Women of Windrush: Britain’s adventurous arrivals that history forgot

When stowaway Evelyn Wauchope was discovered, the other passengers were so impressed they raised the funds to cover her ticket.

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Lost proof of pension rights for the Windrush generation? That’s not the only trouble that comes from the government discarding historical records.

We all know the legend of cheery young men singing calypsos as they arrive at Tilbury on 22 June 1948 to help the motherland. Yet there is an absence of a nuanced account of the female Caribbean economic migrants arriving on the Empire Windrush 70 years ago.

I’ve used Colonial Office documents, passenger lists and genealogical data to help fill in their different story. For these women, funding the trip was harder economically, they knew even less about what to expect; and they were destined for lower-paid jobs than the black male migrants and white women. But they were also treated like ladies, rather than suspected of being troublemakers, as the men were.

Of the 492 on board, the passenger list shows what appear to be 45 women settlers and 25 “maybes”, coming from Trinidad, Jamaica and Bermuda to make a new life. This is on top of 67 female holidaymakers and colonial travellers, and 60 Polish women coming from Mexico.

Attention focused on the Windrush men because there were so many, as had been the case the previous year with the Ormonde and Almanzora, both of which also transported Caribbean migrants to the UK. The men travelled deck class, like soldiers, in an all-male enclave at a cut price of £28.10s.

For the sake of seemliness, the women were required to travel in two-bed and four-bed cabins usually allocated to officers. So they paid £43, a little less than the usual troopship price of £48, travelling the 8,000 miles in relative comfort.

This additional cost, though, meant women would have found it harder to buy a ticket. A man’s deck ticket in 1948 could be funded by selling three cows. For a woman, the equivalent was at least five cows, which could also be compared  to 25 weeks’ of the National Assistance newly available to unemployed UK couples at the time, an early form of welfare support. 

The ticket price determined the company kept. Women’s journeys were more genteel. They mixed with elite passengers, such as writer Nancy Cunard and the wife of British Guinea’s governor Lady Ivy Woolley. By contrast, the men’s shipmates were ex-servicemen or seafarers who could answer questions about what to expect in England.

So who were these women? The most famous is Mona Baptiste. The 21-year-old Trinidadian was listed as a clerk, but was already a recognised blues singer. She went on to develop her musical career in Germany.

Windrush passenger lists don’t show ethnicity, marital status, means of support, future employers’ identity, dates of birth or next of kin. But they reveal name, age, country of residence in the previous year, future address, and occupation. The latter is not much use for women since most are listed as “HD” (household duties). Even travel writer Freya Stark is “HD”.

The surprise is that most were quite old to relocate (many in their thirties) and some appear to have been making this major life move with children. The UK needed miners and workers in textile mills, yet here were dressmakers, hairdressers, domestics and three nurses (the NHS wasn’t to begin until 5 July, so the famous staff shortages had not yet started.)

Absent birth dates and the tradition that women changes surnames on marriage make it hard to track their next steps. But few appear to have stayed, with several migrating to the US within two years.

So why weren’t the women referred to in extant records or mass media? This was partly because the women were few and partly because public attention centred on gangs of male “undesirables” whose arrival might threaten the social order.

“Exciting” passenger Evelyn Wauchope got the most attention of any female. This 27-year-old dressmaker stowed away, which, for a woman, would have been an unusual feat requiring bravado, bribes and collusion with all-male dock and shipboard workers.

A young student aboard recorded Evelyn’s discovery, writing: “A couple of English and Jamaican cabin passengers… decided that they simply could not let this adventurous woman be imprisoned on arrival in England.” The penalty was up to 28 days. “Everyone was sympathetic… Delroy Stevens and the Calypso singers got together, and gave a benefit concert.” They made enough for her ticket plus £4 pocket money.

Rather than careering off as a wild girl she settled in the decorous Colonial Girls Hostel in Earl’s Court with Mona Baptiste. She appears to have ended up in Mendocino, California.

But, as we know, finding the records is a problem.

There is more information on the 70th anniversary of the Windrush here.

Dr Jo Stanley is a historian specialising in gender and the sea.