This year, 2023, marks the seventy-fifth anniversary of the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury docks in Essex on 22 June 1948. The ship brought around 500 people from Jamaica and Trinidad to the UK. Many of the new arrivals were employed in state services such as the NHS and public transport filling post-war employment gaps. The Windrush has come to represent the beginning of greater numbers of people from the Caribbean moving and settling in the UK. From 1948 to 1962, there was a virtual open door for immigrants coming into Britain from the remaining colonies and the Commonwealth. The British debate over immigration up to about 1957, the year I was added to the natural increase statistics of Nottinghamshire, had been characterised by contradiction and paradox. On the one hand, overt ‘racialism’ had been discredited by the Nazi persecutions, and Britain’s identity was tied up in its identity as the vanquishing angel of a political culture founded on racial theories and practices.
This meant that the few remaining unapologetic racialists, the anti-Semitic fringe and the pro-apartheid colonialists were considered outcasts from civilised discourse. Official documents from the period describe the handful of MPs who were outspokenly racialist as ‘nutters’. Oswald Mosley, who would have been a likely puppet prime minister had Hitler’s plans for invading Britain succeeded, was let out of prison after the war and allowed to yell at his small band of unrepentant fascist supporters, such was the lack of threat he posed to the King’s peace. The public propaganda of the Empire and Commonwealth instead made much of the concept of a family of races cooperating together under the Union flag.
In Whitehall, the Colonial Office strongly supported the right of black Caribbean people to migrate to the Mother Country, fending off the worries of the Ministry of Labour about the effects of unemployment during economic downturns. When the five hundred immigrants had arrived from the West Indies on the converted German troopship, SS Windrush, in 1948, the Home Secretary had declared that:
… ‘though some people feel it would be a bad thing to give the coloured races of the Empire the idea that… they are the equals of the people of this country… we recognise the right of the colonial peoples to be treated as men and brothers of the people of this country.’
Successive governments, Labour and Tory, saw Britain as the polar opposite of Nazi Germany, a benign and unprejudiced island which was connected to the modern world. The Jewish migration of the late thirties and forties had brought one of the greatest top-ups of skill and energy that any modern European state had ever seen. In addition, the country already had a population of about seventy-five thousand black and Asian people at the end of the war, and Labour shortages suggested that it needed many more. The segregation of the American Deep South and the development of apartheid policies in South Africa were regarded with high-minded contempt. However, while pre-war British society had never been as brutal about race as France or Spain, never mind Germany, it was still riddled with racialism from top to bottom of the perennial pyramid of class and race.
Within Britain itself, Coventry – despite its reputation as a welcoming city for migrants – was not immune from the sort of racial prejudice and intolerance which was beginning to disfigure Britain nationally, especially the barbs directed at the Caribbean communities. Estate agents in Coventry began to operate a colour bar in October 1954, following the following editorial in the Coventry Standard, the weekly local newspaper:
The presence of so many coloured people in Coventry is becoming a menace. Hundreds of black people are pouring into the larger cities of Britain including Coventry and are lowering the standard of life. They live on public assistance and occupy common lodging houses to the detriment of suburban areas… They frequently are the worse for liquor – many of them addicted to methylated spirits – and live in overcrowded conditions sometimes six to a room.
These were not the outpourings of a bigoted correspondent, but the major editorial, the like of which had appeared in local ‘conservative’ newspapers before the War, questioning the arrival in the city of the sweepings of the nation, in reference to the destitute Welsh miners who arrived in Coventry in the thirties looking for work. But these new stereotypes, though just as inaccurate, were far more virulent, and could not be so easily counteracted and contradicted by people who appeared so different from, and therefore to, the native Coventrians. The reality, of course, was at variance from this obvious conflation of the Caribbean and Asian minorities. The West Indian community was an even smaller minority in Coventry than the South Asian community in 1961, amounting to only twelve hundred.
Although the Standard‘s editor may have been conscious of the housing pressures in neighbouring Birmingham, the vision of black people pouring into cities throughout Britain was, again, a clear exaggeration, especially for the early fifties. This can only be explained by the observation that ‘racialism’ seems to have infected a wide spectrum of Coventry society at this time, including the engineering trade unions. The Census of 1961 below showed that immigration from the new Commonwealth over the previous ten years had been a trickle rather than a stream, accounting for only 1.5 per cent of the population. The local population was increasing by approximately four thousand per year between 1951 and 1966, but the proportion of this attributable to general migration declined dramatically over these fifteen years. Between 1951 and 1961 a Department of the Environment survey estimated that migration accounted for 44.5 per cent of population growth in what it referred to as the Coventry belt (presumably, this included the nearby urbanised towns and villages of north and east Warwickshire).
In many areas of the country in the early fifties, white working-class people hardly ever came across anyone of another colour after the black GIs returned home at the end of the war. Neither were Irish, Polish and Eastern European migrants free from discrimination, although their white skins were more welcome. Marika Sherwood emigrated from Hungary first to Australia as a ten-year-old in 1948 with her parents and grandparents. She quickly learnt English and easily assimilated into school life. She was briefly married to an Australian, but her amorphous yearning for Europe led to her re-migration to London, where she formed a circle of native British friends since she knew almost no Hungarians. Sherwood wrote a chapter on The Hungarian Speech Community in Britain for Edwards’ and Alladina’s 1991 book on Multilingualism in the British Isles. Her concluding remarks are perhaps the most significant in her account, in that they draw attention, not so much to discrimination faced by immigrants among their hosts, but to the lack of attention paid by ‘the British’ to questions of migration, assimilation and integration:
‘The British myopia regarding immigration has prevented researchers recognising that some more general questions regarding the absorption and assimilation of immigrants have to be answered before we can begin to understand reactions to Black immigrants or the responses of Black peoples to such host reactions.
‘We need to know the ramifications of meaning behind the lack of hyphenated Britons. We need to know if there are pressures to lose one’s ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate. We need to know what the indicators are of this ‘foreignness’ and how these pressures operate… and which indicators the natives find least tolerable – and why.’
‘When we know more we might be able to deal more successfully with some aspects of the racism which greeted and continues to greet Black immigrants.’Safder Alladina & Viv Edwards (1991), Multilingualism in British Isles. Harlow: Longman, pp. 134-35.
The fact remains that almost as soon as the first ‘Windrush’ migrants had arrived from Jamaica and the other West Indian islands, popular papers were reporting worries about their cleanliness, sexual habits and criminality: ‘No dogs, No blacks, No Irish’ was not a myth, but a perfectly common sign on boarding houses. The hostility and coldness of native British, particularly in the English towns and cities, were quickly reported back by the early migrants. Even Hugh Dalton, a member of the Labour cabinet in 1945-51, talked of the polluting poverty-stricken, diseased nigger communities of the African colonies. Even then, in the mid-fifties, questions of race were obscure and academic for most people, as the country as a whole remained predominantly white. Until at least a decade later, there were only small pockets of ‘coloured’ people in the poorer inner-city areas.
There were debates in the Tory cabinets of Churchill, Eden and Macmillan, but most of them never got anywhere near changing immigration policy. Any legislation to limit migration within the Commonwealth would have also applied to the white people of the old dominions too, or it would have been clearly and unacceptably based on racial discrimination. In the fifties, conservatives and socialists alike regarded themselves as civilized and liberal on race, but still showed a tendency to pick and choose from different parts of the Empire and Commonwealth. For instance, the Colonial Office specifically championed…
… ‘the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians over the unskilled and largely lazy Indians.’
The means and manners by which these people migrated to Britain had a huge impact on the later condition of post-war society and deserve special, detailed analysis. The fact that so many of the first migrants were young men who found themselves living without wives, mothers and children inevitably created a wilder atmosphere than they were accustomed to in their island homes. They were short of entertainment as well as short of the social control of ordinary family living. The chain of generational influence was broken at the same time as the male strut was liberated. Drinking dens and gambling, the use of marijuana, ska and blues clubs were the inevitable results.
Early black communities in Britain tended to cluster where the first arrivals had settled, which meant in the blighted inner cities. There, street prostitution was more open and rampant in the fifties than it was later so it is hardly surprising that young men away from home for the first time often formed relationships with prostitutes, and that some became pimps themselves. This was what fed the popular press’s hunger for stories to confirm their prejudices about black men stealing ‘our women’. The upbeat, unfamiliar music, illegal drinking and drugs and the sexual appetites of the young immigrants all combined to paint a lurid picture of a new underclass.
Henry Gunter & the colour bar; Charles Parker & The Colony:
The archive collections at the Library of Birmingham hold material which sheds light on the experiences of those newly arrived in the UK between the 1940s and 1970s.
Henry Gunter was born in Jamaica but moved to the UK in 1950 which was only two years after the Empire Windrush arrived. Gunter, as a campaigner against racism and injustice, was at the forefront of issues black people making a new life in Birmingham were facing. He wrote about the colour bar in housing whereby local people refused to give housing to black people. His campaigning activities involved writing articles to educate as he believed that the problems with local people were mostly due to fear. Gunter became President of a group called the Afro-Caribbean Organisation. He aimed to win influence with the Labour movement and other bodies with the aim of breaking down the colour bar. Although hospitals in Birmingham had welcomed workers from Commonwealth countries, The City Transport department refused to employ black workers. Gunter organised a march through Birmingham City Centre with banners including ‘No Colour Bar to housing and jobs.’ His campaigning eventually led to black people being employed as conductors and eventually to full integration into the transport system.
The Charles Parker Archive is another collection where the experiences of Commonwealth citizens living in Birmingham are documented. The archive holds material relating to Philip Donnellan’s documentary film The Colony. First broadcast in June 1964, the film consists of interviews with working-class black people living in Birmingham. It is notable that there is no commentary or narration. This allowed the interviewees’ experiences (in their own words) to be the focus of the programme. Charles Parker was responsible for the voice montages.
“… a land which we felt in coming, we were proud to come and we felt that coming here we would be at home.”
He also spoke about his contrasting experiences in dealing with English people in daily interactions and when trying to procure services:
“I must say, the people in the street that you meet, the bus conductors and the working men that you meet in the street are quite friendly, they would do anything for you. The snag is when it comes to the people around where you live.”
He then went on to explain a specific encounter when he was trying to find accommodation:
“There was one house in City Road that advertised accommodation for three or four working men. So I rung them up, and at the end of the line was a woman’s voice. She said “Yes, we have beds for three or four working men”, so to make sure I told her I was a West Indian, she said “Just a minute” and she came back to the ‘phone and she said “Sorry we are filled up”, and it went on like that, went on like that all the while.”
These documentary collections show that alongside the challenge of leaving their countries, making a long journey and building a new life in Birmingham, Caribbean migrants had far greater challenges to face when they arrived. Many of them persevered and some, like Henry Gunter, campaigned to improve conditions. They all contributed to enriching the communities in which they came to live.
Pity the Poor Immigrant:
In learning to come to terms with this prejudice, or fighting back against it, seeds of resentment and rebelliousness were sown in black families which would be partly tamed only when children and spouses began to arrive in large numbers in the sixties. Then, the Pentecostal churches reclaimed at least some of their own, sending out their gospel groups to entertain as well as evangelise among the previously lily-white nonconformist chapels in the early seventies. Housing was another crucial part of the story. For the immigrants of the fifties, accommodation was necessarily privately rented, since access to council homes was based on a long list of existing residents. So the early black immigrants, like the earlier immigrant groups before them, were cooped up in crowded, often condemned Victorian terrace properties in west London, Handsworth in west Birmingham, or the grimy back-streets of Liverpool and Leeds.
Thuggery and threats generally got rid of the old, often elderly, white tenants, to be replaced by the new black tenants who were desperate for somewhere to live and therefore prepared to pay the higher rents they were charged. The result was the creation of instant ghettos in which three generations of black British would soon be crowded together. It was the effects of Powell’s housing policies of the fifties which led directly to the Brixton, Tottenham, Toxteth and Handsworth riots of the eighties. Yet these were not, of course, the only direct causes of the racial tensions and explosions which were to follow. The others lay in the reactions of the white British. One Caribbean writer claimed, with not a touch of irony, that he had never met a single English person with colour prejudice. Once he had walked the entire length of a street, …
“… and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If only we could find the “neighbour” we could solve the whole problem. But to find ‘im is the trouble. Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country.”
Numerous testimonies by immigrants and surveys of the time show how hostile people were to the idea of having black or Asian neighbours. The trades unions bristled against blacks coming in to take jobs, possibly at lower rates of pay, just as they had complained about Irish or Welsh migrants a generation earlier. Union leaders regarded as impeccably left-wing lobbied governments to keep out black workers. For a while, it seemed that they would be successful enough by creating employment ghettos as well as housing ones until black workers gained a toe-hold in the car-making and other manufacturing industries where the previous generations of immigrants had already fought battles for acceptance against the old craft unionists and won.
The overseas immigrants had been coming into Birmingham, Coventry and the Black Country in a steady trickle since the end of the war for the same reason that the region had been attracting migrants from all over the British Isles since the mid-thirties: comparatively high wages and full, stable, employment. The trickle became a torrent in the months before the Commonwealth Immigrants’ Bill was enacted in 1962, restricting the influx for the first time. By 1964, the region had one of the biggest concentrations of immigrants in the country. Their integration into the communities of Birmingham and the Black Country had proceeded without the violent reaction which led to the race riots in Nottingham and Notting Hill in 1958. But tensions had been building up in the region as they had in every mixed community in Britain. One of the first open antagonisms took place in Birmingham in 1954 over the employment of coloured migrants as drivers and conductors on the local buses. After that, little was heard of racial pressures until the end of 1963, when events in Smethwick began to make national headlines. The situation there became typical in its effects on traditional allegiances, and in its ripeness for exploitation, of that in every town in England with a mixed community.
The Singing Stewarts:
The first black Gospel group to make an impact in Britain were ‘The Singing Stewarts’. They were originally from Trinidad and Aruba, where the five brothers and three sisters of the Stewart family were born. They migrated to Handsworth in Birmingham in 1961, part of the second major wave of Windrush migrants who came to Britain just before the Commonwealth Immigration Act of 1962 ended the ‘open door’ policy for British overseas nationals. This was the period when many families were settling in Britain, many rejoining ‘menfolk’ who had come on their own some years earlier (see picture below).
Many people moved to Britain before the Act was passed because they thought it would be difficult to get in afterwards. Immigration doubled from fifty-eight thousand in 1960 to over 115,000 in 1961, and to nearly 120,000 in 1962. The Stewarts were all members of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and under the training of their strict and devoted mother began to sing acapella-style spirituals that they mixed with traditional Southern gospel songs written by composers like Vep Ellis and Albert Brumley. To this material, they added a distinctly Trinidadian calypso flavour and by the mid-sixties were performing all around the Midlands. In later years they were joined by a double bass affectionately referred to as ‘Betty’. From childhood growing up in the church, they would refuse all offers to sing ‘secular’ music.
Settling in Handsworth, they quickly made a name for themselves in West Birmingham and what is known today as Sandwell (then as Smethwick and Warley), especially among the nonconformist and Pentecostal churches where most of the Caribbean immigrant families were to be found. They also appeared at a variety of cross-cultural events and at institutions such as hospitals, schools and prisons. They performed on local radio and TV which brought them to the attention of a local radio producer and folk-music enthusiast Charles Parker, who heard in the group’s unlikely musical fusion of jubilee harmonies, Southern gospel songs and a Trinidadian flavour something unique. In 1964 they were the subject of a TV documentary produced by him which brought them to national attention. Parker helped them to cultivate their talent and to become more ‘professional’, opening them up to wider audiences. They took his advice and guidance on board and reaped dividends on the back of their TV appearances and national and European tours that increased their exposure and widened their fan base.
For a while, in the early sixties, they were the only black Gospel group in the UK media spotlight. It was difficult to place them in a single category at the time, as they sang both ‘negro spirituals’ and traditional Gospel songs, which made them a novelty to British and European audiences. The Singing Stewarts were able to undertake a European tour where they played to crowds of white non-churchgoers. Thousands warmed to them, captivated by their natural and effortless harmonies. They demonstrated a remarkable ability, unprecedented and unique at that time, to permeate cultural barriers.
This acted as an antidote to the racial tensions which existed in West Birmingham, Warley and Smethwick in the late sixties and seventies, stirred up by the Wolverhampton MP and Government Minister, Enoch Powell, who made his infamous ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech in Birmingham in 1968, and in local election campaigns in Smethwick run by the National Front. Meanwhile, in the US in 1967, at the height of the Civil Rights movement, a Berkeley-based ensemble called the Northern California State Youth Choir found that a track on their independent album – a soulful arrangement of a Victorian hymn penned by Philip Doddridge – started getting plays on a San Francisco pop station. The choir was renamed the Edwin Hawkins Singers and was quickly signed to Buddah Records and “Oh Happy Day” went on to become a huge international pop hit. In Britain, the British record companies alerted to the commercial potential of US gospel music, looked around for a British-based version of that music and in 1968 The Singing Stewarts were signed to PYE Records. The following year, they were the first British gospel group to be recorded by a major record company when PYE Records released their album Oh Happy Day.
In 1969, they appeared at the Edinburgh Festival, where they were exposed to a wider and more musically diverse public. Their folksy Trinidadian flavour delighted the arts festival-goers. The family went on to make more albums which sold better, but they never wavered from their original Christian message and mission. They continued to sing at a variety of venues, including many churches, performing well into retirement age. Neither did they compromise their style of music, helping to raise awareness of spirituals and gospel songs. They were pioneers of the British Black Gospel Scene and toured all over the world helping to put UK-based black gospel music on the map.
My own experience of ‘The Singing Stewarts’ came as a fourteen-year-old at the Baptist Church in Bearwood, Warley, where my father, Rev. Arthur J. Chandler, was the first minister of the newly-built church. We had moved to Birmingham in 1965, and by that time West Birmingham and Sandwell were becoming multi-cultural areas with large numbers of Irish, Welsh, Polish, Indian, Pakistani and Caribbean communities. My grammar school on City Road in Edgbaston was like a microcosm of the United Nations. In the early seventies, it appointed the first black head boy in Birmingham, and was also a community of many faiths, including Anglicans, Nonconformists, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, Pentecostals, Sikhs, Muslims, Jews, Hindus as well as the many followers of ‘Mammon’! Our neighbourhood, which ran along the city boundary between Birmingham and the Black Country in Edgbaston (the ‘border’ was literally at the end of the Manse garden), was similarly mixed, though still mostly white. Birmingham possessed a relatively wealthy working class, due to the car industry, so the distinctions between the working class and middle-class members of our church were already blurred.
But the advent of the Singing Stewarts to our church was unlike any other experience in my Christian upbringing to that date. At the end of the ‘service’, a ‘call’ to commitment was made and I responded. The following Whitsun, in 1971, I was baptised and received into church membership. In 1974, a group of us from Bearwood and south Birmingham, who had formed our own Christian folk-rock group, attended the first Greenbelt Christian Music Festival, where Andrae Crouch and the Disciples were among the ‘headline acts’. Thus began a love affair with Gospel music of various forms which has endured ever since. We were inspired by this event to write and perform our own musical based on the Book of James, which we toured around the Baptist churches in the west and south of Birmingham. The service led by the Stewart Singers in Bearwood also began, more importantly in retrospect, my own fifty-year ministry of reconciliation in the West Midlands, Wales, Northern Ireland and Central Europe.
I heard at that time, and have since read many stories about the coldness displayed by many ‘white Anglo-Saxon’ churches towards the Windrush migrants, and the failure of all churches to challenge prejudiced behaviour among their fellow Christians. However, I also feel that it is all too easy for current generations to judge the previous ones. It was not that many Christians were prejudiced against people of colour, though some were, or that they were ‘forgetful to entertain strangers’. Many sincerely, though wrongly thought (as we now know from Science) that God had created separate races to live separately from each other. In its extreme forms, this led to the policies of ‘separate development’ of the South African state, underpinned by the heretical theology of the Dutch Reformed Church, and the belief in, and practice of, ‘segregation’, supported by some white Southern evangelicals in the United States.
I remember discussing these issues with my father, who was by no means a white supremacist, but who had fears about the ability of Birmingham and the Black Country, the area he had grown up in, to integrate so many newcomers, even though they were fellow Christians. However, he had also been a jazz-band leader and pianist in the 1930s, before becoming a minister, and was familiar with both Southern Baptist and Caribbean spirituals. So, rather than closing down discussion on the issue, as so many did in the churches at that time, mainly to avoid embarrassment, he sought to open it up among the generations in the congregation, asking me to do a ‘Q&A’ session in a Sunday evening service in 1975, aged eighteen.
There were some very direct questions and comments in the congregation, but we found common ground in believing that whether or not God had originally intended the ‘races’ to develop separately, first slavery and then famine and poverty, resulting from human sinfulness, had caused migration, and it was wrong to blame the migrants themselves for the process they had undergone. Moreover, in the case of the Windrush migrants, they had been invited to come and take jobs that were vital to the welfare and prosperity of our shared community. But as the National Front took to the streets, it soon became obvious that, sadly, these new forms of racism could no longer be defeated with discussion. I soon became involved in the Anti-Nazi League in Birmingham.
In 1977, the Stewarts were signed to the Christian label Word Records, then in the process of dropping their Sacred Records name. The Singing Stewarts’ Word album ‘Here Is A Song’ was produced by Alan Nin and was another mix of old spirituals (“Every time I Feel The Spirit”), country gospel favourites (Albert Brumley’s “I’ll Fly Away”) and hymns (“Amazing Grace”). With accompaniment consisting of little more than a double bass and an acoustic guitar, it was, in truth, a long, long way from the ‘funkier’ gospel sounds that acts like Andrae Crouch were beginning to pioneer. The Singing Stewarts soldiered on for a few more years but clearly their popularity, even with the ‘middle-of-the-road’ white audience, gradually receded. In his book British Black Gospel, author Steve Alexander Smith paid tribute to them as one of the first black gospel groups to make an impact in Britain and the first gospel group to be recorded by a major record company. They clearly played their part in Britain’s gospel music’s continuing development.
In addition, Frank Stewart (one of the brothers, pictured right) became one of the first black DJ’s to play gospel music on a BBC radio station. His death in Birmingham on 2nd April 2012 was the closing chapter in a key part of the development of British gospel music over half a century. Although in later years he was best known for his radio work in which for more than a decade he presented The Frank Stewart Gospel Hour on BBC Radio WM, it was the many years he spent running The Singing Stewarts which was arguably his most significant contribution to UK Christian music history and black music history.
Immigration: The Case of Smethwick in 1964.
In 1964, the well-known Guardian correspondent, Geoffrey Moorhouse (pictured above), ‘ventured’ out of his metropolitan England, caught up in the cobweb of roads and rails around London, into the interior of England to see how the other three-quarters live. The Penguin Special he produced was the first of its kind since J.B. Priestley published his English Journey thirty years beforehand. Looking behind the Cotswold stone and the dereliction of the Black Country … the vaunted development schemes of Birmingham, he attempted to uncover England as it was in the 1960s – beauty, traffic, tradition, negroes, noise, and all.
The Black Country outside Birmingham may have appeared to have been standing still for a century or more, but by looking at its population it was possible to see that an enormous change had come over it in the late fifties and early sixties. The pallid, indigenous people had been joined by more colourful folk from the West Indies, India and Pakistan. The public transport system across Coventry, Birmingham and the Black Country would certainly have ground to a halt had it not been for its immigrant labour supply. On buses, the unions operated a colour bar more or less openly until 1960 when Morris Minta, a Jamaican, became the first coloured busman in Coventry.
The newcomers made an immediate impact on sporting life in Birmingham. Several years before the national press discovered the West Indian cricket supporters at Lord’s in 1963, they were already plainly visible and vocal at Edgbaston Cricket Ground. The cover of ‘Punch’ from May 1957, mirrors the stereotypical image described by Sir Neville Cardus (below right).
With a population of seventy thousand, Smethwick contained an immigrant community variously estimated at between five and seven thousand. It was claimed that this was proportionately greater than in any other county borough in England. The settlement of these people in Smethwick had not been the slow process over a long period that Liverpool, Cardiff and other seaports had experienced and which had allowed time for adjustments to be made gradually. It had happened in a rush, mainly at the end of the fifties and the beginning of the sixties. In such circumstances, the host communities learnt to behave better, but it was always likely that a deeply rooted white population would regard with suspicion the arrival of an itinerant coloured people on its home ground, and that friction would result. In Smethwick, the friction followed a familiar pattern. Most pubs in the town barred coloured people from their lounge bars. Some barbers refused to cut their hair. When a Pakistani family were allocated a new council flat after slum clearance in 1961, sixty-four of their white neighbours staged a rent strike and eventually succeeded in driving them out of the ironically named ‘Christ Street’.
Most of the usual white prejudices were keenly displayed in Smethwick, the reasons offered for hostility to the migrants being that they made too much noise, that they did not tend to their gardens with the customary English care, that they left their children unattended too long, and that their children were delaying the progress of white pupils in the schools. The correspondence columns of the local weekly newspaper, the Smethwick Telephone, provided a platform for the airing of these prejudices, as a letter quoted by a correspondent of The Times on 9 March 1964 shows:
‘With the advent of the pseudo-socialists’ ‘coloured friends’, the incidence of T.B. in the area has risen to become one of the highest in the country. Can it be denied that the foul practice of spitting in public is a contributory factor? Why waste the ratepayers’ money printing notices in five different languages? People who behave worse than animals will not in the least be deterred by them.’
At the time, no one seems to know who originated the slogan: If you want a Nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour, which was circulating in Smethwick before the 1963 municipal elections. The Conservatives were widely reported as using the slogan but Colin Jordan, leader of the neo-Nazi British Movement, claimed that his members had produced the initial slogan as well as spread the poster and sticker campaign; Jordan’s group in the past had also campaigned on other slogans, such as: Don’t vote – a vote for Tory, Labour or Liberal is a vote for more Blacks! Griffiths denied that this slogan was racist, saying:
‘I should think that is a manifestation of the popular feeling. I would not condemn anyone who said that. I would say that is how people see the situation in Smethwick. I fully understand the feelings of the people who say it. I would say it is exasperation, not fascism.’Quoted in The Times, 9 March 1964.
The specific issue that Labour and Conservatives debated across the Smethwick council chamber was how best to integrate immigrant children into the borough’s schools. The Tories wanted to segregate them, but Labour took the view that they should be taught in separate groups for English only and that the level of integration otherwise should be left to the discretion of the individual schools. But the party division soon got far deeper as the housing shortage in Smethwick, as great as anywhere in the Black Country, exacerbated race relations. The Conservatives said that if they controlled the council they would not necessarily re-house a householder on taking over his property for slum clearance unless he had lived in the town for ten years or more. While the local Labour Party deprecated attempts to make immigration a political issue, the Conservatives actively encouraged them. Councillor Peter Griffiths, the local Tory leader had actively supported the Christ Street rent strike.
At the municipal elections in 1963, the Conservatives fared disastrously over the country in general, gaining no more than five seats. Three of these were in Smethwick. In the elections for aldermen of 1964, the Conservatives gained control of the council, their ‘prize’ for having been consistently critical of the immigrant community in the area. The Smethwick constituency had been held by Labour since 1945, for most of that time by Patrick Gordon-Walker, Labour’s Shadow Foreign Secretary. But his majorities at successive general elections had dwindled from 9,727 in 1951 to 6,495 in 1955 to 3,544 in 1959. This declining majority could not, obviously, be solely attributed to Labour’s policy on immigration, either nationally or locally. It reflected a national trend since 1951, a preference for Tory economic management. But the drop in 1959 seemed to be in part, at least, a reaction to local issues. Moorhouse, writing in mid-1964, just before the general election, found few people who would bet on Gordon-Walker being returned to Westminster, however successful Labour might be in the country as a whole. His opponent in the election was Councillor Griffiths, who was so convinced of the outcome by the end of 1963 that he had already fixed himself up with a flat in London. Moorhouse wrote:
If he does become Smethwick’s next MP it will not simply be because he has attracted the floating voter to his cause. It will also be because many people who have regarded themselves as socialist through thick and thin have decided that when socialism demands the application of its principles for the benefit of a coloured migrant population as well as for themselves it is high time to look for another political creed which is personally more convenient.
There had been resignations from the party, and a former Labour councillor was already running a club which catered only for ‘Europeans’. The Labour Club itself (not directly connected to the constituency party) had not, by the end of 1963, admitted a single coloured member. Smethwick in 1964 was not, he commented, a place of which many of its inhabitants could be proud, regardless of how they voted. That could be extended to any of us, he wrote:
‘We who live in areas where coloured people have not yet settled dare not say that what is happening in Smethwick today could not happen in our slice of England, too. For the issue is not a simple and straightforward one. There must be many men of tender social conscience who complain bitterly about the noise being imposed on them by road and air traffic while sweeping aside as intolerant the claims others about the noise imposed on them by West Indian neighbours, without ever seeing that there is an inconsistency in their attitude. It is not much different from the inconsistency of the English parent who demands the segregation of coloured pupils whose incapacities may indeed be retarding his child’s school progress but who fails to acknowledge the fact that in the same class there are probably a number of white children having a similar effect.
‘One issue put up by Smethwick (and the other places where social problems have already arisen) does, however, seem to be clear. The fact is that these people are here and, to put it at the lowest level of self-interest, we have got to live amicably with them if we do not want a repetition of Notting Hill and Nottingham, if we do not want a coloured ghetto steadily growing in both size and resentment. …
‘Smethwick is our window on the world from which we can look out and see the street sleepers of Calcutta, the shanty towns of Trinidad, the empty bellies of Bombay. And what do we make of it? Somebody at once comes up and sticks a notice in it. ‘If you want a Nigger neighbour, vote Labour.’ ‘
The 1964 general election involved a nationwide swing from the Conservatives to the Labour Party; which resulted in the party gaining a narrow five-seat majority. However, in Smethwick, the Conservative candidate, Griffiths gained the seat and unseated the sitting Labour MP and Foreign Secretary, Patrick Gordon-Walker. Griffiths, however, polled 436 votes less in 1964 than when he stood unsuccessfully for the Smethwick constituency in 1959. He was declared “a parliamentary leper” by Harold Wilson, the newly-elected Labour Prime Minister (below).
Griffiths, in his maiden speech to the Commons, pointed out what he believed were the real problems his constituency faced, including factory closures and over 4,000 families awaiting council accommodation. The election result led to a visit by Malcolm X to Smethwick to show solidarity with the black and Asian communities. Malcolm’s visit to Smethwick was “no accident”; the Conservative-run council attempted to put in place an official policy of racial segregation in Smethwick’s housing allocation, with houses on Marshall Street in Smethwick being let only to white British residents. Malcolm X claimed that Black minorities were being treated like the Jews under Hitler. Later in 1964, a delegation of white residents successfully petitioned the Conservative council to compulsorily purchase vacant houses in order to prevent non-whites from buying the houses. This, however, was prevented by Labour housing minister Richard Crossman, who refused to allow the council to borrow the money in order to enact their policy. Nine days after he visited Marshall Street, Malcolm X was shot dead in New York.
In 1965, Wilson’s new Home Secretary, Frank Soskice, tightened the quota system, cutting down on the number of dependents allowed in, and giving the Government the power to deport illegal immigrants. At the same time, it offered the first Race Relations Act as a ‘sweetener’. This outlawed the use of the ‘colour bar’ in public places and by potential landlords, and discrimination in public services, also banning incitement to racial hatred like that seen in the Smethwick campaign. At the time, it was largely seen as toothless, yet the combination of restrictions on immigration and the measures to better integrate the migrants already in Britain did form the basis for all subsequent policies. The Labour Party regained the Smethwick seat at the 1966 general election when Andrew Faulds became the new Member of Parliament.
The actions taken in Smethwick in 1964 have been described as ugly Tory racism which killed rational debate about immigration. However, colour bars were then common, preventing non-whites from using facilities. As already noted, The Labour Club in Smethwick effectively operated one, as, more overtly, did the local Sandwell Youth Club, which was run by one of the town’s Labour councillors. Moorhouse pointed out that had the community has been on the economic rocks, it might have been possible to make out a case for controls on immigration. Had there been a high rate of unemployment, where the standard of living was already impoverished, there might have been a case for keeping migrants ‘at bay’ so as to prevent competition for insufficient jobs from becoming greater and the general sense of depression from deepening. But that was not the case in West Birmingham and the Black Country in 1964, and for at least another decade.
For many of the southern English, like Moorhouse, it may have been as ugly as sin to look at, at least in parts, but outside the Golden Circle around London, there was no wealthier area in England and no place more economically stable. When the Birmingham busmen had objected to coloured colleagues a decade earlier, it was not because these would be taking jobs which might otherwise have gone to ‘Brummies’ but because it was feared they might have an effect on wages which a shortage of labour had maintained at an artificial level. These were real fears that had led to prejudice against previous immigrants to the region. At root, this was not a problem about colour per se, though there were cultural tropes and stereotypes at play. It was essentially about wages. This is how Anthony Richmond summarised it in his book, The Colour Problem:
The main objections to the employment of coloured colonials appeared to come from the trade unions, but less on the grounds of colour than because, if the number of drivers and conductors was brought up to full establishment by employing colonials, their opportunities for earning considerable sums as overtime would be reduced.
A fearful social sickness?
Smethwick’s problems in 1964 sprang from the same basic economic root, if not over wages, then over rents, with tenants fearing that competition for housing would drive these upwards, and quickly. According to Moorhouse, this was part of a fearful social sickness affecting the Midlands as a whole which seemed to be compounded by a desire to make money fast while the going was good, a willingness to go to any lengths to achieve this. For the first time in the industrial history of the West Midlands, it was possible for the working classes to reach their target of acquiring a surplus through full employment. This left no space or energy for any other considerations. It was an attitude of mind which had been copied from those higher up the social scale in industry and was most in evidence in the car factories. Their workers were earning over twenty pounds and sometimes thirty pounds a week on the production lines, putting them up among the highest-paid manual labourers in Britain.
But Moorhouse presents no evidence to suggest that immigrant workers either hindered – or threatened to hinder – this ‘chase’ for ever- greater affluence among the indigenous population. We do know that in Coventry, the Caribbean and Asian immigrants were excluded from high-paying engineering jobs. The only inroads they made into engineering were in the lowest-paid and dirtiest end of the trade, particularly the foundries, of which there were many in Smethwick and the Black Country. Even there they were confined to the lowliest jobs by a tacit consensus of management and workers. As early as 1951, the management of Sterling Metals in Coventry, under union pressure, stated at the Works Conference that it was their main desire to recruit white labour and they agreed to keep black and white ‘gangs’ segregated on the shop floor.
Therefore, the case of Smethwick in 1964 cannot easily be explained by reference to economic factors, though we know that the social and cultural factors surrounding the issues of housing and education did play significant roles. The main factor underpinning the 1964 Election result in Smethwick would appear to be political, in that it was still acceptable, at that time and among local politicians of both main parties, together with public and trade union officials, for racial discrimination and segregation to be seen as instruments of public policy in response to mass immigration. In this, Smethwick was not that different from other towns and cities throughout the West Midlands, if not from those elsewhere in England. And it would take a long time for such social and industrial hierarchies to be worn down through local and national government intervention which went ahead of, and sometimes cut across the ‘privileged’ grain of indigenous populations. Smethwick represented a turning point in this process; four years later Wolverhampton and Birmingham would become the fulcrum in the fight back against violent, organised racism.
Gang Violence, Organised Racism & Riots:
White gangs of ‘Teddy boys’, like the one depicted above in London, went ‘nigger-hunting’ or ‘black-burying’, chalking Keep Britain White on walls. However, their main motivation stemmed, not from any ideological influence, but from a sense of young male competition and territory marking. They were often the poor white children of the remaining poor white tenants in the same areas being ‘taken over’ by the migrants. As the black British sociologist, Stuart Hall has written, in the ‘society of affluence’, which threw up paradoxical signals, it was easy to project the problems which life presented into simple and stereotyped remedies, as was demonstrated by the following response to a BBC radio enquiry of the late fifties:
“It is getting too bad now. They’re too many in the country and they’re over-running it. If they come into this country, they should be made to live to the same standards as we live, and not too many in their house as they always have done, unless someone puts their foot down. They bring in diseases and all sorts of things that spread to different people, and your children have to grow up with them and it’s not right.”
‘They’ were, of course, West Indian or Asian sub-continental immigrants. A motorcycle lad said of his parents, they just stay awake until I get in at night, and once I’m in they’re happy,… but every time I go out I know they’re on edge. He talked casually about going down to Notting Hill Gate… to punch a few niggers up. All this came to a head at Notting Hill the next year, 1958, with the now infamous riots which took place there, though the anti-immigrant violence actually started in St Ann’s, a poor district of distant Nottingham, and spread to the capital the following day. The scene soon shifted onto a bigger backcloth, and not just from Notting Hill to Nottingham, but the story was the same and one which was to become more and more familiar over the coming decades – one of growing intolerance, if not cultural bigotry, in British society.
Hostility to Commonwealth immigrants was pronounced in some sections of the local white population. One manifestation of this was the establishment of the Birmingham Immigration Control Association, founded in the early 1960s by a group of Tory MPs. At first, however, only a handful of MPs campaigned openly against immigration. Even Enoch Powell, in the mid-sixties, would only raise the issue in private meetings, though he had been keen enough, as health minister, to make use of migrant labour. The anti-immigrant feeling was regarded as not respectable, not something that a decent politician was prepared to talk about. The Westminster élite talked in well-meaning generalities of the immigrants as being fellow subjects of the Crown. Most of the hostility was at the level of the street and popular culture, usually in the form of the disguised discrimination of shunning, through to the humiliation of door-slamming and on to more overtly violent street attacks. In August 1958, as violence against coloured immigrants became a serious problem, The Times reported on the demands for immigration controls being made by Conservative MPs:
‘Seeing the Nottingham fight between coloured and white people on Saturday night a red light warning of further troubles to come, some Conservative M.P.s intend to renew their demand for control to be placed on immigration from the Commonwealth and the colonies when Parliament reassembles in October…
A resolution is on the agenda for the Conservative Party Conference. It has been tabled by Mr Norman Pannell, Conservative M.P. for the Kirkdale division of Liverpool, who obtained the signatures of about thirty Conservative M.P.s for a motion (never debated) during the last session of Parliament. This expressed the growing disquiet over ’the continuing influx of indigent immigrants from the Commonwealth and colonies, thousands of whom have immediately sought National Assistance’. Mr Pannell said yesterday, …
“The Nottingham fighting is a manifestation of the evil results of the present policy and I feel that unless some restriction is imposed we shall create the colour-bar we all wish to avoid…
“The object of my representation is to get some control, not to bar all colonial and Commonwealth immigration, but to see that the immigrants shall not be a charge on public funds, and that they are deported when they are guilty of serious crimes.” ‘
These ‘concerns’ were not new of course, even in the late fifties, and nor were the active forms of prejudice and discrimination which had accompanied them since the middle of the decade in the general population. In addition to dilapidated housing and racial discrimination in employment, and sometimes at the hands of the police, there was the added hazard of racial bigotry in older urban areas. What was new was the way in which this was articulated and amplified from the early sixties onwards by Conservative MPs and parliamentary candidates, leading to the emergence of the National Front as a political force in the early seventies.
A Multicultural Society?
By the end of the 1950s, although the populations of the nations and regions of the British Isles had become more permanently mixed than ever before, and added to by those refugees from central and eastern Europe who had now been exiled by the triumph of Soviet Communism in the establishment of the Warsaw Pact, as yet there had been very little New Commonwealth immigration to Britain. It was only in the sixties and seventies that the country began to be transformed into what came to be known, by the 1980s, as a multicultural society.
Paradoxically, then, just as Britain was retreating from its formal imperial commitments, Commonwealth immigration into Britain, principally from the West Indies and South Asia, was becoming an increasingly important issue in domestic politics. During the 1950s, the number of West Indians entering Britain reached annual rates of thirty thousand. The importance attached to the Commonwealth in the 1950s prevented the imposition of immigration controls. However, by the 1960s, Britain’s retreat from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe and events such as the Notting Hill and Nottingham race riots in 1958 heralded a policy of restriction, which gradually whittled away at the right of British overseas citizens to automatic British naturalisation. Although the 1962 Immigration Act was intended to reduce the inflow of blacks and Asians into Britain, it had the opposite effect: fearful of losing the right of free entry, as many immigrants came to Britain in the eighteen months before restrictions were introduced as had arrived over the previous five years. But in the second half of the 1960s, the rate of immigration into the English West Midlands was reported, in local official statistics, to be slowing down. Community relations were also calming down, as the immigrants of the previous decades integrated and raised families.
The Maverick MP Enoch Powell & The Immigration Acts, 1968-71:
In the Spring of 1968, the Government responded to an emergency in Kenya by introducing a Bill to control the sudden influx of a large number of Kenyan Asians, British overseas subjects, to the UK. At the same time, they sought to enact laws to protect the existing black and Asian immigrants to Britain. Against that background, the Wolverhampton MP and government minister Enoch Powell decided to make an intervention in these issues by alluding to a classical text which many took to be a prophecy of impending racial conflict in Britain:
As I look ahead, I am filled with foreboding. Like the Roman, I seem to see ’the river Tiber foaming with much blood’.
But rather than simply opposing the immigration of Kenyan Asians, Powell also echoed various accusations or ‘slurs’ against the established ‘black’ population, reportedly made by his constituents, that they had been persecuted by ‘Negroes’, having excrement posted through their letterboxes and being followed to the shops by children, charming wide-grinning pickaninnies chanting “Racialist.” If Britain did not begin a policy of voluntary repatriation, he stated, it would soon face the kind of race riots that were disfiguring America. Powell claimed that he was merely restating Tory policy, but the inflammatory language used and his own careful preparation of the speech suggests it was both a ‘call to arms’ by a politician who believed he was fighting for white English nationhood and a deliberate provocation aimed at Powell’s enemy, Heath. When a journalist asked whether he considered himself a ‘racialist’, Powell responded:
“We are all racialists. Do I object to one coloured person in this country? No. To a hundred? No. To a million? (A query). To five million? Definitely.”
Did most people in 1968 agree with him, as Andrew Marr has suggested? It’s important to point out that, until he made this speech, Powell had been a Tory ‘insider’, though also seen as a maverick and a trusted member of Edward Heath’s shadow cabinet. He also drew sustenance from his constituents, who seemed to be excluded from mainstream politics. He argued that they had had immigration imposed on them without being asked and against their will. He was expelled from the shadow cabinet for his anti-immigration speech, not so much for its racialist content, which was mainly given in ‘reported speech’, but for suggesting that the race relations legislation being introduced was merely throwing a match on gunpowder. Those who knew Powell best claimed that he was not a racialist. The local newspaper editor, Clem Jones, thought Enoch’s anti-immigration stance was not ideologically motivated, but had ‘simply’ been influenced by the anger of white Wolverhampton people who felt crowded out; even in Powell’s own street, Jones said…
“… of good, solid, Victorian houses, next door went sort of coloured and then another and then another house, and he saw the value of his own house go down.”
Jones also added that Powell always worked hard as an MP for all his constituents, representing them regardless of colour. His speech became known, infamously, as The Rivers of Blood Speech and formed the backdrop of the legislation. The Immigration Bill had been rushed through in the spring of 1968 and has been described as among the most divisive and controversial decisions ever taken by any British government. Some MPs viewed it as the most shameful piece of legislation ever enacted by Parliament, the ultimate appeasement of racist hysteria. The government responded with a tougher anti-discrimination bill in the same year. For many others, however, the passing of the act was the moment when the political élite, in the shape of Jim Callaghan, Home Secretary, finally woke up and listened to their working-class workers. Polls of the public showed that 72% supported the act. Never again would the idea of free access to Britain be seriously entertained by mainstream politicians.
Although Powell was sacked from the Shadow Cabinet by the Tory leader, Edward Heath, more legislative action followed under the Tories themselves with the 1971 Immigration Act. This effectively restricted citizenship on racial grounds by enacting the Grandfather Clause, by which a Commonwealth citizen who could prove that one of his or her grandparents was born in the UK was entitled to immediate entry clearance. This operated to the disadvantage of Black and Asian applicants, while favouring citizens of the old Commonwealth, descendants of white settlers from Australia, New Zealand, Canada and South Africa. Thus immigration control had moved away from primary immigration to restricting the entry of dependents, or secondary immigration, based largely on ethnic origin. Enoch Powell himself, from the back-benches, likened the distinction between ‘new’ and ‘old’ Commonwealth immigrants to a Nazi race purity law; he wanted a new definition of British citizenship instead. The grandparent rule was defeated by the right and left combining for opposite reasons but was restored two years later. In the meantime, the Kenyan crisis was replayed in another former East African colony, Uganda.
Powell may have helped British society by speaking out on an issue that, until then, had remained taboo. However, the language of his discourse still seems quite inflammatory and provocative even for fifty years ago, so much so that even historians hesitate to quote them. His words also helped to make the extreme-right Nazis of the National Front more acceptable. Furthermore, his core prediction of major civil unrest was not fulfilled, despite riots and street crime linked to disaffected youths from Caribbean immigrant communities in the 1980s. To overcome increasing prejudice and outright racism, immigrants to Birmingham tended to congregate in poorer inner city areas or in the western suburbs along the boundary with Smethwick, Warley, West Bromwich (now Sandwell), and Dudley. Birmingham’s booming postwar economy attracted West Indian settlers from Jamaica, Barbados and St Kitts in the 1950s.
By 1971, the South Asian and West Indian populations were equal in size and concentrated in the inner city wards and in north-west Birmingham, especially in Handsworth, Sandwell and Sparkbrook (see the map below). Labour shortages had developed in Birmingham as a result of an overall movement towards more skilled and white-collar employment among the native population, which created vacancies in the poorly paid, less attractive, unskilled and semi-skilled jobs in manufacturing, particularly in metal foundries and factories, and in the transport and health care sectors of the public services. In the 1970s, poor pay and working conditions forced some of these workers to resort to strike action.
But hostility to Caribbean immigrants remained pronounced in some sections of the local white population as it became more prosperous by the mid-1980s, and what became known as ‘white flight’ took place, migration from the inner city areas to the expanding suburbs to the southwest and east of the city. However, it is still unclear to what extent this migration was really due to concerns about immigrants. The majority of British people did not want the arrival of large numbers of Irish, West Indians and South Asians, but neither did they want an end to capital punishment or membership in a federal European Union, or many other things that their political élite decided upon. In the 1980s, the fears and prejudices seemed to be realised in a series of riots by disaffected black youths in London, Liverpool and Birmingham. There were riots in Handsworth in 1981 and again in 1985.
However, Enoch was not right about the growth of the immigrant population by the end of the century, which had been the main point of his 1968 speech. Just before the speech, Powell had suggested that by the end of the century, the number of black and Asian immigrants and their descendants would number between five and seven million, about a tenth of the population. According to the 2001 census, 4.7 million people identified as black or Asian, equivalent to 7.9 per cent of the total population. Immigrants were, of course, far more strongly represented in percentage terms in the English cities, but by the late 1980s, the overall numbers of West Indians were already in decline, and the proportion of the total British population made up of ethnic minorities was less than five per cent, as shown in the table below. Over the last decade of the twentieth century, it remained at that level.
The Final Passage & Back Again:
A new level of linguistic and cultural diversity was introduced by Caribbean and new Commonwealth immigration. This was manifested not just in the various ‘new’ languages that entered Britain, but also in the variety of new dialects of English originating in different parts of the old Empire, especially in the West Indies. Within the British West Indian community, Jamaican English, or the patois – as it is known – has had a special place as a token of identity. While there were complicated social pressures that frowned on Jamaican English in Jamaica, with parents complaining when their children ‘talk local’ too much, in England it became almost obligatory to do so in London. One Jamaican schoolgirl who made the final passage to the Empire’s capital city with her parents in the seventies put it like this:
It’s rather weird ’cos when I was in Jamaica I wasn’t really allowed to speak it (Jamaican creole) in front of my parents. I found it difficult in Britain at first. When I went to school I wanted to be like the others in order not to stand out. So I tried speaking the patois as well… You get sort of a mixed reception. Some people say, ’You sound really nice, quite different.’ Other people say, ’You’re a foreigner, speak English. Don’t try to be like us, ’cos you’re not like us.’
Despite the mixed reception from her British West Indian friends, she persevered with the patois, and, as she put it “after a year I lost my British accent, and was accepted.” However, for many Caribbean visitors to Britain, the patois of Brixton and Notting Hill was a stylised form that was not, as they saw it, truly Jamaican, not least because British West Indians came from all parts of the Caribbean. Another West Indian schoolgirl, born in London and visiting Jamaica for the first time, was teased for her patois. She was told that she didn’t “sound right and that.” The experience convinced her that…
“… in London the Jamaicans have developed their own language in patois, sort of. ’Cos they make up their own words in London, in, like, Brixton. And then it just develops into patois as well.”
Researchers found that there were already white children in predominantly black schools who had begun using the British West Indian patois in order to be accepted by the majority of their friends, who were black:
“I was born in Brixton and I’ve been living here for seventeen years, and so I just picked it up from hanging around with my friends who are mainly Black people. And so I can relate to them by using it, because otherwise I’d feel an outcast… But when I’m with someone else who I don’t know I try to speak as fluent English as possible. It’s like I feel embarrassed about it (the patois), I feel like I’m degrading myself by using it.”
The ‘unconscious racism’ of such comments pointed to the predicament of the Black Britons. Not fully accepted, for all their rhetoric, by the established native population, they felt neither fully Caribbean nor fully British. This was the poignant outcome of what the British Black writer Caryl Phillips called The Final Passage. Phillips, who came to Britain as a baby in the late 1950s, was one of the first of his generation to grapple with the problem of finding a means of literary self-expression that was true to his experience:
“The paradox of my situation is that where most immigrants have to learn a new language, Caribbean immigrants have to learn a new form of the same language. It induces linguistic schizophrenia – you have an identity crisis that mirrors the larger cultural confusion.”
In his novel, The Final Passage, the narrative is in Standard English. But the speech of the characters is a rendering of ‘nation language’:
‘I don’t care what anyone tell you, going to England be good for it going to raise your mind. For a West Indian boy you just being there is an education, for you going see what England do for sheself… It’s a college for the West Indian.’
The lesson of this college is, as Phillips puts it, that symptomatic of the colonial situation, the language has been divided as well. In the British Black community, and in the English-speaking islands of the Caribbean, English – creole or standard – was the only available language.
By the end of the seventies, Caribbean and Rastafarian Reggae music, together with ‘dub poetry’ was beginning to have a broad impact on British pop culture. In Birmingham, a group of out-of-work young white men formed the band UB40, named after their benefit claim forms. The multicultural band Steel Pulse also became popular. On the other side of rock ‘politics’, there was an eruption of racist, skinhead rock, and a ‘casual’ but influential interest in the far right from among more established artists. At a concert I attended at the Birmingham Odeon in 1976, Eric Clapton, arriving on stage an hour late either drunk or stoned (or both), enquired as to whether there were any immigrants in the audience. He then said, to the shock and disgust of almost everyone there, Powell is the only bloke whose telling the truth, for the good of the country.
Ska and Soul music also had a real influence in turning street culture decisively against racism. Coventry’s Ska revival band, The Specials captured and expressed this new mood. The seventies produced, in the middle of visions of social breakdown, a musical revival which reflected the reality of a lost generation, whilst in turn reviving their sense of enjoyment of life. As one contemporary cultural critic put it:
A lifestyle – urban, mixed, music-loving, modern and creative – had survived, despite being under threat from the NF.’
My experiences growing up with ‘the Windrush generation’ in the decade 1965-75 have shaped my interests and actions in opposing racism in all its variety of forms over the subsequent decades, and they continue to do so today, half a century later. Multicultural Britain has not been made in a ‘melting pot’ but through the interaction of cultures and identities in mutual respect. That is reconciliation through integration and integration through reconciliation which I still believe Christians and people of other faiths must work towards.
Appendix: The Second Generation – The Murder of Stephen Lawrence & Institutional Racism:
I’m publishing this article on another important anniversary, that of the murder of the black eighteen-year-old Stephen Lawrence, on 22 April 1993. Stephen was born in Greenwich in 1975 and grew up in Plumstead, southeast London, before being brutally murdered in a racially motivated attack while waiting for a bus in Well Hall Road, Eltham. During his teenage years, Lawrence excelled in running, competing for the local Cambridge Harriers athletics club, and appeared as an extra in Denzel Washington’s film For Queen and Country.
At the time of his murder, he was studying technology and physics at the Blackheath Bluecoat Church of England School and English language and literature at Woolwich College and was hoping to become an architect. His mother, Doreen Lawrence, said:
“I would like Stephen to be remembered as a young man who had a future. He was well loved, and had he been given the chance to survive maybe he would have been the one to bridge the gap between black and white because he didn’t distinguish between black and white. He saw people as people.”
After the initial investigation, six suspects were arrested but not charged; a private prosecution subsequently initiated by Lawrence’s family failed to secure convictions for any of the accused.
The fallout from this tragic event included changes in attitudes toward racism in police practice. It also led to the partial revocation of the rule against double jeopardy. Two of the perpetrators were finally convicted of murder on 3 January 2012. It was suggested during the investigation that Lawrence was killed because he was black, and that the handling of the case by the police and Crown Prosecution Service was affected by issues of race. A 1998 public inquiry, headed by Sir William Macpherson, examined the original Metropolitan Police Service investigation and concluded that the investigation was incompetent and that the force was institutionally racist.
The publication in 1999 of the resulting Macpherson Report has been called one of the most important moments in the modern history of criminal justice in Britain. The report found that there had been a failure of leadership by senior ‘Met’ officers and that recommendations of the 1981 Scarman Report, compiled following race-related riots in Brixton and Toxteth, had been ignored. A total of seventy recommendations for reform, covering both policing and criminal law, were made. These proposals included abolishing the double jeopardy rule and criminalising racist statements made in private. Macpherson also called for reform in the British Civil Service, local governments, the National Health Service, schools, and the judicial system, to address issues of institutional racism.
Gary Dobson and David Norris were arrested and charged without publicity on 8 September 2010 and on 23 October 2010 the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, applied to the Court of Appeal for Dobson’s original acquittal to be quashed. Dobson was in prison at the time for drug dealing. Norris had not been previously acquitted, so no application was necessary in his case. For legal reasons, to protect the investigation and ensure a fair hearing, reporting restrictions were put in place at the commencement of these proceedings; the arrests and subsequent developments were not publicly reported at the time. Dobson’s acquittal was quashed following a two-day hearing in April 2011, enabling his retrial. On 18 May 2011, the Court of Appeal handed down its judgment and the reporting restrictions were partially lifted. It was announced by the Crown Prosecution Service that the two would face trial for Lawrence’s murder in light of new and substantial evidence.
A jury was selected in November 2011, and the trial, presided over by Mr Justice Treacy, began the next day at the Central Criminal Court. With the prosecution led by Mark Ellison QC, the case centred on the new forensic evidence and whether it demonstrated the defendant’s involvement in the murder, or was the result of later contamination due to police handling. On 3 January 2012, after the jury had deliberated for just over eight hours, Dobson and Norris were found guilty of Lawrence’s murder. The two were sentenced on 4 January 2012 to detention at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, equivalent to a life sentence for an adult, with minimum terms of fifteen years and two months for Dobson and fourteen years and three months for Norris.
Doreen Lawrence was elevated to the peerage as a Baroness on 6 September 2013 and is formally styled Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, of Clarendon in the Commonwealth Realm of Jamaica; the honour is rare for being designated after a location in a Commonwealth realm outside the United Kingdom. She sits on the Labour benches in the House of Lords as a working peer specialising in race and diversity. On 23 April 2018, at a memorial service to mark the 25th anniversary of his death, Prime Minister Theresa May announced that “Stephen Lawrence Day” would be an annual national commemoration of his death on 22 April every year starting in 2019. Doreen Lawrence made a statement that Stephen Lawrence Day would be:
“… an opportunity for young people to use their voices and should be embedded in our education and wider system regardless of the government of the day”.
A Stephen Lawrence Research Centre was built at De Montfort University, located inside the Hugh Aston building. Lawrence’s mother was appointed as Chancellor of the University in January 2016. The Centre will host a series of special events for the thirtieth anniversary of Stephen’s murder in April 2023.
The accusation of institutional racism stung the Metropolitan Police in 1999 and has continued to haunt the Force ever since, most recently in a report released in early April 2022, which echoed the Macpherson report in claiming that a work culture of racist, misogynistic and homophobic abuse had not been dealt within the organisation and still hampers operational effectiveness in terms of its ability to work with and for all Londoners. The new Commissioner of the Metropolitan Force has vowed to root out all forms of illegal discrimination within the force by sacking officers found guilty of these abuses.
Geoffrey Moorhouse (1964), Britain in the Sixties: The Other England. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Bill Lancaster & Tony Mason (1980), Life & Labour in a Twentieth Century City: The Experience of Coventry. Coventry: Cryfield Press, University of Warwick.
Andrew Marr (2007), A History of Modern Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
Barry Cunliffe, Asa Briggs, et.al. (eds.) (2001), The Penguin Atlas of British and Irish History. London: Penguin Books.
McCrum, Cran & MacNeil, (eds.) (1986), The Story of English. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Theo Baker (ed.) (1978) The Long March of Everyman. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books.
Simon Schama (2002), A History of Britain: The Fate of Empire, 1776-2000. London: BBC Worldwide.
Richard Brown & Christopher Daniels (1982), Documents and Debates: Twentieth Century Britain. Basingstoke: Macmillan.
One thought on “The Windrush Generation, Seventy-five Years on – 1948-2023: Caribbean Immigrants to Britain; Policy, Music & Culture”
Reblogged this on Andrew James and commented:
New material & Appendix added