The most familiar version of the story of the Windrush generation excludes LGBTQ+ people. It describes how (presumed) heterosexual men from the Caribbean, seeking economic opportunity, arrived on the HMT Empire Windrush and later spawned – literally and figuratively – the generation of black Britons to follow.
But, that narrative leaves out an important figure: Ivor Gustavus Cummings. His influence and dedication made him the true spawner of the Windrush generation. And Cummings was an openly gay man.
Whitehall was informed of the imminent arrival of several hundred settlers aboard the Empire Windrush via a telegram from the governor of Jamaica, 13 days before the ship set sail.
This article is part of our Windrush 75 series, which marks the 75th anniversary of the HMT Empire Windrush arriving in Britain. The stories in this series explore the history and impact of the hundreds of passengers who disembarked to help rebuild after the second world war.
This telegram was routed to the welfare department of the Colonial Office (the government department that oversaw the colonies of the British Empire). There it became the responsibility of the second most senior officer – 35-year-old Ivor Cummings.
Cummings replied with apprehensive determination:
Although we shall do what we can for these fellows, the main problem is the complete lack of accommodation and being unable to put in hand any satisfactory reception arrangements.
A paper trail of telegrams, letters, reports and addresses – both typed and handwritten – documents Cummings’ dogged efforts to secure accommodations and resources for the “Windrushers” on a time crunch.
How Cummings prepared for arrivals
As the ship crossed the Atlantic, Cummings feverishly pieced together arrangements for the travellers’ reception. He was the point person, coordinating among multiple departments of the civil service and officials in England, Jamaica and on the high seas.
This choice of location led to nearby Brixton becoming a destination for other African-Caribbean newcomers and the rise of one of the most iconic black neighbourhoods in Britain.
When, on June 21, the Empire Windrush dropped anchor at London’s Tilbury docks, Cummings boarded the ship and greeted the hopeful migrants before they were cleared to disembark the following day, the 22nd, now celebrated as “National Windrush Day”.
“First of all,” he said in his magisterial tone of voice (a 1974 BBC documentary, The Black Man in Britain, features interviews with Cummings), “let me welcome you to Great Britain and express the hope that you will all achieve the objects that brought you here”.
Who was Ivor Cummings?
Cummings was born in West Hartlepool, England, in 1913, to a white English mother and Sierra Leonean father.
His paternal line was distinguished – composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor was a cousin.
Another relative was Constance Cummings-John, a women’s rights advocate who served as mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone. A historic first for an African woman.
Growing up in Croydon with his mother, Cummings was usually the only non-white person in his environment. This experience shaped his conviction to “help any person of colour”, according to the author of his obituary, Val Wilmer, who interviewed him once in his home and once at his bedside in hospital.
Cummings also mentored people who shared his other minority status – homosexuality. He lived openly and uncensored long before the Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexuality in England and Wales.
Paul’s father had been absent from his childhood. In a speech Paul sent to be read at Cummings’ memorial service, he said that Ivor advised: “You must not disparage your father. Your father is a very important person and you have this heritage.” In the same speech, Danquah praised Cummings’ “regard for matters of style and rank”.
“He liked reprobates,” Wilmer said. “He liked highfalutin people, but although he had this [superior] way about him and talked in that manner, he was actually quite humble.”
In the 2015 book, Black London, historian Marc Matera points to a rumour in the postwar period of a “homosexual clique” in the Colonial Office.
The welfare department chief, John L. Keith (a white Briton), was gay, for example. It was said any heterosexual man needed to be in their graces to “get ahead”. Such homophobia did not faze Cummings.
“He was a fastidious, elegant man, with a manner reminiscent of Noel Coward,” according to authors Mike and Trevor Phillips. “He chain-smoked, using a long cigarette holder and addressed visitors as: ‘dear boy’.”
Cummings’ later life
Cummings resigned from the Colonial Office in 1958. He’d been offered a high-ranking post in the Colonial Service in Trinidad. However, he chose instead to accept an offer from Kwame Nkrumah, then prime minister of newly independent Ghana, to train diplomats for foreign service. He succumbed to cancer on October 17 1992, just shy of his 80th birthday.
Were there gay or bisexual men among the Windrush passengers that Cummings helped? We don’t yet know. Scholars have only recently begun to research queerness in relation to the Windrush era.
As a Guardian article about the Windrush settlers that ran the day after they had disembarked, asserted: “They are … as heterodox a collection of humanity as one might find.”
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