On June 22, 1948, the Empire Windrush sailed into British history. On that day, hundreds of passengers who had travelled from Kingston, Jamaica disembarked at Tilbury Docks in Essex and became the first wave of migrants who answered the call to help rebuild Britain after the Second World War. Political activist Patrick Vernon successfully led a campaign to have June 22 designated as Windrush Day. Now, he’s steering another project to celebrate a generation that shaped our society as the 75th anniversary of that famous arrival approaches next year.
“Windrush has touched the lives of every part of British society,” he says. “Music, politics, art, sports, entertainment, public life, civic life, manufacturing, retail – you name it. There’s lots of stuff commemorating the Windrush Generation like artwork and sculptures, and it’s all great, but we want the real stuff. The real history is there on the bottom of the sea.”
The Windrush Anchor Memorial Project is an ambitious plan to locate the wreck of the Empire Windrush, which sank in the Western Mediterranean in 1954, and retrieve its anchor – central in the iconic picture of hopeful migrants arriving in 1948 – to turn into a memorial.
“Anchors mean lots of things for different communities,” Vernon explains. “Something solid and rooted, a sense of identity and belonging. When people see it and touch it, it’s going to have that powerful magical connection of the past, the present and hopefully the future.”
The idea to retrieve the ship’s anchor came from Max Holloway, whose wife Alice’s parents were part of the Windrush Generation. She sadly died in 2017 and, inspired by Alice’s spirit of positivity, Holloway worked on how to turn the Windrush Anchor Memorial into reality.
It’s British history, your history, my history
“I began researching what happened to the vessel Empire Windrush,” Holloway says. “Surely there’s nothing more poignant or pertinent than the stern anchor of Empire Windrush to define British multiculturalism. So many sectors have benefitted hugely from the social impact of June 1948, it’s nigh impossible to envisage Britain without it. I can’t imagine that and frankly, I wouldn’t want to. It’s British history, your history, my history. My history because my late wife was of Caribbean descent. If her parents hadn’t come to the mother country I’d never have had such wonderful times in her company, which makes me wonder just how many other relationships have been spawned by events of the last 75 years.”
The Empire Windrush became legend thanks to what that one Atlantic crossing in 1948 would come to represent, but its story started long before. The passenger ship was built and launched in Hamburg in 1930 and originally named the MV Monte Rosa. The vessel spent most of its pre-war years taking migrants from Germany to South America. Many were Jewish citizens fleeing the rise of Nazism.
During the war, the Monte Rosa was used to carry troops taking part in the invasion of Norway, bringing back 46 Jewish people from the Nordic country, all but two of whom died in Auschwitz. A representative of the Board of Deputies of British Jews will serve on the board of the Windrush project in acknowledgement.
After the war ended, Britain claimed the ship and renamed it HMT Empire Windrush. For the next few years it brought servicemen and their families posted around the world back to Britain. In 1948, the ship was on its way from Australia when it stopped in Kingston to pick up troops – and 802 other passengers from the Caribbean – on its most famous voyage.
In 1953, the Empire Windrush was part of the fleet assembled to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II. On March 28, 1954, off the coast of Algeria, a fire broke out in the engine room, killing four crew. As the blaze took hold, a rescue operation managed to save the other 1,494 on board (including wounded soldiers being brought home from the Korean War), but the abandoned ship sank a couple of days later while a Navy destroyer was trying to tow it to Gibraltar.
After decades at the bottom of the Mediterranean, a search is being prepared to find the Windrush. Over a 25-year career, shipwreck hunter David L Mearns has discovered 21 major shipwrecks, including the HMS Hood. He also led the search for the plane carrying footballer Emiliano Sala that crashed in the English Channel in 2019.
Though the Windrush is almost three kilometres under the sea, Mearns thinks locating it will be straightforward. “There was lots of radio communication from the Windrush before it abandoned ship, and then from all the other vessels coordinating the sea rescue. So we have a lot of historical records about where the accident took place,” he says. “We have images of the ship, almost up until the moment it sank, and it wasn’t broken. It was badly fire damaged, from stem to stern, and it would have been filling with water all that time. When things sink slowly it reduces the stresses on a ship, so it’s more likely that the hull will stay intact.
“The area where we believe it was last is 2,800 metres. These wrecks, remarkably, whatever happened to them, are generally found upright on the seabed. The anchor will still be there. We expect to see the stern almost like that photograph from 1948.”
Interested in becoming a shipwreck hunter yourself? “There’s no university, you can’t take a course,” Mearns points out. “I started as a marine scientist and essentially the same tools that you use to study marine geology are the same tools you can use to find shipwrecks. Once I realised how those tools could be used, it became a more interesting and exciting path to follow.”
The most significant retrieval Mearns has been involved in so far was the recovery of the bell from HMS Hood, which was sunk by the Bismarck in 1941 with the loss of 1,415 men. One of the only three survivors said it was his wish that the bell could be located and turned into a memorial for his shipmates. Since going on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in 2016, it has become a tangible tribute for the families of hundreds of men lost at sea.
“The bell has been extraordinarily evocative,” Mearns says. “Descendants of those who were lost on Hood could see this unique artefact and feel connected to their relative. In a different way, the anchor will do the same for not just the Windrush community, but the immigrant population in general. Its position in that iconic photograph brings to life that moment in history.”
“The easy bit is retrieving it, the difficult bit is actually getting the money,” says Patrick Vernon. “But we’re all confident that this will happen, particularly because next year is the 75th anniversary of Windrush docking at Tilbury. We are hoping that it will generate a lot of public interest and support, which hopefully, will be converted into donations so we can undertake this really exciting activity. I mean, this is going to be just as powerful as raising the Titanic.”
Lawyers are working on securing the project’s charitable status, after which fundraising can begin in earnest.
“We want people to donate money, no matter how big or small, corporates, philanthropists; now their bonuses are not being capped bankers may want to contribute,” Vernon adds. “But seriously, the Windrush story is British history.”
Vernon hopes the anchor could be a reminder that the rights of the Windrush Generation should be recognised, and already the impact it has bringing communities together is evident. A life-sized cardboard replica created by artist Laura X Carle is currently on tour around different locations in London. It’s looked after by Rudi Page, who in August organised the first Windrush Anchor Festival in Enfield. He says the anchor acts as a catalyst to initiate conversations about connections.
“Standing next to the anchor, you realise how big it is,” he says. “We’ve made it part of community development activities. The three words that we use is hope, strength and belonging. It’s about inspiring inclusive, peaceful, caring and enterprising local communities. If you think of our neighbourhoods and the mix of people, everyone has a story about their journey. We’re going to deliver [the festival] in Kingston next year, where the ship actually left.”
Until the real anchor from Empire Windrush is recovered, you can see its cardboard equivalent. “This week it will be outside Morrison’s in Peckham, then in Brent at the Civic Centre,” Page says. “It certainly travels around, like any good anchor should.”
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