The years directly following the Second World War saw a huge transfer of the Caribbean Islands population. It was, in fact, the largest outward movement of people from the British Caribbean Islands, with many thousands ultimately moving to Britain in search of a better life.
The war was a major factor that stimulated migration to England after 1945. Because the British armed forces and the merchant navy were forced to expand considerably, labour shortages became a very real problem on the home front. Women and Irish workers stepped up to fill the gaps, but this was only a partial remedy. Thus, the Empire reached out to its colonies, recruiting thousands of Hondurans and West Indians, among others. Not only were workers recruited for labour on the home front, but 10,000 West Indians were recruited by the Royal Air Force, and thousands more joined the Merchant Navy as well as becoming the workforce keeping the London buses moving.
At the same time, the West Indies had been much neglected and had become the “slum of the Empire” with high levels
of poverty and unemployment. As the war ended and West Indians returned, the men who had fought hard for the Empire knew that there was little opportunity for employment at home.
The men who had been recruited during the war were eligible for repatriation and gratuities. The government made a valiant effort to send many of them home, and about a fifth of the West Indians were repatriated to Jamaica; however, most quickly returned to Britain. Others simply refused to leave Great Britain at all, instead settling in various parts of England and Scotland.
Following the war, Britain was busy rebuilding and was in dire need of labourers. Initially, however, the British government was reluctant to allow migration from the West Indies, preferring instead to invite workers from the European continent. Many, in fact, felt that West Indians would be lazy or would turn to an easy life on the welfare system. Despite a huge influx of Poles and Italians, the need was simply too great and the UK turned to its colonies.
Finally, the decision was made to allow all British subjects entry. It was widely felt that since all subjects of the Empire had contributed equally to the war effort, there shouldn’t be restrictions on certain groups or nationalities.
In 1948, a Jamaican newspaper featured an advertisement stating that 300 places were available on board the ship Windrush, headed for England. Anyone hoping for better career or education prospects was welcome to travel aboard the ship. This voyage, which landed at Tilbury docks on June 21st, 1948, was the beginning of a major migration from the West Indian Islands to Britain. From 1948 to 1955, over 18,000 immigrants had moved from the Caribbean to Britain. The migration did not slow until 1962, by which time over 98,000 West Indians had made Great Britain their new home.
While many of the migrants were simply grateful for the opportunities available to them, most did face substantial challenges. Many were severely limited in their skills, and thus were forced to take low-paying jobs. The housing many migrants inhabited was of the poorest quality, yet they remained and formed a tightly-knit ethnic group with shared cultural, linguistic, and religious traditions. Social prejudice and discrimination was a challenge as well, as many British workers felt that migrants were taking over the job market and causing unemployment.
Fortunately, however, the West Indian migrants soon settled and became valued contributors to the rebuilding efforts. In many ways, they became a replacement population, inhabiting areas that were previously sparsely populated. Ultimately, the huge influx breathed new life and diversity into the British culture – ethnic diversity that is now widely celebrated. It marked a massive change in British society, and was the start of more wide-spread immigration to the UK.