Enriching Our Culture – Celebrating Our History

CWU recently commemorated the 75th anniversary of that summer’s day in 1948, when HMT Windrush completed its trans-Atlantic journey and docked at Tilbury, Essex, with 1,027* passengers – among them men, women and children who were to change the UK forever…

Birmingham & District Amal Branch hosted the CWU’s event commemorating the arrival of Windrush and our head of equality, education & development Kate Hudson welcomed everyone and introduced the first of many special guests, the Rush Theatre Company, who treated the audience to a slimmed-down version of their show. Narrator John Simmit began with the 15th-Century arrival in the Caribbean of “an uninvited visitor…Christopher Idiot Columbus” and explained that Columbus had turned up there by mistake after “getting lost while looking for India – this is why we were called ‘West Indians’.”

History With Music & Images

Interspersed with Jamaican Ska and Reggae tunes from the excellent live band and displaying slides that portrayed various historical scenes, the tale was told of how Spain then claimed the whole Caribbean for its empire and, after enslaving the native Arawak people, they turned to the African slave trade. Britain started seizing some of the islands – including Jamaica, Trinidad, Bermuda and others – from Spain in the 17th century, but, despite many courageous slave uprisings over the next 150 years, the abhorrent system continued until 1834.

Coming into the 20th century, tribute was paid to the contribution made to the Allied effort during World War Two. Simmit, himself of Jamaican descent, shared photographs of some of those who served in the RAF and called them “the pilots of the Caribbean,” while lead singer Ika Crossfield sang Bob & Marcia’s ‘Young, Gifted and Black’. And, as images of people walking down the gangplank at Tilbury appeared on the screen, Simmit’s commentary – that, after WWII, “we were invited here and we came – we arrived with a swagger and we brought our own soundtrack” – was the perfect intro to the band’s rendition of Desmond Decker’s ‘Israelites’.

The 1950s, 60s and 70s were challenging times for new arrivals in the UK, the story continued, citing street attacks and assaults by racists, harassment and wrongful arrests by police and discrimination in employment and housing. But we were reminded that “our people did not turn the other cheek.” People from immigrant communities stood up and fought back, Simmit said, recalling what he described as the “uprisings” among inner-city youth against injustice and robust counter-protests against the racists.

Bringing the tale up to the present day, Simmit noted the significant steps forward towards equality and justice, but also highlighted the continuing instances of racism at the highest levels, citing, in particular, the outrage of the Windrush Scandal. And, in closing the mini-show, he once again stressed that this was “British history – not just black history,” while the band signed off on that same unifying theme with Bob Marley’s ‘One Love’.

Trinidadian Sounds & Brummie Poetry

Steel drummer Jamma told the audience that steel drums had originated in Trinidad. Skin drums had been popular but had been banned by the Government and so people had begun to use steel bins and other containers – making their own instruments and crafting them to play a range from soprano right down to bass, he explained.

“It’s a craft and a culture that the Windrush generation brought over to the UK with them.” Jamma made an impassioned plea for steel drumming to be taught more widely and made more accessible, but also criticised the way in which it is taught in schools and how this skill is sometimes perceived. He emphasised the point that “this is an instrument and not a style of music,” – something he illustrated by playing a variety of tunes, ranging from the TLC hit ‘No Scrubs’ to the Righteous Brothers’ iconic ‘Unchained Melody’.

Birmingham’s 2020/2022 Poet Laureate Casey Bailey opened his session with ‘Not Coming Home’, in which he imagined himself as a passenger on the Windrush, arriving in the UK excited for the future and of the struggles experienced. Casey then introduced his next poem by telling the audience of his work with younger people in the area and how some of the attitudes of young men towards young women had inspired his ‘How Will You Tell Her’ – an appeal to these young men to show women more respect. And, most appropriately at this venue, his closing recital was ‘Dear Brum’ – an updated version of his iconic ‘Dear Birmingham’. This second love letter to his city was created especially for the Commonwealth Games which were held there last year. New words, but still addressing the key themes of the original – hometown pride mixed with anger at injustice and determination to win a better future.

Inspiring Messages Of Struggle And Solidarity…

Guest speaker Birmingham Erdington MP Paulette Hamilton spoke further about the Windrush Scandal. People from parts of the former British Empire who had been living here in the UK for many decades, had brought up families and were now grandparents had been victimised by the 2010-2015 Coalition Government’s ‘Hostile Environment’ policy and new Immigration Acts of 2014 and 2016. This legislation placed an obligation on various providers of public services, as well as private employers and landlords to ID-check people applying for jobs or rentals or even attending hospitals and GP surgeries for treatment. “The Caribbean passengers on Windrush had seen the UK as their Motherland,” she said, adding that, many decades later, those same people – among others from several different migrant communities – were suddenly denied basic public services and even, in an estimated 83 instances, had been “picked up and removed to Jamaica simply because they had no relevant paperwork to prove their citizenship.” Some of her own Constituents had suffered from this situation, Ms Hamilton continued and insisted that the government must keep to its promises to fully compensate those who had suffered. “We will never, ever forget,” she vowed.

Next up was our own Ian Taylor, NEC member and North Wales/North West Divisional Rep, who warmly thanked Kate Hudson and her team for organising the day’s event and the contributors for creating “a beautiful day” before speaking with passion and anger about the betrayal of the Windrush Generation and of other victims of the ‘Hostile Environment’ scandal. This had rendered hard-working and law-abiding people effectively “stateless” through no fault of their own and it was imperative that the widest possible compensation was achieved for all those impacted. The CWU had already resolved to do everything in its power to help victims and this struggle would not stop until justice had prevailed, he pledged.

…Some More Music And An Honourable Mention!

Introducing Janice Richardson as the next speaker, Kate Hudson told us that it had been Janice’s idea to make the event a music[1]themed one and thanked her for her efforts helping to put the day together. Janice, secretary of CWU Eastern No.3 Branch, talked a little about her own experiences and background, before asking for some “audience participation” singing along to some clips of her own favourite Caribbean-origin tunes. After a couple of Ska and Reggae numbers, she said: “The best musical genre is Lovers Rock and one of the best Lovers Rock tunes is this,” as the unmistakable intro to Janet Kay’s ‘Silly Games’ began. For audience members of a certain vintage – including your Voice reporter – these lyrics came naturally. However, as Kay sung through the line “…and I’ve got no time, to live this lie-ie-ie. I’ve got no time, to play, your, silly ga-ay-ay-ames…” our singalong petered out, as we all knew what was coming next – although Winston Richards, of Greater London Combined Branch, did make a courageous solo attempt to hit the highest note that ever graced the UK music scene! He didn’t quite get there – but it was a brave effort!


* HMT Empire Windrush was in use as a troopship and this voyage, which had departed from Southampton in early May, had originally been intended for returning servicemen. But, by the time Windrush pulled anchor to head back across the Atlantic, the majority of its passengers were Caribbean people seeking a new life in post-WWII England. The new British Nationality Act granting the unrestricted right to settle indefinitely in the UK to all citizens of British Empire colonies, and discounted fares available to those who wanted to make the journey, had sparked widespread interest, long queues for tickets and a full ship.

According to National Archives, and research by Peter Plowman published by ‘Sea Breezes’ magazine, a total of 194 people had embarked at Port of Spain, Trinidad, joined by another 599 at Kingston, Jamaica, and a further 168 passengers from Hamilton Bay, Bermuda. There is also evidence of a group of 66 Polish women and children onboard, who had embarked at Tampico, Mexico. They had been granted refugee asylum in Mexico during WWII and were travelling to join their husbands/fathers who had settled in the UK.