like North Kensington, children played in the street or in bombsites and ruined buildings. Indeed, the mid-60s community campaign for safe playspace was a major part of the movement that led to the founding of Notting Hill Carnival.
You could, of course, escape the city and head for fresh air in the Surrey Hills or the breezy seaside at Southend – but only if you could afford the train fare. There were no travelcards, so unless you were a commuter with a season ticket, you had to buy a separate ticket for each journey. Petrol was rationed and cars were beyond the reach of most working people in the late 1940s and early 50s, so most people travelled by bicycle, bus and tram.
TURNING THE CORNER
It was an uncomfortable, grey and rather depressed period in which to be arriving in Britain. Arguably, 1948 was the lowest point in Britain’s 20th-century history. From this point on, though, things did begin to look up. Change was already in the air, even it was hard to spot through the fog. Just two weeks after Empire Windrush docked, the National Health Service – in which so many Caribbean migrants were to work – was founded. A week after that, the first postwar Olympic Games was held in London. Also in 1948, Britain’s first supermarket opened, and the school leaving age was raised to 15. On 14 November, Prince Charles was born – and he’s still waiting to start the job he was promised!
In 1951 there was general jollity on the South Bank of the Thames as vast crowds visited the fairs and exhibitions of the Festival of Britain. The programme of entertainment included – for the first time ever in Britain – live performances by a steelband. In July we will be celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Trinidad All Steel Percussion Orchestra playing in London.
Internationally, the scene was being set for an optimistic new postwar world. The United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, and the World Health Organization was set up. There were some exciting technological advances too: Bell Laboratories produced the transistor radio, George de Mestral invented Velcro, the vinyl long-playing record was first spun at 33rpm (which must have seemed weirdly slow compared with chunky discs whizzing round at 78rpm) and a random access storage device was developed for computers, the first of which, ENIAC, had started work as recently as December 1945.
Those Windrush arrivals, and the thousands of migrants from the Caribbean who followed on afterwards, played a huge part in Britain’s postwar recovery and changed the country’s culture for ever. But that’s another story…