This year marks seventy years since the Empire Windrush set sail from the West Indies and docked in the UK on June 22nd 1948.
Originally sent to bring servicemen who were on leave from the British armed forces back to the UK, because of the size of the ship, hundreds of others were offered the chance to join them on board to fill up space, for a £28 fee. These men were attracted to the idea of life in Britain for a variety of reasons; including the high unemployment rate in Caribbean countries, and Britain being presented throughout the education system as the loving mother-country filled with opportunities.
The Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Race Relations Resource Centre in Manchester Central Library has an extensive collection of material relating to those who came over on the Windrush from the West Indies and settled in Manchester, including several oral history projects. It was whilst looking through these resources that I came across a man named Euton Christian, who came to the UK originally to serve in the RAF and then returned on the Windrush. Euton went on to become Manchester’s first black magistrate in the 1970s.
Euton was born in Jamaica in 1923, and in 1944 at the age of 20 decided to sign up to the RAF to join his friends who had already volunteered. During the war he was based mostly in Sealand near Chester where he was a technician, which involved spray painting, camouflaging and repairing fabric aircraft. He was a lover of sport, especially cricket, and played on the team whilst based in Chester. Euton even states in an interview for the ‘Roots Family History’ project that had he not gone into the civil service after leaving the RAF, he would have loved to have been a professional cricketer.
Euton described the mood amongst those who weren’t servicemen on board the Windrush as apprehensive – people wondering what was going to happen to them once they arrived in the UK. Many he spoke to believed they would only be here for four or five years, make enough money, and then go back to Jamaica; but this would not be the case for the majority who ended up staying in the UK for much longer.
Euton describes the reception they received from the British people on arrival as “varied”. Whilst in the Air Force he explains how he didn’t experience discrimination because there was a feeling between colleagues that the following day, one might have to save the other’s life, so they treated each other equally. When the war ended however he says peoples’ attitudes changed, and became more along the lines of ‘is it not time you went back home now?’
Despite this, and his assertion that “this country does not like foreigners”, Euton says he found Manchester and Lancashire to be some of the most welcoming areas of the country: “they were quite helpful and cheerful and willing to give you the assistance that you need.”
In 1952 Euton left the RAF and, knowing his friend Dalton from Jamaica had settled here, decided to move to Manchester and buy a house for him and his wife Louise. Because of the abundance of job vacancies still remaining after the end of the war, Euton was able to change jobs quickly until he found one he was happy with. He had several very different jobs in the first few years after leaving the RAF, which included working in a car garage, making telephones, a storekeeper and a shunter for the railways, before finally getting a job in the circulation department of the Post Office in 1954, where he stayed for the next thirty years. Euton became the first black person to be promoted to a managerial role in the Post Office, which was one of the first of his many impressive achievements.
To add to his list of firsts, Euton went on to become the first black magistrate, Manchester’s first black Justice of the Peace and the first black person to sit on a Crown Court bench.
Euton continued to play cricket after leaving the forces, and through this was involved in the founding of the West Indian Sports and Social Club in his local Moss Side in 1953. He was involved in the surgery at the club, helping people with visas, passports and other documents in his spare time from 1978. Evidently a prominent member of the community, he was also a founding member of the Manchester Council for Community Relations in the 1960s. The MCCR’s aim was to prevent people from being subject to racial discrimination, particularly as there were no anti-discrimination laws in place in the UK yet, and the organisation is still fulfilling this aim today.
Euton Christian was an inspirational man who achieved many extraordinary things. He and his story give just one example of why we should celebrate the men and women who travelled on the Windrush, and the many subsequent ships, who settled and made lives in Britain during the middle part of the twentieth century.