Members of the Windrush generation have been “moved to tears” by a new national monument that pays tribute to their ambition, courage and contribution to Britain, the artist behind the sculpture has said.
Basil Watson’s permanent monument to the Windrush pioneers who arrived in Britain after the second world war was unveiled at Waterloo station in London on Wednesday.
The statue, backed by £1m of government funding, portrays three figures – a man, woman and child – dressed in their “Sunday best” climbing a mountain of suitcases hand in hand.
“The community probably never felt that this would happen,” Watson said. “I’ve seen some moved to tears because their personal experience, and their tremendous contribution to the development and culture of Britain, is being recognised in this way.”
Members of the Windrush generation and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge gathered at Waterloo for the unveiling. The event was livestreamed across the country including at Birmingham New Street station and the National Railway Museum in York.
The Queen also sent a message to mark the occasion. It said: “It gives me pleasure to extend my congratulations on the creation of the National Windrush Monument. The unveiling at Waterloo Station on Windrush Day serves as a fitting thank you to the Windrush pioneers and their descendants, in recognition of the profound contribution they have made to the United Kingdom over the decades.
“It is my hope that the memorial will serve to inspire present and future generations, and I send you my warmest good wishes on this historic occasion.”
The chair of the Windrush Commemoration Committee, Floella Benjamin, said the monument would provide a permanent place of reflection, celebration and inspiration for Caribbean communities and the wider public.
“It will act as a symbolic link to our past and a permanent reminder of our shared history and heritage for generations to come,” she said. “I hope it will be a catalyst for other monuments across Britain commemorating the extraordinary contribution to this country by the Windrush generation.
“I am grateful to the members of the Windrush Commemoration Committee for their boundless dedication to ensuring this monument comes to fruition, and hope the Caribbean communities who we have sought to serve believe that we have done them justice.”
Watson, who is based in Atlanta, Georgia, has designed public sculptures and monuments across the world, including in China, the US, Guatemala and Jamaica, of figures such as Martin Luther King, Usain Bolt and Merlene Ottey. The Windrush monument marks his first public artwork in the UK and was built in “record time”.
“In trying to figure out how to depict a generation that spans four decades, I thought: where along that line do I pitch the design? I decided to start at the beginning, that’s where everything starts and moves forward. And so it’s the initial voyage for the first family coming, a family that represents the past, present and future.”
The suitcases, he said, represented the family’s belongings and culture, “everything they brought with them”. The father looks out to the future, the mother “looks back home longingly in anticipation of what she’s going to face and what she’s leaving behind”.
It is a significant commission for the artist, who spent part of his childhood in the UK after his parents travelled from Jamaica as part of the Windrush generation. “It speaks a lot about my journey. Both parents are passed, but the stories that I heard growing up, which I paid scant attention to come flooding back. It connects a lot of the dots in terms of what my parents went through, their aspirations, their journey.”
His father, the painter Barrington Watson, came to the UK to study art, so there is a serendipity about his son going on to design this monument. “My parents would be very proud and moved,” he said.
In particular, Watson said he hoped commuters at Waterloo would take away the impression that the Windrush generation was heroic in their attitude and mission. “Today, when I travel, I am still connected 24/7 through technology. In those days you left home, sailed abroad on a three-week journey, and you wouldn’t connect with your family for another six months or a year. It’d be years before you could see your parents. So it’s almost like once they leave home they are lost for a long time. I cannot imagine how traumatic it would have been for that generation to hit the high seas.”
Watson was selected after an extensive consultation with the British-Caribbean community. His design received the most positive feedback from the public before he was chosen by the commemoration committee.
The decision to install the monument at Waterloo received criticism when it was first announced. Arthur Torrington, the co-founder of the Windrush Foundation, called for the monument to be in Windrush Square in Brixton, saying Waterloo station had “nothing to do” with the Windrush arrival in 1948. But Watson emphasised the importance of its permanence in one of Britain’s busiest rail stations.
“I know that many people will be passing through Waterloo. The symbolism of a transit station is great in that it speaks about the movement of people,” he said. “As an artist I recognise the potential public art has and the contribution it makes to society and the psychology of people.”
There is also the juxtaposition of a public sculpture celebrating immigrants being installed when headlines revolve around the government’s policy on refugees – whether it is those fleeing the war in Ukraine or asylum seekers facing deportation to Rwanda after arriving in the UK on small boats.
“Human beings are migratory species,” Watson said. “I think the world is moving, sometimes not so convincingly, to become a global village. Culturally, boundaries are dissolving more and more – food music, art. And the physical boundaries will eventually dissolve. So I think that this monument is timeless. It speaks about, as Bob Marley put it, the movement of Jah people.”