The Windrush Stories: A Visit to the National Library of Jamaica

The story of the Windrush continues, in different ways. Or rather, should I say “stories”? Because I see the Windrush as a mosaic of many human stories – of endurance and success, determination and disappointment. There has been some more local coverage; the Sunday Gleaner’s Arts & Education section included an article by Amitabh Sharma last weekend, which you can read here.

A good spread in the Sunday Gleaner about the NLJ’s Windrush exhibition.

I dropped by the National Library of Jamaica (NLJ) to meet with National Librarian Beverley Lashley and to view the exhibition commemorating the 70th anniversary of the MV Empire Windrush arrival in Britain. I joined a small group of visitors as Ms. Lashley explained the background to the exhibit; a replica with smaller panels is starting its tour of the island this week, visiting all parish libraries. It started off at the St. Mary Parish Library on July 3 and will continue to roam until November, when it will be at the Kingston & St. Andrew Parish Library. So, please catch it, wherever you are! For those who are unable to see it, you may also view the exhibit online here.

Now, our National Librarian is on a mission. She is looking ahead towards the 75th Anniversary of Windrush (2023). For this, she is seeking any kind of memorabilia of the Windrush that could be displayed in a more extensive exhibition. These might be photographs taken on board, embarking, disembarking; items from the ship itself – napkins, towels, cutlery etc.; diaries, journals, notebooks, or pages therefrom; letters; a ticket or documents of passage…and so on.  Please contact Ms. Lashley if you have anything that you would like to contribute to this exhibition (NLJ contact details are posted below).

The entrance to the Windrush exhibition at the British Library in London. (Photo courtesy of Beverley Lashley)

Meanwhile, the National Librarian would also like to meet and interview anyone – now living in Jamaica – who actually traveled on the original Windrush journey (not subsequent trips, but the very first voyage to England). If you know anyone in your neighborhood, or perhaps in your family, here in Jamaica – do get in touch. These Jamaicans are a part of history, and the NLJ is seeking to maintain as complete a record of this critical period as possible.

Back in April, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade also issued an appeal for Windrush Generation members or their children to use the British Home Office website and helpline or to contact the Jamaican High Commission in London to get assistance. The website link is… Contact numbers:Home Office: Windrush Helpline (toll-free within the UK): 0300-123-2241; Home Office: Windrush Helpline (from Jamaica): 011 44 800 678 1925; Jamaican High Commission, London: or 011 44 207 823 9911.

Back to the exhibition. Each of the panels is more than a nicely laid-out exhibit with nice words. They represent the personal history of Jamaicans who were simply seeking a better life for themselves (and for their family, in due course). They were mostly young men, wearing rather cool trilby hats at an angle, posing with a cigarette between their fingers. They did not know what to expect. How could they expect the kind of challenges that immigrants around the world are suddenly faced with – unexpected, out of the blue – and obliged to endure? What strength of purpose and reserves of determination did they have to draw on, to build a new life in a strange land?

Who were these Windrush pioneers? I am not sure that “pioneers” is quite the right word, but they were in the vanguard of a long wave of immigration from the Caribbean which extended well into the 1980s. These immigrants included Jamaicans like Alford Gardner, who served in the Royal Air Force (RAF) in World War II and upon his arrival in the UK promptly founded the Caribbean Cricket Club in Leeds, where he worked as an engineer. 93-year-old John Mitchell Richards, born in Fair Prospect, Windsor District in Portland, now lives near Willesden in north-west London (a stone’s throw from where I used to live) and still attends meetings at the Kensal Rise Club.

Mr. Alford Gardner at the photography exhibition “Windrush: Portrait of a Generation” at the Oxo Tower Wharf in London.  (Photo courtesy of Beverley Lashley)

Ms. Lashley met Mr. Gardner, Mr. Richards, and several other Windrush passengers during a visit to the UK in May this year. The occasion was the opening of an exhibition at the British Library (the equivalent of Jamaica’s National Library). Headlined: Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land, it opened on June 1 and will remain until October 21. Our National Librarian also met several British officials, and most importantly forged a partnership with the Windrush Foundation, a registered charity founded in 1996 and headed by Arthur Torrington.

Another memorable aspect of her stay, she says, was a very well attended Town Hall Meeting on May 29 at Brent Council in north-west London. Member of Parliament for Brent Central Dawn Butler (herself of Jamaican parentage) attended and there was a long question and answer session; lawyers were in attendance to help those needing advice. Brent Council, with a large and well-established Caribbean community, is celebrating the Windrush this summer with several events and an exhibition at The Library at Willesden Green (my former home). MP Butler launched the Parliamentary Black Caucus in June 2017, which has established links with the U.S. Congressional Black Caucus.

Of course, not all the Windrush passengers were Jamaicans. Two travelers were calypsonians from Trinidad and Tobago. Aldwin Richards (Lord Kitchener) sang a song called “London Is the Place For Me” – but actually returned to his native island in 1962. Harold Adolphus Philips (Lord Woodbine) served in the RAF and lived in Liverpool, where he was a promoter for the Beatles, then a teenage band, in the early 1960s. Sadly, he and his wife died in a house fire in 2000, the same year that Lord Kitchener passed away in Trinidad.

Our National Librarian Beverley Lashley (2nd left) met up with the widow (Patricia) and sons of the prolific Jamaican novelist, poet and journalist Andrew Salkey (1928-1995) at the British Library in May this year. Salkey moved to the UK in 1952 to study, and subsequently worked as a school teacher and a BBC broadcaster. He was a co-founder of the Caribbean Artists Movement. (Photo courtesy of Beverley Lashley)

Two creative Jamaican names in the exhibition jumped out at me. One was master potter Cecil Baugh, whom I had the honor of meeting once. He used his short stay in England in a fruitful way. After enlisting in the Royal Engineers during the War, he returned to England on the Windrush to secure a one-year internship with the famous potter Bernard Leach. Returning to Jamaica in 1949, he co-founded the Jamaica School of Art and Craft in 1951 (now part of the Edna Manley College of the Visual and Performing Arts).

The other name is Alfonso “Dizzy” Reece. He attended Alpha Boys’ School, where Jamaican music thrived (and still does). There he fell in love with the trumpet. On arriving in England, he abandoned his musical aspirations for a while, working as a laborer. He moved to Paris, where jazz musicians were very much en vogue, and thence to New York City in 1959. He played and recorded with a number of famous musicians, and is one of my jazz-loving husband’s favorites. At age 87, he is still actively performing and writing music. By the way, saxophonist Joe Harriott, another well-known jazz musician, and Alpha old boy moved to the UK in the Windrush era, in 1951.

Windrush passenger and Alpha old boy Alfonso “Dizzy” Reece in his early days. (Photo: Robert J. Carmack)

On re-reading Amitabh Sharma’s article in the Sunday Gleaner, I found myself questioning his concluding words:

This exhibition showcases the struggles and triumphs of a generation that changed the face of the UK and whose names would be immortalised and be a source of inspiration for many generations to come.

Dear Mr. Sharma, have the names of the Windrush Generation really been “immortalized,” either in the UK or in the Caribbean? Perhaps we should change the word “would” in this quote to “should.” My feeling is that, were it not for Prime Minister May’s reprehensible immigration policies and the ensuing political “Windrush scandal” (kudos to the UK Guardian for relentlessly following up on this) their names would be completely forgotten, except by a few members of their families.

Arthur Torrington CBE, Windrush Foundation Director, speaks at the private viewing of the Windrush Exhibition at the British Library, May 30, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Beverley Lashley)

Meanwhile, back in the UK, questions linger. According to the UK Guardian, a Home Affairs Select Committee has expressed great disquiet over the British Government’s delay in identifying even the number of people impacted by the scandal. The Home Office has already rejected the Committee’s proposal for a hardship fund to assist members of the so-called “Windrush Generation” who are affected. It’s “appalling treatment,” says the Committee:

The chair of the committee, Yvette Cooper, said she was concerned about the number of questions which remained unanswered, two months after the government promised to take urgent action to resolve the crisis. There is still no clarity on how many Windrush people were wrongly detained by immigration enforcement officials, or any sense of the overall number of people affected by the scandal.

The Windrush story is not over. As Jamaicans would say, “The Half Has Never Been Told.”

John Mitchell Richards at the private viewing of the Windrush Exhibition at the British Library, May 30, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Beverley Lashley)

Contact the National Library of Jamaica, 12 East Street, P.O. Box 823, Kingston. Tel: (876) 967-1526; 967-2516; 967-2494; 967-2496.  Email: On Twitter @natlibja and on Facebook and YouTube.

P.S. Once again this summer, the NLJ is offering a Poetry and Self Defense workshop for girls…Free of cost. See below!


3 thoughts on “The Windrush Stories: A Visit to the National Library of Jamaica

  1. Dear Emma,
    When I wrote that ender, it was not implying anything that is happening in the political or policy levels – even if the names of those who undertook this journey are not ‘etched’ in monuments or plaques, which is symbolic, and what laws or statutes are put in place to address the broader issue of immigration and migrants – even 70 years after their arrival this generation (most of who are in their twilight years or passed on…) and their families is a part of a different level of discussions.

    The contribution of the “Windrush” generation, in my humble opinion, is immortalized in the work that they did, the changes that they brought about in the United Kingdom, despite their struggles and challenges, is evident in many manifestations.

    What the government does or does not do, what their policies are, or lack thereof, their apathy, ‘course corrections’ are part of ongoing debates and conversations – I am sure more issues would offshoot from the broader context.

    And I again quote the couplet that I recited on the World Poetry Day…”I was alone when I began this journey to my destination…on the way people joined me and we built a caravan…”



  2. Thanks for sharing this work- it is so inspiring to read this. I was recently in Jamaica doing research on family legacy alongside nine night folk songs and practices. I went to the library amongst other places such as Calabash Lit festival.

    However, I liked to share what we did in the city of Leeds UK with young people to commemorate the 70th Windrush Anniversary – also our connection to Alford Gardener and other elders – via interviews to inspire and share their stories with the wider community – we will be happy to share our interviews with the library once we complete the work – link below to the Theatre production ‘Sorrel and Black Cake’ to give a general idea

    In addition to the above 3 poets from Leeds are working with The British Library and local Leeds libraries to respond to the Exhibition ‘Songs in a Strange Land – thank you


    1. Dear Khadijah: It’s wonderful to hear from you! Thank you so much for these links. In fact, I had noticed when browsing on Twitter that there are many commemorations across the UK at the community level. This is especially meaningful, I think! I am happy to hear also that you are working with young people. It’s important for them to know and understand their roots. I’m so glad you spent some time on our island. Next time, I would love to meet with you! The nine-night research sounds really interesting. Thank you again for reaching out, and wishing you and your family all the best.


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