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Friday, June 19, 1998 Published at 17:21 GMT 18:21 UK


Windrush: The passenger's perspective

Oswald "Columbus" Dennison sailed from Jamaica on the Windrush. He was the first of the Windrush passengers, according to the contemporary press, to get a job.

Under the headline "Jamaica's Oswald Given Job" the Daily Express reported:

"Oswald M. Dennison - the first of 430 job-seeking Jamaicans to land at Tilbury yesterday morning from the trooper Empire Windrush - started a £4-a-week job last night. Wrapped in two warm blankets to keep warm, he settled in as a night watchman of the meals marquee in Clapham Common, SW where 240 of the Jamaicans are staying in deep wartime shelters. All of them sat down there to their first meal on English soil: roast beef, potatoes, vegetables, Yorkshire pudding suet pudding with currants and custard. A bed and three hot meals will cost them 6s.6d (32.5p) a day. Most of the Jamaicans have about £5 to last them until they find work. Oswald Dennison, 35-year-old sign painter, got his job after making a speech of thanks to government officials. He called for three cheers for the Ministry of Labour and raised his Anthony Eden hat. Others clapped. Panamas, blue, pink, and biscuit trilbys and one bowler were waved"( Daily Express, 23 June 1948).

After leaving the shelter at Clapham, Oswald Dennison settled in Brixton, where he still works as a street trader on his own fabric stall. Here he talks to News online's Rebecca Thomas about his experience.

  • What do you think of the Windrush anniversary?

Well I suppose it's important as a record for the future. As far as the British Commonwealth was concerned, an invasion of this kind had never happened before. Windrush attracted attention initially because people could travel so cheaply - £28 and 10 shillings - against the more expensive plane ticket of about £75. But then Britain had just been through a war and the country needed people to rebuild. It was a fine thing both for the Britain who wanted the workers and for the people who wanted to find work.

But as an event to be commemorated Windrush is more important to those who lived it rather than to the next generation.

  • What were your hopes on making the voyage to Britain?

I didn't look so far ahead as to wonder what England would be like. I came 22 June and I started work the same day. It didn't take me any time.

[ image:  ]
I went to the Clapham South West shelter in London like everybody else who had nowhere else to go. We stayed there for two shillings a night.

We always thought of England as the mother country - as a sort of school. Many of us thought we would come here to get a better education and to stay for about five years. But then some of us have ended staying for fifty. Some have gone back - dead or alive. I had no plans: I was young single man.

  • What was it like on the Windrush?

It was jolly on the ship. We had two or three bands - calypso singers. And Jamaican people are happy-go-lucky people. When you have more than six you have a party.

We were mainly men, but there were one or two women. And also one stowaway woman. She was a washer women who did laundry in the port. She came aboard and stayed. But she couldn't stay hidden for long and we all helped to pay her fare. I would like to know what happened to that woman. I haven't seen or heard from her since.

  • What were your first impressions of Britain?

I got a job the first night in Britain. Everything was rationed. I was given a job handing out the rations. I don't know why they gave me a job but it happened when I went to America too. And because I had a job I wasn't too worried about finding somewhere to live. I had had a business at home then when I got work straight away there was no time to brood. All I had to do was go forward.

I was disappointed to find prejudice here. Being snubbed - it affects some people badly. Some people, they never get over it until this day. But there are people like me who shrug their shoulders and say "life goes on".

[ image: Street life in contemporary London (Savanna Picture Library)]
Street life in contemporary London (Savanna Picture Library)
Some of the boat people and some young people nowadays, at a drop of a hat they would start trouble. Me, I am older and I know better. But some people never got over the initial reception here - it's a hard a blow. They have it in them all the time. It's a wrench. If you think a man of forty coming her after thinking all his life that England was the mother country.

In Panama I saw the Panamanian soldiers all scruffy and undignified compared to the British soldiers. And we laughed at them. Then when we heard "Dong dong, this is London Calling on BBC Radio, I felt superior to every Panamanian because I was British - that was the kind of feeling we grew up with.

  • Were you disappointed by what you found?

My attitude to Britain didn't change once I was here - I would have gone back if they had. I might be an exception because I am soft and silly. But because of my American experience it wasn't difficult for me to pass it by.

Some were very disappointed because they left very good jobs and came here and took on a very low status with non-lucrative work. But there was plenty of work. And most of us had our pride. Some just took what they could get. Some had their pride and soldiered on. I know one man who started out on the buses and went on to become lawyer. Now he's in property. I am no success story. I am a good money-getter but I am a bad money manager.

  • And what about any of those who came over with you - are you still in touch?

[ image: Equal rights march (Savanna Picture Library)]
Equal rights march (Savanna Picture Library)
I only discovered two people who were on the Windrush with me recently. Guy Thomas who has been helping out the Windrush Foundation to organise the anniversary. And another fellow who used to cut hair around here. They have done well. They are thrifty. I am not.

  • Have you been back to Jamaica?

I have one sister in Jamaica. I haven't seen her since 19991. Only been back twice. I was very disappointed when I went back to Jamaica. There were some nice houses but things weren't as I expected to find them because I kept hearing stories that there had been improvements but there hadn't been enough. I can understand why I felt like that. People there said it was just because I had been in England. But I say standards are better here. But you get into debt so easily.

I didn't feel it was my home. I have my family here. I don't feel torn. I grow to suit places and occasions.

  • How do you feel about race relations in Britain now?

There has been a change in attitude to black people and things are better now than in the early days. But some people they will never get used to our being here. Some people are very very good at holding back their feelings. Things have healed a little bit, though.

But I don't like tolerance being forced on people. I once went to the town hall here and I told them that I didn't want legislature telling people to be a friend of mine. I want people to like me for what they see. I always speak my mind.

[ image: Brixton tube station in London (Savanna Picture Library)]
Brixton tube station in London (Savanna Picture Library)
And although Enoch Powell caused lots of problems for us in the 50s, you could at least admire him for speaking out. He was only saying what a lot of white people were too scared to say.

} And I won't get into politics about it. I was recently asked to give a talk at a college. They started asking all about race relations. But I stopped them. I said this is no place for politics. We can't sort things out here.

My hope is in the future better education will lead to more tolerance. The problems start when young blacks and young whites grow up. They might be good friends as young children. But when they reach a certain age and they go their separate ways, their attitudes change.

  • And what has been your happiest time in the last fifty years?

It doesn't take much to make me happy. But I will never be rich I know that.

  • And finally, why are you called "Columbus"?

I don't remember. Someone must have given it to me a long time ago and it just stuck. One of these days it might come back to me.

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Windrush: Ticket to a new Britain

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