A voyage of discovery into Preston’s Windrush history

Posted on - 22nd June, 2023 - 12:00pm | Author - | Posted in - History, People, Preston News
Old photo of Empire Windrush

Today, 22 June, is Windrush Day.  It marks the disembarkation of the SS Empire Windrush, a former troopship returning on a voyage from the Caribbean with over 1,000 passengers including 492 West Indians.  Mostly ex-servicemen who answered Britain’s call during her hour of need during World War II, these passengers came back to Britain to find work and help rebuild an ailing war-torn economy.  Those that did not reenlist in the armed forces and mostly worked unskilled menial jobs that British workers were unable or unwilling to fill.  One of her passengers came to Preston.  He lived in Avenham and would let rooms to fellow West Indians who followed in the processing years.  Jamaican Charles Knuckle arrived in December 1947, he also came to Preston.  Very little is known about his ship the Alamanazora. Similarly, very little is known about other ships that followed and preceded Windrush.  One such vessel is the Norwegian-reregistered Bjornstein.  Her arrival at Preston in March 1960 was the subject of local, national, and international press.  This blog post will take you on a voyage of discovery about this hidden aspect of Preston’s history.

The Daily Telegraph published an article on March 1, 1960, highlighting the arrival of this vessel and her eight passengers.  This ship’s cargo was a consignment of bananas, citrus fruits, and vegetables for Geest Industries.  It was not unusual for passengers to pay a £75 fare for this two-week voyage.  These passengers travelled in comfort and style.  The eight passengers who disembarked in Preston on this occasion were stowaways.  According to the article, at least 250 stowaways made this journey between 1958 and 1960. This latest arrival resulted in a flurry of diplomatic and political headaches for the Colonial Office in Whitehall and the administration in Dominica.

Read more: Windrush book tells stories of move to Lancashire in the 1950s and 60s

A complaint had been previously made to the Colonial Office about stowaways in Dominica and St. Lucia.  Mr. Merchant, a shipping agent from Kaye Son & Co Ltd., representing Belgian Fruit Lines had reported issues to civil servants in London in November 1959.  After being reassured adequate measures were taken to stop would-be stowaways, Mr. Marchant was incensed to find stowaways on a vessel under his management in February 1960.  Stowaways on board the Frubel Julia that docked in Barry South Wales, on February 24, 1960, were secreted in specially built hides and went undiscovered for the entire two-week journey.  The temperature in the hold was regulated to keep them safe for the full voyage.  Two of the fare-dodging passengers possessed correspondence from successful Dominican stowaways already living in Preston.  Mr. Marchant felt these signified that Britain was a paradise and only served to encourage more Dominicans to make this illicit and deadly sojourn.

Stowing away on a banana boat was incredibly dangerous.  Anyone embarking on this venture took their own lives in their hands.  An article in the Daily Gleaner newspaper discussed how penniless West Indians wearing tropical clothes were usually discovered when they banged for attention after shivering for one or two days.  A Geest Industries spokesperson explained that after three days of extremely cold conditions in the hold, it would be a struggle to keep them alive.  They took these incredible risks to secure new lives because they were impoverished and could not necessarily afford the fare.  It was cheaper to pay a cash fee to the Geest Industries agent overseeing the loading of the cargo to ensure that they would be secreted amongst the cargo in the refrigerated hold.  It was then incumbent upon them to notify the crew of their presence when they were out at sea before or were too late.

Windrush flag

The stowaways hidden amongst the bananas on the Bjornstein alerted the crew to their presence in a pique of panic.  After three days at sea, Captain Larsen decided to have a fire drill.  Unbeknownst to him he had extra passengers.  After sounding the fire alarms pandemonium broke out below decks.  As much as the crew was unaware of their uninvited guests, they were equally clueless about the fire drill.  Thinking it was a real fire they scrambled out of their hides very quickly.  After being alerted by their presence the Captain using his telex machine contacted Geest Industries in Preston to inform them of his discovery.  The local press was contacted and when the Bjornstein arrived at her destination was waiting with a photographer in tow.

The photo accompanying the article depicted six of the eight stowaways.  At least three of them wore coats, and two wore jumpers whilst one man wore a shirt.  This was the only clothing all of the men possessed.  All were British passport holders, therefore, were free to remain.  The eight men were Paul Richards, Steven Williams, Bernard Bruney, Helious James, Moses George, James Hesketh Boston, Henley Jerome Joseph, and Joseph Jacques.  Their trades include tailoring, masonry, fishing, and labouring.  All of the men came in search of work and were easily placed in employment. They made a life in Preston, married, and raised families.

Read more: The Preston group bringing together Windrush Scandal victims from across the UK

Very little is known about these men’s lives outside their families. They are an important part of Preston’s Windrush history.  We need to acknowledge and celebrate their contribution to this story.  This is just the beginning of this historical journey as more research will be undertaken and shared along the winding road of discovery.  This story has mostly been hidden from view.  It is a microcosm of Windrush generation history in Preston which is also largely unknown. This is about to change.  

Dave Williams, a son of one of the Bjornstein stowaways has recently embarked on a voyage to educate the wider public about the story of the Windrush history in Britain.  Founder of Dominica and Friends, Dave and I have joined together and formed Windrush Education.  It is our mission to bring the story of the Windrush generation to life and ensure it is no longer hidden from the annals of history but placed at the heart of the curriculum.  We stand on the shoulders of the Windrush Elders who embarked on a journey that changed Britain forever.  This story deserves to be told to a wider audience.

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