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'We helped put the great back into Great Britain': Meet 97-year-old Windrush passenger Alford Gardner

Alford Gardner helped rebuild a Britain decimated by war, and made it his home. Seventy-five years on, how has it changed?

Alford Gardner at home in Leeds, 2023 by Jim Grover from his exhibition Windrush: A Voyage Through the Generations

Alford Gardner was born in Kingston, Jamaica but has called Leeds home for decades. The 97-year-old is one of the two last surviving passengers of the 1,027 people who travelled to Britain on the maiden voyage of the HMT Empire Windrush.

The passenger liner that docked at Tilbury Docks on 22 June 1948 was carrying 802 migrants like Alford who had been promised a new start by a Jamaican newspaper advert. They were not expected by the British government and, initially, not welcome. But those people became the nurses, bus drivers and rail workers crucial to the rebuilding of Britain’s post-war infrastructure.

Photographs of the sharply dressed migrants stepping off the ship came to symbolise the hope and opportunity of multi-cultural Britain. The threats of Theresa May’s Conservative government to deport Commonwealth immigrants born before 1973 only heightened the potency of those images, bringing the value of migrants to modern Britain into sharp focus.

Empire Windrush packed with West Indian immigrants on arrival at the Port of Tilbury on the River Thames on 22 June 1948. Image: Contraband Collection / Alamy Stock Photo

Gardner has just published a memoir, Finding Home: A Windrush Story, which he wrote with the help of Howard, the eldest of his eight children. “I learned a lot,” Howard says when The Big Issue visits the pair at Alford’s home. “He kept a lot from us, to protect us.”

“I never told them anything,” Alford agrees.

The story begins on the island he was born in 1927. The Jamaica Alford grew up in was shaped by colonialism, from the language he spoke to his school curriculum. “I failed [school] because I did not want to learn about British history, and to get your final grades you had to pass history.”

Alford was a teenager during the Second World War. The conflict had felt distant, but when he was 17 he saw a call for RAF recruits in the Jamaican newspaper The Gleaner. “I had no second thoughts; I knew that I had to do my duty,” Alford said. He “knew that if the Germans won the war, people of African descent would be next on the list for extermination and that millions would be enslaved. We did not want that to happen to our people ever again.”

Alford (right) with friend and fellow soldier Dennis Wilberforce Reed. Image: supplied by Alford Gardner and family

En route to the UK, his squadron stopped at Cuba, then part of the USA. There he noticed white American soldiers treating West Indian recruits differently to Black Americans. Because they were part of the British forces, West Indians “were classed as white,” Howard says, “and they weren’t allowed to mix with Black Americans.”

On arriving in England, three days before D-Day, Alford’s first impression was of a colder climate but a warmer welcome than he had expected. “Some of my fellow troops anticipated being met with racism,” he recalls. “Instead we were met with open arms.”

After serving as RAF ground crew and training as a mechanic, Alford enrolled on an engineering course in Leeds after the war. He met three English women – Norma, Florence and Margaret – at a dancehall and Alford and Florence began a romantic relationship.

The following year, he was told that his services were no longer required and that he would have to return to Jamaica.

On arrival, he found a country in the grips of mass unemployment. “There was almost nothing on offer,” he recalls – just “very poorly paid jobs that were oversubscribed due to the thousands of ex-servicemen returning to the island, all looking for the same type of jobs.”

Alford’s discharge statement. Image: supplied by Alford Gardner and family

The following year, he spotted a callout in The Gleaner. “The UK was short of workers and was asking for West Indians, especially ex-servicemen, to return to the mother country to help to rebuild the country.”

For decades, he believed that the advert had been placed by the British government. It was not until the BBC interviewed him for the 2019 documentary, The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files, that he learned the captain of the ship had paid for the advert in an cynical attempt to make money.

At that time, the UK faced a labour shortage, requiring 1.3 million additional workers to rebuild infrastructure in the aftermath of the Second World War.

“For most of the men onboard the ship, including me, the idea was to stay in England for about five years, hopefully find a good job, make some money, and return home to the West Indies.”

Image: supplied by Alford Gardner and family

But he found a different country to the one he had left a few years previously. “Because we were no longer in uniform, it made things awkward,” he says. “On arrival at Leeds station, we had a shock. The Yorkshire Evening Post had the headline, FIVE JAMAICANS CHARGED IN LEEDS. So, as we got off the train, we received some strange looks.”

Alford struggled to find housing. “Landlords and estate agents would tell us they personally didn’t mind us, but due to neighbours, housing prices, and potential violence from racists, they couldn’t rent to us. As we were looking for places to stay, we saw the signs in some of the windows, ‘NO IRISH, NO BLACKS, NO DOGS’. We found it hard to get our heads around those signs. Just a few years ago we were being welcomed by these people, now we couldn’t even find a place to sleep.”

In 1948, he co-founded the Caribbean Cricket Club, which he describes as “absolutely necessary” to its eight original members. “We went to a local sports store owned by Herbert Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire and England opening batsman. We agreed to buy some equipment on hire purchase, but when we went to pick it up, someone in higher management had vetoed the sale.”

Alford outside his former home at Clarendon Place in Leeds in the late 1940s. Image: supplied by Alford Gardner and family

Alford still felt that Leeds compared favourably to London. “The stories I was hearing about [how] the police in London [treated West Indian migrants] were enough to give me nightmares,” he says. “I’d made the right choice coming to Leeds.”

But the main motivation behind that choice was the relationships he had formed in the city. Florence had begun a new relationship by the time he returned, but he and Norma grew closer, “as surely and as helplessly as falling in love always seems to happen”.

Soon, Norma discovered that she was pregnant with their first child and took Alford to meet her parents. Her mother was welcoming, but her father demanded that he leave.

Howard was unaware of this until recently. “To me, [my grandfather] was a lovely man,” he says. “He fought a war for freedom so for him to then turn around and say, ‘We don’t want you’ – it doesn’t make sense.”

Alford and Norma set about trying to acquire a council house but discovered it was not easy for a mixed-race couple to get one. “We then looked at renting a private house but that was even harder,” Alford remembers.

The 1960s brought hope but it was also the period that Howard first recalls experiencing explicit racism. “It was in secondary school that things started to change,” he says. “Some of the boys at school didn’t like people of colour, and some of them had been at my junior school. We’d been friends – I used to go to their house – and all of a sudden, they turned against me.”

Alford with son Howard at home, Leeds, 2023. Image: Brontë Schiltz

This was not to dissipate. In the following decade, Diane, Alford’s second-youngest child, was offered work in a hotel in Jersey, but when she arrived at the hotel the manager took one look at her and said, “We don’t employ your kind on this island.”

Many years later, in the 2010s, then-home secretary Theresa May introduced the ‘hostile environment’ policy, which led to many Windrush passengers facing deportation. Alford was not personally affected and was unaware of the scandal until his participation in The Unwanted, but it has since taken an emotional toll. 

“This is not the kind of thing to happen in a civilised country,” he says. “My fellow passengers and I came to help when the UK needed help, to rebuild the infrastructure, to work on the railways, the buses, the postal service and to work in the factories. … We helped to put the great back into Great Britain.”

The last 75 years of Alford’s life reflects the last 75 years of British history. His book charts a decline, from the welcome he received on his first arrival to a climate in which migrants face increasing barriers and backlash. “Racism was always there, but I think it was less blatant then than it is now,” he says.

“We can’t accept it,” Howard adds. “People like my dad came here because they were needed, and because they wanted to be here. I hope people can understand that.”

Finding Home: A Windrush Story by Alford Dalrymple Gardner and Howard Gardner is out on 22 June (Jacaranda, £18.99)

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.To support our work buy a copy! If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play

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