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London Underground’s Windrush generation

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Transport for London’s director of diversity and inclusion Staynton Brown explores how London Transport looked to the Commonwealth to help run the capital’s transport network after the Second World War.


We often talk about London being a global city, which is an accurate description. We are proud to welcome visitors from across the world to our capital, whether they are here on business, visiting friends or family, or as tourists. London wouldn’t be able to flourish without the people that live and work here too.

The capital’s population is diverse, with around 40 per cent of Londoners coming from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) communities, and it is this diversity that makes the city so successful. When you have a range of people with different experiences and backgrounds, there is always going to be innovation and creativity. They may say that New York is the city that never sleeps, but London is the city that is always on the move, looking for the next best idea.

I work as the director of diversity and inclusion at Transport for London (TfL) and I think it’s vital that as a city and an organisation we continue to welcome people regardless of their ethnicity. We need to reflect the customers that we serve in order to provide them with the best experience. This year, the UK celebrates the 70th anniversary of Windrush and the contribution that those who came over from the West Indies have made to Britain. The history of London Transport, TfL’s predecessor, is intertwined with this event and generation in a number of ways.

Photo: TopFoto.
Photo: TopFoto.

Temporary housing

Back in June 1948, when the SS Empire Windrush ship arrived in the UK, there was a lack of housing because of the destruction wreaked by the Second World War, which meant that accommodation for those coming over from the Caribbean was in short supply.

When the authorities became aware that more than 200 migrants, who had come over to help rebuild Britain after the war, had nowhere to stay, Clapham South Tube station was used as a short-term residential base for them until they could find their own homes.

While all those from the SS Empire Windrush being housed there had moved out within four weeks, the time they spent there would have been quite unique. There were no windows to look out and it would have been noisy with the Tube trains rattling overhead, while the residents were trying to sleep.

London Transport Museum, which is offering visitors the opportunity to explore Clapham South and its underground passages as part of its Hidden London Tours, recently visited the subterranean shelter with 92-year-old John Richards (pictured right), one of the 236 people from the Caribbean who lived there. It was the first time that he had been there since moving out to a hostel and finding work with British Rail.

He discussed what it had been like. “The trains that ran overhead in the morning woke me up. There were beds all around with crisp white sheets. They had a tea cart at the station… pie in the evening.”

Photo: TopFoto.
Photo: TopFoto.

Caribbean recruitment drive

However, London Transport didn’t just house people who had come looking for work from the Caribbean, it also recruited them. There were a huge number of vacancies in the aftermath of the Second World War so, at the invitation of the Barbados Government, London Transport began a recruitment drive in the Caribbean in 1956, opening a recruitment office in Barbados. Records show that in the February of that year the organisation recruited 50 male conductors, 20 female conductors and 70 station men.

New recruits were loaned the fare for the trip to the UK and a designated Barbados Migrants’ Liaison service was established to help them to secure housing in London. However, they were warned that they might find the move unsettling at first, or even regret their decision, but also that they would change their minds after a few months in England.

The recruitment drive was soon expanded, with recruitment offices established in Jamaica and Trinidad in 1966. This all built on the work that London Transport was already doing to recruit employees from overseas, including Ireland and Poland. From the launch of the recruitment drive in 1956 to the day it was formally closed in 1970, more than 4,000 staff had been recruited from the Caribbean to work on London’s transport network.

It would be wrong to imply that the integration of the employees from the Caribbean was plain-sailing. There were challenges and early resistance with some of the employees finding that there were barriers to promotion too.

However, many of those who joined London Transport stayed for a long period of time and have inspired their own family members to work at TfL today. They had a huge impact on how TfL has been shaped as an organisation and also how it continues to develop.

As we celebrate the anniversary of Windrush, it’s important to reflect on the value of welcoming diversity and how this generation helped to keep London moving.

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