‘City Not Friendly, They Say’

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Date:Not Recorded

Description:Two days after the date of the docking of the Empire Windrush, an article in the Birmingham Gazette revealed that out of the 492 people who came to Britain aboard the ship, five of the arrivants initially came to Birmingham. The international reputation of Birmingham as the ‘workshop of the world,’ seems crucial in the decision of the migrants to visit the city. This is brought out in the opening line: ‘Five Jamaicans who landed in Britain on Monday after a voyage of more than 5,000 miles, decided that the best work centre in the country was Birmingham.’

The subtitle ‘Work - but no Homes,’ is particularly reminiscent of the expression: ‘They want our labour not our presence,’ which emerged during struggles against the racism in the post-war period. This expression says a huge amount about the way in which there was a glut of unskilled jobs in industry awaiting post-war migrants but, ‘No blacks, no dogs, no Irish,’ signs awaiting them in the housing market. This disparity between labour and presence is well-highlighted by the journalist who reported that, ‘after three hours they decided it was the most inhospital city they had ever been in.’

A Mr Simon George Rowe who served in the R.A.F is quoted to have said: ‘I did my best for the mother country and I came over here expecting to better myself, but Birmingham people are the most unfriendly I have ever met. There seems to be a great colour bar here.’

A quotation by another arrivant further highlights the dichotomy between finding work and finding accommodation: ‘Our intention in coming to Britain was to find work. We have found work but we have nowhere to live.’ The first sentence implies that the migrants assumed or took for granted that they would be able to find housing with little difficulty. Thus, the discrimination which they faced in the housing market must have come as a huge shock, greatly accentuating their feeling of estrangement, in what many regarded as their ‘mother country.’

The article notes the presence of two organisations which were attempting to help the Jamaicans ‘in every capacity,’ the Universal African Improvement Association and the Ministry of Labour. The former seems particularly interesting and its title, very reminiscent of Marcus Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association or U.N.I.A., founded in 1914. Little is known about the organisation, yet it highlights the important point that there was already a black community present in the city, and indeed throughout much of Britain, prior to the docking of the Empire Windrush.

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Donor ref:Birmingham Gazette June 24th 1948  (60/1215)

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