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Before Windrush

Precious glimpses and surprising rediscoveries: snapshots of black Britain in the decades before the great postwar migrations.

There was a substantial black presence in Britain long before the Empire Windrush arrived from Jamaica in June 1948. Some of the earliest moving images of black Britons survive in the extraordinary Mitchell and Kenyon collection from the dawn of the 20th century. WWI newsreels offered occasional glimpses of black soldiers from Britain - or more likely the Empire. In WWII the contribution of black servicemen and women was more prominently acknowledged in newsreels and documentaries.

Between the wars, black performers began to make a splash, from music hall entertainers Scott & Whaley to Britain's first black screen star, US-born actor, singer and activist Paul Robeson. Stars like these had an easier time than many, but still faced unthinking stereotypes and prejudice. But they forged a path for others to follow.

The films in this selection span some five decades, serving as a vital record of a much longer history of black people and culture in Britain than is often remembered.

triangle triangle
Before Windrush


View Trafalgar Day in Liverpool
Trafalgar Day in Liverpool
Watch for free 3 mins

Trafalgar Day in Liverpool 1901

Huge crowds turn out in Edwardian Liverpool for the annual celebrations marking the victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

3 mins United Kingdom

View Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery
Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery
Watch for free 1 mins

Miners Leaving Pendlebury Colliery 1901

A black miner makes an intriguing addition to an already captivating film of coal workers up from their pit.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Mr Smith Wakes Up
Mr Smith Wakes Up
Watch for free 15 mins

Mr Smith Wakes Up 1937

A patient African dinner guest learns much about the state of 1930s Britain in this revealing film.

15 mins United Kingdom


View From Trinidad to Serve the Empire
From Trinidad to Serve the Empire
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From Trinidad to Serve the Empire 1916

Colonial recruits from Trinidad meet the Lord Mayor of London during WWI.

1 mins United Kingdom

View A World Is Turning
A World Is Turning
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A World Is Turning 1948

A lost chapter in black British film: extraordinary rushes from a documentary showcasing talented members of the black community.

40 mins United Kingdom Director. G.L. Norman

View Hull Fair
Hull Fair
Watch for free 5 mins

Hull Fair 1902

The ornate pavilions of cinematographs, boxing booths and menageries at Hull Fair.

5 mins United Kingdom

View Merrie Territorials
Merrie Territorials
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Merrie Territorials 1915

Boisterous Territorial soldiers put on a show in Islington.

United Kingdom

View Springtime in an English Village
Springtime in an English Village
Watch for free 7 mins

Springtime in an English Village 1944

An extraordinary and unexpected snapshot of rural life in wartime in which a young black girl is crowned Queen of the May.

7 mins United Kingdom

View Regent of Abyssinia in London
Regent of Abyssinia in London
Watch for free 1 mins

Regent of Abyssinia in London 1924

Abyssinian state ministers visit London during Prince Regent Haile Selassie's diplomatic tour of Europe.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Shooting Stars
Shooting Stars
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Shooting Stars 1937

Black music hall stars Scott and Whaley perform stereotypical minstrel routines in blackface in this 1937 touring revue.

69 mins United Kingdom

View Gorno's Italian Marionettes
Gorno's Italian Marionettes
Watch for free 7 mins

Gorno's Italian Marionettes 1928

Early sound film of a popular stage puppet show that reveals the unpleasant stereotypes of its age.

7 mins United Kingdom Director. Jack Harrison

View Victory Parade
Victory Parade
Watch for free 20 mins

Victory Parade 1946

Soldiers from the far reaches of the British Empire arrive in London to take part in the official commemoration of the end of war in Europe.

20 mins United Kingdom

View Mining Review 2nd Year No. 11
Mining Review 2nd Year No. 11
Watch for free 10 mins

Mining Review 2nd Year No. 11 1949

American actor and singer Paul Robeson visits an Edinburgh colliery, where he regales miners with a rendition of 'I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night'.

10 mins United Kingdom Director. Peter Pickering

View Hello! West Indies
Hello! West Indies
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Hello! West Indies 1943

These stage-managed messages to the West Indies are testament to Britain's reliance on its colonies in WWII.

23 mins United Kingdom

View The Black Emperor
The Black Emperor
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The Black Emperor 1949

Paul Robeson demonstrates his vocal talents in this short extract from Song of Freedom

United Kingdom

View For the Wounded
For the Wounded
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For the Wounded 1915

'Our Day' charity fundraising badges are pinned to the coats of two black soldiers during WWI.

1 mins United Kingdom

View Sambo and Two Girls
Sambo and Two Girls
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Sambo and Two Girls 1911

Curious film in which several white people and a black man pull faces and examine each other's teeth.

2 mins United Kingdom

View Learie Constantine
Learie Constantine
Watch for free 10 mins

Learie Constantine 1945

The West Indian cricketing legend is filmed in his role as a welfare officer, working to help African and Caribbean factory workers in Merseyside.

10 mins United Kingdom

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