History on the River Thames

The Empire Windrush and Tilbury Docks

Tilbury Docks was opened in 1886, opening the way for trading goods and operating passenger services with connections to the rest of the world. The floating river Landing Stage was opened in 1930 by Prime Minister Ramsey McDonald, expanding the passenger line services at Tilbury, allowing berths of liners at all states of the tide. Notable people have travelled through Tilbury Docks including Mark Twain from America and George Orwell, coming back from France, both recorded their experiences of the occasion.

Thurrock Borough's motto, on its Coat of Arms, adopted in 1957 (See Fact Sheet 1) reflects the importance of the River Thames and Tilbury Docks role in world trade and communication with,

"By Thames To All People of the World".

It is interesting to note that Thurrock has received a number of migrations of peoples from the Bronze Age Beaker people from across the North sea, Romans, Saxons (Thurrock is a Saxon word), Norman's (Grays is named after the Norman Knight Henry De Grey) Dutch sea wall builders and more recently Czechoslovakian shoe manufacturers in 1930's. Many of the company's operating in Thurrock are multi-national one's like Proctor & Gamble.

In 1948 it was Tilbury Docks that received the first post-war Caribbean migrants on the ship 'Empire Windrush' from Kingston, Jamaica.

The story of the Empire Windrush starts pre-war, when in 1936 Blohm and Voss shipbuilders of Hamburg built the ship; its first use was as one of Hitler's "Strength through joy" ships and named the SS Santa Rosa. A sister ship the SS Wilhelm Bustlof, visited Tilbury Landing stage, prior to the outbreak of war in 1939, to collect German nationals and take them out beyond the 'three mile limit', to allow them to vote, mainly for Hitler's Nazi Party. It is believed the SS Santa Rosa was used during the war as a troopship and was captured at the end of the war, becoming a bounty ship. It was converted later on at Tilbury Docks, by the ship repairing company Green and Silley Weir, for use as an immigration ship and re-named M.V. Empire Windrush.

The Empire Windrush set sail from Kingston, Jamaica on May 24th (Empire Day) 1948 with 492 official Caribbean migrants (being a mixture of Trinidadians, Jamaicans and Bermudans) but also numbers of troops, lower deck passengers and a few stowaways. Each of the mainly black migrants, including many who had served in the armed forces, had paid £28 to travel to Great Britain in response to job advertisements in their local newspapers. There were also indications of favourable job prospects and a warm welcome. Jobs were scarce in Jamaica, partly because of the disastrous 1944 hurricane which had weakened the economy, which made prospects in the motherland even more attractive. There was also a hardening policy of restricting immigration in to the United States of America.

The ship anchored in the river on the 21st June 1948 after 30 days at sea. At about 4.00 a.m. a number of people were seen getting into and launching one of the life rafts which had a quick release mechanism. This was reported to the bridge but by the time an officer arrived to investigate, the life raft was disappearing into the darkness and a fast running ebb tide, it was soon intercepted by a Customs Launch.

It was reported by the local press "Mr Ivor Cummings, a coloured member of the Colonial Office welfare department came on board that night with other officials to talk with them". The migrants apparently had a wide range of skills to offer, which included painters, carpenters, boxers, farmers, musicians, and a dance band.

On the 22nd they started to disembark at Tilbury Docks and begin their new lives in Britain. The local reporters observed the fashion of the men with 'dazzling tie designs' and another member of the crew remembers that while on board, many made up some pretty nifty trousers in 'Zoot suit style', apparently made up from high quality Canadian blankets issued for bedding on the ship for the crossing.

The Grays and Tilbury Gazette newspaper reported the following week that in total 15 stowaways were discovered, two in the life raft and 13 on ship without a ticket. They were sent to Grays Magistrates Courts that week and fined £1 for the first charge, of travelling on a vessel without having paid their fare, and the second for secreting themselves on board. They could pay the fine or have 7 days in prison for the first offence and 10 days for the second offence, the sentences to run concurrently. One man however, had no identification papers and it was reported he would be sentenced to 30 days imprisonment and be deported.

The majority of travellers were soon on their way by train to pre-arranged addresses and contacts; for others with nowhere to stay, accommodation was found in the Clapham Deep Shelter, a part of the Northern Tube line, which had been used as an air-raid shelter. In March 1954, after a fire on board, the Empire Windrush sank in the Mediterranean, with the loss of four men, while bringing home 1,500 servicemen from the Far East.


  • The Downstream Dock, by Rita Mc Lean
  • The Peopling of London, Edited by Nick Merriman