Sam King and the Windrush

by Patricia Dark, archivist

In May 1945, British forces in the northern German port of Kiel captured a German ship, the MV Monte Rosa, as war reparations. She was built in Hamburg, in 1936: after a short pre-war career as a cruise ship with the Kraft durch Freude (“Strength through Joy”) programme, she became a transport, then a hospital ship. Monte Rosa had been converted to a troop transport and assigned to the Ministry of Transport by the beginning of 1947. She also received a new name, one that marked her as a prize of war and highlighted a tributary of the Thames — a name that made history: HMT Empire Windrush.

HMT Empire Windrush (c) Imperial War Museums

The government commissioned the New Zealand Shipping Company to operate Windrush; she ferried British service personnel and their families between the UK, the Far East, and points in between for the next year. Windrush arrived at the port of Tilbury from Bombay on 8 April 1948. Her next voyage broke the mould, – rather than returning to the Far East, Windrush made her first – and only – trip to the Caribbean. One source claims that the trip was part of a repositioning cruise to Australia via the Atlantic; most others claim that she was sent to Kingston, Jamaica to pick up British service personnel who were on leave there. The latter seems more likely, since ads appeared in Jamaica’s premier newspaper, the Daily Gleaner, in late April, offering cheap passage to London. Travellers paid £28 for a berth on the open troop deck, or £48 for a cabin: for someone in Jamaica in 1948, that was more than a month’s pay, and would be like paying nearly £1,000 and more than £1,700 respectively today!

Windrush arrived in Trinidad on 20 May 1948, embarking local passengers as well as others who had travelled from other Caribbean islands and British Guiana (now Guyana); she then made scheduled port calls at Kingston, Jamaica, and Bermuda; however, in between she detoured to Tampico, in Mexico – where 66 Polish refugees embarked, all but one to join husbands and fathers who’d fought in the Polish forces-in-exile under the terms of the Polish Resettlement Act 1947.

At Kingston, as passenger Alford Gardner told the Guardian in 2018, there were more would-be travellers than tickets available. The Great Depression wrecked the agricultural export market Jamaica’s economy relied on; the resulting unemployment, poor living conditions, and inequality still lingered. A hurricane in 1944 meant the farm economy was still depressed, and many people took the opportunity to try their luck in the mother country. In fact, about one-third of Windrush’s passengers were either serving members of the RAF or veterans looking to re-enlist.

As Windrush steamed toward the UK, immigration was a hot topic. The mother country faced major labour shortage in many sectors, and needed to repair huge amounts of war damage. Eearlier in 1948, a government working group had ultimately advised against large-scale colonial immigration to fill this gap. Additionally, Parliament was debating the British Nationality Act 1948, which passed just over a month after Windrush arrived; this act created a single citizenship for the United Kingdom and its colonies. Even Creech Jones, the Colonial Secretary, commented on a BBC broadcast that, while Windrush’s Caribbean passengers were British passport holders with the right to settle, there was no reason to worry, because they wouldn’t last one English winter. 

HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on 21 June 1948, with 1,027 listed passengers (and two stowaways) on board. Men outnumbered women by about 3 to 1; more than 800 came from the Caribbean, and nearly half were Jamaican. Pathé News sent a reporter to interview the new arrivals – the first immigration en masse from Britain’s colonies. The transport industry and the fledgling National Health Service were both especially badly hit by labour shortages and welcomed the newcomers. However, their welcome wasn’t universal: the day after Windrush docked, a group of 10 MPs wrote to Prime Minister Clement Atlee in protest; in his response, (held at the National Archives), the PM attempted to placate them, ending the letter by noting that “I doubt whether there is likely to be a similar large influx.” 

Letter from Attlee to MPs re Windrush

While many of her passengers had plans, or had already organised housing or a job, just over 200 had neither on arrival. They were temporarily housed in the deep air-raid shelter at Clapham South tube, some 15 storeys underground. More than half had found work within a week or two; the nearest labour exchange (what we now call a Job Centre) to Clapham South was in Coldharbour Lane, Brixton, – planting the seed of one of the largest Afro-Caribbean communities in the country.

Southwark is especially proud of one of the Jamaican veterans on board the Empire Windrush: Samuel Beaver King, MBE. He was born in Priestman’s River, Portland, Jamaica, on 20 February 1926 – one of George and Caroline King’s ten children. Mr King worked with his father on the family’s banana plantation, and intended to take it over, but the Second World War changed those plans. In 1944 he saw a Daily Gleaner advert recruiting for the RAF, and asked his mother for advice; decades later, he remembered her response: “My son, the mother country is at war. Go – and if you survive, you will not regret it.” 

Mr King passed the entry exams, completed RAF basic training in Kingston, and set sail for the UK in 1944. His first posting was in Greenock, just outside Glasgow – both the cold and the devastation created by German bombers shocked him. He served at aerodromes around Scotland and England, first as ground crew and then as a skilled aircraft fitter, before being demobbed in 1947.

He returned to Jamaica, but the 1944 hurricane – which destroyed an estimated 90% of Jamaica’s banana trees – had devastated the family plantation, and there was little other work available. Once more, Mr King answered a Daily Gleaner ad, and booked passage on the Empire Windrush to re-enlist: his family sold three cows to raise the funds for a troop deck berth. On board, there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere, and special camaraderie among the RAF veterans. However, he noted in his memoir Forty Years On that there was also enough apprehension about the government turning the ship back that he organised two ex-RAF wireless operators to play dominoes outside the radio room – and monitor incoming messages.  

He re-enlisted in the RAF in 1948, serving until 1953. While Black service personnel found they were respected and supported when they were in uniform, civvy street was far too often a different story. Racism restricted job opportunities: Mr King applied unsuccessfully to the Metropolitan Police in 1953 – it took them another 14 years to appoint its first Black officer. Racial discrimination also made it extremely difficult for many Black people to find housing — and thereby start putting down roots. In 1950, Mr King, then an RAF corporal, and his brother Wilton attempted to buy a house in Sears Street, Camberwell, but bank officials responded to a mortgage request with a letter suggesting he return to Jamaica. Mr King took the letter to the owner of the house, who was so disgusted that he gave him mortgage himself; this made the Kings the second Black family in Southwark to own a home. For other Black residents, the only way to own a home was to join a savings club, known as a “partner”: Mr King took an active role in setting up many partners. 

His status as a veteran ensured his application to the Post Office was successful; his career there lasted 34 years, beginning as a postal carrier and ending as Postal Executive for the South Eastern postal district. On 26 June 1954, Sam King married Mavis (Mae) Kirlew, a student nurse at Emmanuel Church in Camberwell. They had two children, Michael and Althea, together; Mr King also had a daughter, Daslin, from a previous relationship. 

Faith and community were at the centre of Mr King’s life. He was a lay preacher who trained in ministry at Goldsmiths College; in the 1980s he actively championed gospel music, supporting a number of broadcast licence applications for community radio stations and helping organise the 1985 Songs of Praise broadcast from Southwark Cathedral that pioneered gospel music on a BBC national flagship show.

Mr King was also active in the postal union, the local Labour party, and as a community organiser. He helped Claudia Jones launch Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in March 1958, and served as its circulation manager. In 1959, he helped her organise the first Caribbean-style carnival in St Pancras Town Hall — the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival. Sam’s ability to communicate with and connect the Camberwell and Peckham local communities and the police also helped avoid violence in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots and during National Front agitation in the 1970s and 1980s. 

In the 1982 local elections, Mr King was elected councillor for Bellenden ward, and six months later, in 1983, he became Southwark’s first Black mayor (leading to death and arson threats against him from the National Front). Mae died in 1983; he married Myrtle Kirlew in late 1984.

Mr King was also active in the postal union, the local Labour party, and as a community organiser. He helped Claudia Jones launch Britain’s first major Black newspaper, the West Indian Gazette, in March 1958, and served as its circulation manager. In 1959, he helped her organise the first Caribbean-style carnival in St Pancras Town Hall — the precursor to the Notting Hill Carnival. Sam’s ability to communicate with and connect the Camberwell and Peckham local communities and the police also helped avoid violence in the aftermath of the 1958 Notting Hill riots and during National Front agitation in the 1970s and 1980s. In the 1982 local elections, Mr King was elected councillor for Bellenden ward, and six months later, in 1983, he became Southwark’s first Black mayor (leading to death and arson threats against him from the National Front). Mae died in 1983; he married Myrtle Kirlew in late 1984.

After retiring from local politics in the mid 1980s, Mr King focussed on preserving the experiences of his generation. He founded the Windrush Foundation with Arthur Torrington in 1996 to highlight the contributions of Britain’s African and Caribbean communities, safeguard the memories of Britain’s first post-war settlers, and promote good community relations. He was perhaps best known for his campaigning to make the anniversary of the Empire Windrush’s arrival a holiday, and in the process becoming known as “Mr Windrush”. In 1998, Sam King received the MBE as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations for Windrush. He published his autobiography, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, the same year. In 2009, a public vote awarded him a Southwark blue plaque which was installed during a ceremony at his long-time home at Warmington Road, Herne Hill, on 31 January 2010, and in May 2016, he received the freedom of the borough of Southwark.

Sam King MBE died on 17 June 2016, less than a week before the 68th anniversary of his arrival on the Empire Windrush: more than 500 people attended his funeral at Southwark Cathedral. Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, paid tribute to Mr King, saying “[h]e educated Londoners with Caribbean food, Caribbean culture, Caribbean music. London is a better place, Britain is a better place, thanks to him and his family.”

On the 72nd anniversary of the arrival of HMT Empire Windrush at Tilbury Dock, the people of Southwark are grateful for Sam King MBE: his love of his community, hard work and spirit of service and the sacrifices made by him and the whole of the Windrush generation.

Sources

The National Archives of the UK; Kew, Surrey, England; Board of Trade: Commercial and Statistical Department and successors: Inwards Passenger Lists.; Class: BT26; Piece: 1237

Telegram concerning passengers on the Empire Windrush, 6 July 1948 (Catalogue ref: CO 876/88)

IWM FL9448 (Photo of HMT Empire Windrush)

Further reading

Pathé News Windrush feature, 1948

Windrush Foundation interview with Sam King

Windrush Stories from The British library

How did the Empire Windrush change Change London? From Museum of London Docklands

One of US? Windrush from the BBC