The view from the “Motherland”: Billy Strachan’s fight for the Windrush generation
Discover the story of Billy Strachan, black civil rights pioneer & WWII Royal Air Force bomber pilot, and his support for the Windrush generation through his papers held in our archive...
On 22 June 1948 the Empire Windrush landed at Tilbury Docks, Essex, carrying on it around 500 Jamaican settlers, who would become known as part of the Windrush generation. The Empire Windrush has become a symbol of the journeys of Caribbean and other Commonwealth migrants to their “Motherland” Britain after 1945. This is far from the beginning of Black British history, even in the 20th century. Many Caribbean people first arrived in Britain beforehand, became important supporters of the Windrush generation and even had significant impact on global politics. An archive held at Senate House Library tells the story of one of them, William Arthur Watkin Strachan, often simply called Billy Strachan.
Billy Strachan was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1921. His first venture to Britain was in March 1940, when he joined the Royal Air Force. He had a successful career first as a wireless operator, air gunner and eventually flight lieutenant. During his RAF service a fellow volunteer, Peter Bynoe, introduced him to Eric Williams’s now classic work Capitalism and Slavery (1944). According to Strachan’s biographer David Horsley, reading Eric Williams influenced Strachan’s lifelong political activism for the independence of the Caribbean. In 1946, he was demobilised and briefly returned to Jamaica, but soon returned to England with his family in 1947, just months before the Empire Windrush arrived.
Building community, building solidarity
One of the organisations which Strachan set up to support the Caribbean community was the London Branch of the Caribbean Labour Congress (CLC). The CLC was founded during the Second World War by trade unionists, left-wing nationalists, communists and socialists in the Caribbean and was dedicated to gaining independence from British imperial rule. Despite this focus on anti-colonial campaigning, Strachan saw an intrinsic connection between the struggles of his fellow citizens at home and abroad and the CLC London Branch rallied in support migrants coming to Britain. One of the first campaigns was in support workers in the postal service, pressuring the Union of Post Office Workers to drop attempts at putting barriers to promotions for black postal workers.
Throughout the 1940s and 1950s Strachan joined a swath of movements that supported Black British people, among them the League of Coloured Peoples, the Movement for Colonial Freedom and the Communist Party of Great Britain. Strachan’s crucial role in the fight for the rights of the Black British community is evident from the vast numbers of pamphlets, leaflets and correspondence that have entered his archive.
In 1952, Billy Strachan founded Caribbean News, one of the first British newspapers aimed at the Caribbean community in the UK. It included news from the UK, the readers’ home countries and other British colonies. Strachan supported causes of black workers in Britain with headlines such as “End Colour Bar in Britain Say Workers In Birmingham” making the front page. Beyond providing news, the Caribbean News supported the organisation of special cultural events such as dances and fairs. The newspaper gave the newly incoming Caribbean community a platform where their voices could be heard and built a sense of solidarity.
Black Atlantic Connections
Beyond his activism in Britain, Billy Strachan’s papers show him as part of a nexus of interactions between anti-colonial, socialist and communist movements in Britain, the Caribbean, and the wider Black Atlantic. The correspondence in his archive running between the Caribbean and London contains, among many others, letters from Cheddi and Janet Jagan of British Guiana (now Guyana), both major figures in the People's Progressive Party (PPP). When British troops sent to British Guiana in 1953 to overthrow democratically elected PPP Government, the London Branch of the CLC held public meetings and rallies in support. Strachan continued to back anti-colonial struggles in British imperial territory throughout the mid-20th century.
Billy Strachan and the history of the Windrush generation
As a dedicated trade unionist, communist and anti-colonial campaigner Billy Strachan sat uncomfortably in the British political mainstream of his time. This may be why, despite his tireless efforts on behalf of the Windrush generation, he remains a less well-known figure of 20th century Black British history. His papers are a significant and fascinating source documenting Black British community and its global activism at the time.
To find out more about the Billy Strachan papers, you can explore our Archives Catalogue. To learn more about how to research the history of Black London with Senate House Library’s collections, visit our YouTube channel and explore our collections for further stories from the Windrush generation by visiting our catalogue.
Below are just a few examples of titles available at Senate House Library for further reading and research:
• Donald Hinds, Journey to an Illusion: The West Indian in Britain (London: Heinemann, 1966)
• Beryl Gilroy, In Praise of Love and Children (Leeds: Peepal Tree, 1996)
• James Berry, Windrush Songs (Tarset: Bloodaxe Books, 2007)
• Beverley Bryan, Stella Dadzie and Suzanne Scafe, The Heart of the Race: Black Women’s Lives in Britain (London: Virago Press, 1985)