Saturday 22 June 2024

WINDRUSH DAY – The stories of some West Indians in Wembley

 Guest post by local historian Philip Grant to mark Windrush Day. Written in a personal capacity

1.West Indian immigrant workers search a newspaper for jobs on arrival in 1948. (Image from the internet)


Today, 22 June, is Windrush Day, the anniversary of the arrival of the “Empire Windrush” at Tilbury Docks in 1948. The ship brought hundreds of men from the Caribbean, looking for jobs, after the British Nationality Act of 1948 allowed citizens of Commonwealth countries to settle in the UK, to help rebuild the country after the Second World War. 


There had been people from the West Indies in Wembley twenty-four years earlier, representing their island nations at the British Empire Exhibition. This is one of the photographs, taken at the time by a Harlesden photographer, which I will be using in a talk I hope to give in October this year at Harlesden Library, as part of the “Becoming Brent” project for the BEE’s centenary:


2.Representatives of Trinidad and Tobago in their section of the West Indies Pavilion, 1924.
(Source: Brent Archives – Wembley History Society Collection)


I don’t know whether any of the original Windrush passengers came to live in Wembley, but there were certainly other West Indians here that year. Just over three weeks before the “Empire Windrush” docked, the entire West Indies test cricket team came to Vale Farm, at the invitation of Wembley Cricket Club, to play in a benefit match for Learie Constantine (after whom a cultural centre in Willesden is now named). You can read about the match in an article that I will ask Martin to attach below.


3.Learie Constantine, at the height of his cricketing popularity. (Image from the internet)


Learie Constantine was a remarkable man, braving colour prejudice in the late 1920s and 1930s to become the club professional for the Lancashire Cricket League side, Nelson, where he became very popular. During the Second World War he worked for the Ministry of Labour, looking after the welfare of West Indian men who had come to Britain to work in wartime factories. He went on to become a lawyer, fighting racial discrimination, and played an important part in bringing about Britain’s 1965 Race Relations Act.



In July and August 1948, Wembley County School in Stanley Avenue played host to the mens’ Olympic Games teams from seven Commonwealth countries, including Bermuda, British Guiana (now Guyana), Jamaica and Trinidad. The school also arranged accommodation, with the families of pupils, for the female members of two teams. Three Jamaican women athletes stayed with the Welson family, shared coconuts and pineapples with them (a rare treat in food-rationed Britain) and cooked them a meal of boiled rice with grated coconut and red beans.



4.The Jamaican Olympics team at Wembley County School, July 1948. (Courtesy of the Old Alpertonians)



Most of the Jamaican team, paid for by public subscription to represent their island at the Olympic Games for the first time, had spent twenty-four days on a banana boat to reach England. Their captain, Arthur Wint, was already in London, as he had just finished his first year as a medical student at Barts Hospital. He would win Jamaica’s first Olympic gold medal, but he already had wartime medals. Along with his brothers, Lloyd and Douglas, he had volunteered to join the RAF in Jamaica, been sent to train in Canada, and finished the war as a Spitfire pilot (one of around 500 World War Two “Pilots of the Caribbean”!). Arthur Wint was another remarkable West Indian to have graced Wembley in 1948, the “Windrush” year. You can read my article about his life here.



But it wasn’t all sunshine for people of the Windrush generation who came from the Caribbean to work in Britain. The work available was mainly in public services, like London Transport, the Post Office or nursing. Several people I collected memories from for a Kingsbury local history project in 2009, had come to this country from the West Indies in the 1950s and 1960s.  One told me of the hostility that many English people showed them when they arrived, just because of the colour of their skin. Many landlords would not accept coloured tenants, and even going to church was not pleasant, as they were made to feel unwelcome at first.



Another incident recounted to me was about one of the first West Indian families to rent a flat in an old Stonebridge tenement row called Shakespeare Avenue. A live snake was put through their letterbox! Luckily neighbours called a local Englishman, nicknamed “Noah”, who was good with animals. He recognised it was non-poisonous, and soon picked it up and took it away.



5.Christmas Day in the Children’s Ward, Wembley Hospital (Chaplin Road), 1950s.
(From a nurses recruitment brochure in the Wembley History Society Collection at Brent Archives)


One job where accommodation for West Indians was not a problem was as a nurse, or nursing student, at Wembley Hospital. The hospital’s matron welcomed a number of young women from the West Indies in the 1950s, for a two-year training course to become a nurse. You would be paid a £300 a year training allowance, out of which £128 a year was deducted to cover the cost of your board and lodging in the Nurses’ Home. Once you qualified as a State Enrolled Nurse, your annual salary would be £452. I have used the photograph above, of one of these nurses, several times, but I have never discovered the name of the nurse. If you recognise her, please let me know her name in a comment below!



Barbara came to London from Barbados in 1964, to work as a nurse. By 1970, she and her husband lived in a privately-rented one bedroom flat in Harlesden, costing £3 10s a week. Brent Council had built its Chalkhill Estate, but was finding it hard to let hundreds of homes there, because the rent was so much higher than the “controlled rent” (as low as £1 a week) families in run-down properties were paying. That is when Barbara and her husband, and other hard-working West Indian families, got the chance to become Chalkhill tenants. They had to show their passports, provide references to prove that they were of good character and that they had sufficient income to pay the rent (which was £10 10s for their new two-bedroom flat).



6.The Chalkhill Estate with Brent Town Hall beyond, 1980s. (Internet image, courtesy of Winston Vaughan)



Brent Town Hall is a Wembley connection of the last West Indian in my article. Dorman Long was born in St Lucia, and as a young man was a teacher there, before he came to London in 1960. As his teaching qualifications were not recognised, his first job here was as a postman, later going on to work for a housing association, then as a race relations adviser. He soon became involved in local politics, and was a Brent Labour councillor for 33 years. 


7.Dorman Long (right) greeting Nelson Mandela at Wembley Stadium, April 1990.
(Source: Brent Archives – “Wembley Observer” newspaper cutting)



Cllr. Dorman Long was Leader of Brent Council from 1987 to 1990, following a turbulent period when the borough was frequently labelled in the press a “Barmy Brent”. One of his finest hours was welcoming the recently-freed Nelson Mandela to Wembley, and trying to make him a Freeman of Brent. I did not know him personally, but I have read that Dorman Long was a kind person, and a man of principle – excellent qualities for a leader.



Windrush Day was established to honour the contribution that migrants, particularly those from the West Indies, have made to this country. I hope this article has shown, through just a few examples of both ordinary and extraordinary people, how much our community has benefitted from the diversity and experience they have brought and shared with us.



Philip Grant.





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