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Popular responses

The arrival of Empire Windrush itself was greeted with fascination by the press. The newspapers had keenly followed the imminent arrival of the ‘400 Sons of Empire’32 as the Daily Mirror had patronisingly dubbed them, and newsreel cameras and front-page headlines greeted the ship. The Evening Standard even rented a plane to intercept the boat before it docked and ran a front-page headline of ‘Welcome Home!’33

However, if the initial press response was quite warm then much of the popular response was downright cold. Obviously, reactions varied extensively depending on location and socio-economic environments, and some early arrivals have mentioned how Communists tried to befriend them as soon as they arrived.34 However, there is certainly evidence to provide a serious challenge to the myth of British tolerance and friendliness. Far more pervasive than overtly physical manifestations of racism were the more day-to-day prejudice and discrimination faced by new non-white immigrants with many struggling to find employment, accommodation and social acceptance in. The first necessity for many new immigrants was employment. Many industries and professions were essentially out of bounds for the new immigrants because of their colour, meaning many found the racist job market hurtful and frustrating:

Day after day he tries to get work. Day after day he hears the radio crying out for workers. He can’t understand it, he begins to think: they want workers in the mills and in the mines, they want workers here and there, I see Poles and even Germans getting jobs, what’s wrong with me? Ah! the light shines. My Colour.35

A study by Ruth Glass in 1958-1959 found that 55% of West Indians underwent a job downgrade due to migration with professional and clerical West Indian males having just a one in four chance of finding a similar job in Britain.36 Most found work in unskilled or semi-skilled jobs despite their background as skilled workers or professionals. Employers often claimed to be rejecting black applicants on the grounds of a lack of qualifications or a grasp of the language, however, research in the 1960s showed these excuses were inaccurate and that ‘blatant racial discrimination in employment was taking place on a massive scale’.37

It was not only from the employers that the immigrants faced discrimination and prejudice. The reaction of parts of Britain’s trade union movement to the employment-seeking immigrants is a stain on the history of the British labour movement. A fear of competition for jobs, undercutting of wages and conditions and downright racism meant that parts of the Trade Union movement reacted in a highly un-progressive manner. The Daily Express reported in June of 1948: ‘No more coloured men are to be employed in pits in the north-west under a pact made between the Coal Board and miners’ leaders’.3“ While the operation of a colour bar was against the constitution of some unions, the reality on the ground was often very different. One can find many examples such as the Nottingham and Stockwell bus workers who refused to work with West Indians, the Nottingham members of the Electrical Trades Union who were accused by their branch officials of operating a colour bar and some foundrymen who simply refused to work with ‘coloured’ men.39 One senior official of the National Union of Railwaymen was quoted in the News Chronicle as saying: ‘If you send any more, the men will demand separate canteens and lavatory facilities’. Jack Jones, then-Midland Regional Secretary of the TGWU, said that further immigrant workers could create ‘problems’.4" In 1954, 100 union leaders met in Coventry to discuss the protection of white workers with a view to depriving black people of promotion prospects and job security.41 Jim Leask, head of the Transport and General Workers Union, proposed that, ‘Negro workers should not be given supervisory jobs over whites’, that ‘they should not be hired if white workers are available’, that ‘there should be an agreement between management and labor before any negroes are employed’ and that ‘negroes should be the first fired in the case of recession’.42 For many new non-white immigrants the employment market was extremely hostile with a combination of either rejection or exploitation from the employers and resentment from their colleagues.

Despite the hurdles new immigrants faced, most managed to find work, even if that meant taking a significant job downgrade, meaning the other necessity was finding accommodation. The reaction of many landlords once again questions the accepted notion of innate British tolerance and friendliness and rather portrays a society riddled with pervasive racism and discrimination. When asked about the struggle to find accommodation, Cecil Holness, a West Indian immigrant, said,

it’s either two or three of you in a room, in those days, as a black man, it’s very hard to get a room, you wouldn’t get one. They always put on the board, “Black-Niggers not wanted here”, on the board you know, these boards out there, “No Niggers” or “No Colour”, things like that. So it’s very hard to get a room.43

The difficulties faced by Holmes were by no means extraordinary but rather ‘typical and characteristic’44 of the problems new arrivals found when looking for accommodation. This is backed up by a private poll conducted in 1956 by John Darragh, a British journalist, which found only 15 out of 1,000 white people in Birmingham were willing to rent accommodation to ‘coloured’ people.4’ Glass did a similar study of rental adverts in the Kensington Post in 1959 and found one in six adverts were ‘anti-coloured’. However, she accepts that this only covers the ‘overt discrimination’, and despite the majority being ‘neutral’ adverts, most estate agents and landlords would refuse to take non-white tenants; in fact only one in six was prepared to consider a black applicant.46

The hostile rental market resulted in groups of immigrants pooling resources in ‘pardner’ groups in the hope of buying properties. Even then, however, their colour proved a problem. Very few estate agents were willing to do business with them, and those that did demanded special terms that often included extra commission, cash bribes and 50% or more cash to be paid for the house to overcome reluctant and racist vendors. They also paid an extortionate premium, which according to the Birmingham Post was as much as £300-^400 more on a house worth ^1,000-/jl,200.47 The result of such prejudice and exploitation was overcrowding in slumlike conditions, a form of ghettoisation in poor areas, often leading to further confrontation with the local poor white working-class communities who felt they were creating higher competition for cheap housing and low skilled jobs.

On top of this racism in the workplace and exploitation in the accommodation market was a rejection and isolation in the social sphere, including, pubs, dance halls and churches. Many new non-white immigrants, especially the West Indians, were devout Christians and were deeply shocked and hurt by the frosty reception they received from many congregations in Britain, both Anglican and Roman Catholic.48 In addition, while not all pubs and clubs rejected black patrons, many did erect a colour bar, often claiming it was on their customers’ objections. Some of the clubs that did allow non-white customers were forced to close down because of protests. The Paramount Dance Hall on Tottenham Court Road, London, for example, shut down following protests by the brothers of girls who mixed with black men. The proprietor stated, ‘White men mix and accept the coloured races on the same social footing, but they will not share their women with anyone’49 a quote that manages to be racist, misogynist and oxymoronic all in one sentence. Some white women were also against mixing in clubs with one writing to the black magazine Checkers to complain about ‘the number of coloured men who are allowed admittance’. She stated: ‘Personally I wouldn’t dance with a coloured man if he asked me: I consider their behaviour disgusting’.3'1 The result of such unwelcoming prejudice was the creation of their own clubs and a blossoming of house parties and private dances and functions.3'

Sadly, for many of the non-white immigrants who sought to build a new life in the ‘mother country’ in the late 1940s and 1950s, the reception they received was intolerant and heartbreakingly prejudiced. Dilip Hiro summarises the experience of new immigrants thus:

The West Indians had arrived in Britain, ebullient and enthusiastic, to share the British dream. But within a decade the dream had turned sour. They found themselves downgraded in jobs, performing menial and unpopular tasks; overcharged in renting and buying houses; and through an unwritten, but pervasive, code of conduct, slowly, but definitely, segregated in “Coloured Colonies”.52

Writing about the pain of racism in the UK, this time following a racist article in the Daily Mirror, the editor of Checkers Magazine despondently summed up how the community felt, ‘hurt, humiliated, disappointed, disillusioned and shocked’.53 Upon closer inspection one is left seriously questioning the tradition of liberty, tolerance and friendliness that is so trumpeted in public discourse when discussing ‘Englishness’.

Perhaps the most poetic and articulate deconstruction of the tolerance myth of the British people came via a fictional account of West Indian immigrants in 1950s London. Sam Selvon, a Trinidadian author and an immigrant to Britain himself, penned his classic 1956 novel The Lonely Londoners. It details the lives of West Indian immigrants in 1950s London as they experience the failed promise of the ‘mother country’, the hostility of the locals and the struggles to build new lives, all coupled with the heady excitement of being in a city they had read and dreamt about. While Moses, the main protagonist, mentions a modicum of tolerance, ‘It have a kind of communal feeling with the working class and the spades, because when you poor things does level out’,’4 the overwhelming reaction is portrayed as hostile and deeply racist. The following passage from the novel, a discussion between Moses and Gala-had, a new immigrant arrival, is worth quoting at some length as it successfully shows up the racism and hypocrisy that lies just beneath the myth of English tolerance.

‘These days, spades all over the place, and every ship load is big news, and the English people don’t like the boys coming to England to work and live’.

“Why is that?” Galahad ask.

“Well, as far as I could figure, they frighten that we get job in front of them, though that does never happen. The other thing is that they just don’t like black people, and don’t ask me why”.

“Things as bad over here as in America?” Galahad ask.

“That is the point the boys always debating,” Moses say. “Some say yes, some say no. The thing is in America they don’t like you, and they tell you so straight, so that you know how you stand. Over here is the old English diplomacy: “thank you sir,” and “how do you do” and that sort of thing. In America you see a sign telling you to keep off, but over here you don’t see any, but when you go in a hotel or restaurant they will politely tell you to haul - or else give you the cold treatment”.55

Alvin Bennett makes strikingly similar observations in his 1959 novel Because They Know Not. Once again a long established West Indian immigrant explains and humorously deconstructs the British façade of decency and tolerance to a new arrival.

Since I come ‘ere I never met a single English person who ‘ad any colour prejudice. Once, I walked the whole length of a street looking for a room, and everyone told me that he or she ‘ad no prejudice against coloured people. It was the neighbour who was stupid. If we could only find the “neighbour” we could solve the entire problem. But to find “im is the trouble! Neighbours are the worst people to live beside in this country”.56

Such accounts are common with hypocrisy often being highlighted in West Indian accounts of their perceptions of their new home. The sad truth is that often the reactions to the birth of non-white immigration, both official and popular, lacked the humanity and civility that are the markers of a tolerant country.

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