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, 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), Normans (Grays is named after the Norman Knight Henry De Grey), Dutch sea wall builders and more recently Czechoslovakian shoe manufacturers in 1930s. Many of the company's operating in Thurrock are multi-national one's like Procter and Gamble.

In 1948, Tilbury Docks received one of the first large groups of post-war Caribbean settlers on the ship 'Empire Windrush'.

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 '3-mile limit', to allow them to vote.

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 later converted at Tilbury Docks by the ship repairing company, Green and Silley Weir, and re-named M.V. Empire Windrush.

The Empire Windrush was also a troop-ship initially, carrying service personnel to and from locations around the World. 1948 marked a change, as passenger berths to England were advertised. For example, in Jamaica the 'Daily Gleaner' newspaper advertised 300 places. Their depressed economy, weakened by factors like the hurricane of 1944, meant that this was seen as a potential opportunity to learn new skills and there was competition for these places.

When Empire Windrush sailed on 24 May 1948 and anchored in the river on 21 June 1948, after 30 days at sea. It was reported by the local press: "Mr Ivor Cummings... 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 – they included painters, carpenters, boxers, farmers, musicians, and a dance band.

On 22 June, 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'.

The 'Grays and Tilbury Gazette' newspaper reported the following week that in total 15 stowaways were discovered. 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.

The majority of travellers were soon on their way by train to prearranged addresses and contacts. For others with nowhere to stay, accommodation was found in the Clapham Deep Shelter, a part of the Northern Tube line that had been used as an air-raid shelter. Within a month, nearly all had found jobs and accommodation.

In March 1954, after a fire on board, the Empire Windrush sank in the Mediterranean Sea with the loss of four men, while bringing home 1,500 servicemen from the Far East.