At a well-attended Zoom meeting called by the Windrush Foundation on 16 June, the near unanimous view was that the government’s proposed monument to the ‘Windrush Generation’ should be in Brixton rather than Waterloo station.
The 492 West Indian migrants who came to the UK on HMT Empire Windrush disembarked at the port of Tilbury, Essex, on 22 June 1948 and took the train to Fenchurch Street station. They went from there to Clapham South, where a wartime shelter under the station had been fitted out with bunk beds. They stayed there until they could find alternative accommodation.
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Routes to Brixton
The nearest labour exchange (the old name for a job centre) to the deep-level shelter was in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane. Many of the new arrivals ended up staying in the area, which already had a small immigrant community. It was in Brixton that Claudia Jones founded the pioneering black newspaper the West Indian Gazette in the 1950s and where the late Frank Rollock Senior played steelpan for what was almost certainly London’s first Caribbean-style street carnival in 1961.
In the 1950s and 1960s, many West Indians found other routes by which to reach the UK, for example through Southampton to Waterloo station, via Plymouth to London Paddington, and also to Liverpool, but the Windrush passengers themselves are most closely associated with Brixton. The Windrush Foundation – set up more than 20 years before the government of Theresa May conceived the Windrush Monument project – has long sought to have some tangible recognition of the Windrush pioneers and has done sterling work educating younger generations about their legacy.
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No consultation, no communication, no co-operation
In 2018, in the wake of revelations about the Windrush Scandal, May’s government set up a Windrush Commemoration Committee (WCC), which is chaired by children’s author and broadcaster Baroness Floella Benjamin DBE. The rest of the committee comprises Paulette Simpson of The Voice, Rev Rose Hudson-Wilkin, Tim Campbell MBE, Geoff Thompson MBE, Sir Ken Olisa, George Mpanga, Simon Frederick, and carnivalist and activist Ansel Wong. Responsibility for the £1 million project falls under the Ministry of Housing, Communities & Local Government (MHCLG). The WCC chair rejected a suggestion that a representative from the Windrush Foundation join the committee.
The meeting was told that three sites for the monument were considered: Brixton, Waterloo station and the Albert Embankment alongside the Thames. Of these, only the first has a direct link with the passengers who arrived on Empire Windrush itself, yet, for reasons that have never been made public, the committee chose Waterloo station (where, coincidentally, Baroness Benjamin herself arrived).
Many of the 100+ participants in the meeting expressed outrage that the UK Caribbean community itself was never consulted about the location or form of the ‘monument’; nor, according to Cllr Sonia Winifred, was Lambeth Council involved in decision-making. Despite the WCC being a publicly funded organisation, it has failed to publish any details of its meetings, decisions and finances. Only after applying to the Information Commissioner was Windrush Foundation co-founder Arthur Torrington able to obtain minutes of the committee’s meetings, which had been partly redacted (blacked out).
Despite being invited to join the Zoom meeting, no one from the Windrush Commemoration Committee seems to have been prepared to join the public discussion about the best way to commemorate the Windrush Generation.
Many participants in the meeting felt that this lack of transparency and consultation with the community was disrespectful and undermined the credibility of any monument that might be put up.
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What kind of ‘monument’?
On 30 April, four shortlisted artists for the monument were revealed, whittled down from 100. According to WCC’s uninformative website, the artists had been nominated by over 250 international and British cultural leaders, curators and leaders in the Caribbean community. Again, there is no indication who these 250 decision-makers were.
The shortlisted artists and their disciplines are: Basil Watson (sculpture and painting); Jeannette Ehlers (photography, video, installation, sculpture and performance); Valda Jackson (sculpture, painting, printmaking and moving image); and Thomas J Price (sculpture, film and photography).
While all the artists list sculpture among their disciplines, it is possible that the chosen design will not be a tangible, three-dimensional ‘monument’ but some kind of video or multi-media installation instead. In the absence of any public consultation or input, there is no certainty that the chosen design will be representative of, or acceptable to, the UK Caribbean community.
Out of sight and out of mind
The proposed location at Waterloo station is on the upper concourse (aka the mezzanine), adjacent to the Victory Arch and opposite Platform 19. It is a rarely visited part of the station and not seen by the vast majority of the station’s users. The mezzanine itself was built in 2012, long after the Windrush Generation era (defined by the government as 1948-1971), so has no direct connection with West Indian migration to the UK.
Because the ‘upper concourse’ is just a shelf built out from the old railway offices at the back of the station, the space for a monument is limited. Unlike Windrush Square, it is not a place where any kind of public commemorative event would be possible. And unlike Windrush Square, Network Rail’s Waterloo station is not a public space but a privately owned one. Members of the public are forbidden to take photographs without first applying to station management for permission (for ‘security reasons’) and security personnel have the right to remove or ban people from the premises.
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Conservative governments are notoriously obsessed with publicly funded projects having to show a ‘return on investment’. Whereas in Brixton an attractive and widely accepted Windrush Monument would draw in visitors, investment and jobs to the area, it is hard to see what value it will add to Waterloo station. In terms of return on the project’s £1 million ‘investment’, Waterloo seems a far poorer choice than Brixton.
The evidence and testimony heard at the meeting indicates strongly that the Windrush Monument is an Establishment project that is intended to put forward a specific narrative of Caribbean migration. WCC’s refusal to engage with the community or to communicate fully and transparently with the wider public has damaged trust and credibility, offending and alienating the very people who ought to have been most supportive.
This top-down decision-making by a narrow and self-selected group makes it more likely that the monument will reflect an elite’s values and aesthetics rather than those of the community it is supposed to serve and celebrate.
Finally, the choice of location will make it difficult for members of the public to interact with the monument. This may be a deliberate attempt to prevent the monument becoming a focus for celebratory events or protests.
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