Visiting research fellow, Dr Juanita Cox, provides an update on a project exploring the importance of the Windrush generation in higher education and the complex story of Caribbean migration. 

During the Commonwealth Summit in London in April 2018, a major controversy broke over the treatment of members of the ‘Windrush generation’ who had migrated to the UK from the Caribbean in the two decades after the end of the Second World War. This year, I had the opportunity to lead a research project with the Institute of Commonwealth Studies (ICWS) at the School of Advanced Study (SAS), to capture the oral histories of these people and to examine their relationship to the British state. The purpose of the research was to explore key questions and highlight the importance of the Windrush generation in higher education.

As the UK’s national centre for the promotion of research in the humanities, the School of Advanced Study is at the forefront of developing and supporting innovative research initiatives. Diversity and inclusion are at the heart of research projects and programmes, bridging the gap between academia and social policies in order to take control of inequality and injustice across society. It is for this reason the ICWS and SAS chose to focus on the historic and contemporary issues of those individuals and communities affected by the Windrush scandal.

A ‘hostile environment’

Under the 1948 British Nationality Act, members of the Windrush generation shared the status of ‘Citizens of the UK and Colonies’ (CUKCs). However, the 1962 Commonwealth Immigrants Act removed the right of free entry into the UK of CUKCs. Subsequent acts in 1965, 1968, 1971 and 1981 further restricted the right of CUKCs and ‘Commonwealth citizens’ to enter and settle in Britain. Although Commonwealth citizens who had been settled in the UK for five years prior to 1 January 1973 (the date when the 1971 Act came into force) were entitled to right of abode, official records were not systematically kept of those who enjoyed such status.

From 2010 onwards, Whitehall enforced a ‘hostile environment’ towards those suspected of being illegal immigrants. New legislation was introduced in the form of the 2014 and 2016 Immigration Acts, which made it more difficult for those who could not prove their legal right to be in the UK to remain in the country, and obtain work and accommodation. Over the course of the decade, significant numbers of Caribbean immigrants and their children, who lacked documentary evidence of their right to remain in the UK, were threatened with, or subjected to, detention and deportation.

Some of the most vulnerable members of British society found themselves trapped without recourse to legal aid. Uniquely positioned in relation to Westminster and society, ICWS set out to record and track the actual lived experiences of people and communities affected. The institute investigated the extent of Britain’s efforts to inform London’s Caribbean communities of the implications of immigration legislation, and explored the circumstances that left members of the Windrush diaspora without legal proof of their right to remain in the UK.

Holding those in power to account for what happened was what the study hoped to achieve, highlighting a traditionally under-represented group within the higher education sector,

 Capturing oral histories during the pandemic

This initial scoping project reviewed sources of primary and secondary material, and researched and recorded the location of oral history archives, all while connecting with interviewees willing to discuss their experiences and perceptions of the scandal. One of the aims of the oral history project was to ensure that the diversity of the Windrush generation was represented as fully as possible. The focus of scholars on the experiences of Jamaican-heritage communities has tended to obscure the varied experiences of other Anglophone-Caribbean migrants, in particular those of Indian or Chinese backgrounds.

A major one-day witness seminar was planned for early June 2020 at the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton, South London. Its aim was to highlight the importance of the Windrush generation and delve deeper into the experiences of those involved to better understand why political events, changes and legislations went unquestioned for so long. But as with so many events this year, it had to be cancelled due to the pandemic.

In response, the researchers turned to technology. Several of the interviewees were either unfamiliar with using MS Teams video-conferencing technology, or did not have access to computers, laptops and smartphones. In addition, lockdown rules meant they were unable to elicit help from family members or friends. While lockdown presented several challenges, it also provided an opportunity to explore the value of conducting online interviews. Five semi-structured individual history interviews involved respondents from Grenada, Guyana, Trinidad and St Lucia with varied ethnic backgrounds: Indian, Chinese, African, and mixed heritage.

Given the impossibility of a physical seminar, I conducted five additional interviews that focused on individuals whose right to British citizenship had been denied and had variously led to loss of employment, housing, healthcare or pension entitlements, while also making them vulnerable to detention or deportation. Online technology enabled witness interviews to be conducted from far afield, supporting our aim of further representation of the Windrush generation.

Two interviewees were London based, three were resident in Manchester, Burnley and Trinidad. Two had been born in Jamaica, the others in Antigua, St Lucia and Dominica. Remote interviewing offered the witnesses greater control over when to terminate their interview, and also gave those reluctant to share emotions in public greater dignity due to the anonymity offered by turning off their camera.

The interviews were fascinating and very revealing of the participants’ views of their own identity. Take George Mangar for example. This interview with George is wonderful for the vivid, detailed recollections he has of the various stages of his journey from British Guiana, via Trinidad and Venezuela to a stop-over in Tenerife, a train journey from Genoa to Calais, the ferry journey from Calais to Dover and train from Dover to Victoria Station. Among many other recollections he also offers fascinating insights into the importance of the West Indies cricket team to the Caribbean community settled in Britain.

He nevertheless notes: ‘We were more British’ than the British. When asked how he would describe himself now he said, ‘I feel very much British but my ethnic origin is Guyanese. I use the word very stringently. I don’t want to be categorised as Indo-Caribbean, or nothing else.’ Race categorisations are, for him, divisive: ‘We need to move on from that.’

Findings and next steps

The findings of this pilot project, alongside readings of The Windrush Betrayal by Amelia Gentleman, the Guardian journalist who broke the story of the Windrush persecution, and Wendy Williams’ Windrush Lessons Learned Review, enabled us to identify gaps in the scholarship and to prepare for further research. Many of the transcripts and recordings of interviewees can be found on our dedicated web pages.

A longer term Arts and Humanities Research Council-funded project will, if given the go-ahead, offer a scholarly examination of the ‘Windrush scandal’ within a fully transnational framework, one that considers the agency of a wide variety of official and non-official actors from both sides of the Atlantic and the role of the postcolonial and Commonwealth contexts of international relations. Its key objective is to develop a unique digital research resource of extended interviews on the national and diplomatic activism around the Windrush scandal, supported by digitised government documents from the British archives and Caribbean government records.

Ultimately, this vital research aims to give voice to traditionally under-represented people, to ensure we can learn from the past.

Dr Juanita Cox is a visiting research fellow at the School of Advanced Study. You can read more about the ‘Oral History of the Windrush Generation’ project at: