Sunday, 18 April 2021

The final voyage of the Empire Windrush - by Lu Hersey

Like most people, I've read a lot about the Empire Windrush over the years. I'm in awe of the bravery of all those people from the West Indies prepared to risk everything and set off for a new life in a freezing cold, mostly hostile Britain. I've seen the photographs of so many smiling, smartly dressed people on board the ship. Then the shocking 'NO BLACKS' notices, legally put up in the windows of houses with rooms to let when they arrived. The horrific level of racism they faced, and their stoic resilience and determination to make Britain their home, despite everything. Even recently, up to 70 years later, some have had to fight for the right (or their parents' or grandparents' right) to stay in a country they've lived and worked in all their lives.

But that's not my story. Mine is just a post script - a piecing together from family archives. All my life I've known of my (now 93 year old) father's voyage on the Empire Windrush. The final voyage, the one where it caught fire after an explosion in the engine room, killing 4 men, and sank somewhere off the coast of Algeria in the Mediterranean. How my father had to escape with the rest of the crew and passengers onto lifeboats. The fateful voyage, some time before I was born, where all my parents' possessions went to the bottom of the ocean.

What I find hard to believe is that I didn't put two and two together until a few weeks ago when I was talking to my father - and the penny finally dropped. This historic ship, forever famous for bringing a new community to Britain, was the same Empire Windrush my father was on when it sank. You'd think I'd have realised long before now - I mean how many Empire Windrushes could there be? But it seems I suffer from something I think of as Underground Map Syndrome. Taking a tube for a connection to a different line to get to the place I want to be, only to discover after many such journeys, that the two places are geographically so close I could have easily walked and saved myself the effort. 

I'd never thought about what happened to the ship after its historic voyages from the West Indies. Why would I? The stories linked to the ship were in different brain compartments. The boat my father was on when it sank coming back from Hong Kong was from a different part of both history and geography, and I simply didn't make the connection. 

Most of what I knew of the Empire Windrush came from my mother's frequent telling of all the wonderful things that went down with the ship. My father was in the Navy doing his National Service when they first married, and she'd travelled out to Hong Kong in her newlywed optimism, hoping to join him there. Like much of my parents' marriage, it didn't quite work out as planned. The Korean war started, and my father was sent off on a Naval vessel to the Korean coast before she even arrived. But being a resilient woman, and having come all that way, my mother settled and worked in Hong Kong for over a year while she waited for him to come back. 

She'd never been abroad before in her life, and Hong Kong presented an exciting adventure in a new world, with a very different culture, people and climate to experience. Working as a medical secretary, she saved up to buy the most beautiful Chinese things she could afford, presents for her parents, sister, niece and nephew, (none of whom had ever been abroad either) and souvenirs to decorate my parents' home, whenever they finally managed to be in the same place at the same time. 

As a child I was frequently told stories of what would have been in our possession, but wasn't. The jade mahjong set, the ancient Chinese ginger jars (chosen and bargained for with the help of the Chinese doctor she was working for), silk dressing gowns, handmade dresses, silk cushions embroidered with dragons - marvels from another world, lost to the bottom of the sea.

When my father's ship eventually brought him to Hong Kong on his way back to England, my parents decided to send all the things my mother had bought back on the ship with him, as it avoided any shipping charges. Unfortunately, the boat just happened to be the Empire Windrush. 

I've asked my father lots of times about what happened when the boat caught fire. He still won't talk about it much, except to say the chief engineer was always complaining that the engine room was swimming in leaked engine oil, so it was an accident waiting to happen. As my father had been working as a ship's doctor out in the Korean war, the boat catching fire was probably nothing in comparison to what he'd already experienced. Also he hadn't spent any time in Hong Kong, so the things my mother had collected and prized so highly didn't mean much to him.

While researching this post, I found an article in the New Statesman about a man called Max Holloway, whose wife was one of the first immigrants on the Empire Windrush. When she died in 2016, he came up with an idea of finding the ship and retrieving the anchor (which features in many of the iconic photographs of that voyage) to make a fitting memorial to a whole generation of immigrants. Something to be proud of, and remember people by in years to come. He was in contact with David Mearns, a shipwreck hunter, to help locate the ship, 2800 metres down on the Mediterranean seabed. At the moment they are still trying to raise funding for this venture, as shipwreck salvage is very expensive. (Like £2-3 million expensive)

If they ever succeed, I'll visit that anchor too. For me, it would be a memorial to a part of family history that's also (if incidentally) connected to the Empire Windrush. A connection to my mother, who died many years ago and has no other memorial (don't ask - my father scattered her ashes somewhere in Spain... but that's another story). And if it turns into a full salvage operation, I might make enquiries about any jade mahjong sets they find...

Lu Hersey

Twitter: @LuWrites


Mike Manson said...

What a fascinating story. Thanks for sharing.

Penny Dolan said...

What an amazing fact to discover. Lu. Context is all.

Your mum must have nissed those carefully collected treasures very much, including being able to share such exotic presents and the shopping stories that went with them.
Buying gifts for home can also feel comforting when slightly alone and homesick.


Rachel Hamilton said...

Loved this post, Lu. What a story within a story.

Amanda said...

I read this with a pang for your mother and her careful savings. The Windrush does seem to have been a ship of ill omen!

LuWrites said...

Oh thanks for the lovely comments everyone! Still feeling a bit thick for not putting two and two together...

Katherine Langrish said...

Wow, what a story! So glad they escaped, but those precious things of your mothers - weep!