The big picture: last call for Commonwealth arrivals, 1962

This picture of a young couple arriving at Gatwick airport from the Caribbean on 30 June 1962 was taken on the evening before the Commonwealth Immigrants Act came into force. The act had been passed by Harold Macmillan’s Conservative government to halt the flow of citizens from current and former British colonies. It was designed in particular to bring to an abrupt end the “open door” welcome for people from the West Indies – characterised by the arrival of the Empire Windrush in 1948 – to help rebuild the so-called “mother country” after the war. Macmillan had been under pressure from his militant backbenchers, some in the newly formed far-right Monday Club, to introduce the bill. Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell called it “cruel and brutal anti-colour legislation”.

The couple in the picture, striding confidently across the tarmac from their BOAC plane in their Sunday clothes, therefore represent perhaps the last moment that Commonwealth citizens from the Caribbean arrived in Britain with unclouded hope. In the subsequent decade, two further immigration bills tightened the legislation against the free movement of families, and the subject became an emotive and divisive political issue right up to the present moment, with the draconian nationality and borders bill passing through parliament.

This photograph is included in an exhibition, Changing the Story, that uses pictures from the TopFoto archive to challenge received ideas of the “whiteness” of Britain after the first world war. The exhibition, brought to life by poet and performer Rommi Smith, includes images from between 1917 and 1962 that question the monocultural stereotypes of nation that conservative forces promoted. “I open the album and am spellbound,” Smith writes of encountering this archive. “I am immediately struck that what unites these stories of people and places across time and space is the racial diversity of the protagonists in them. These photos flip the script on Britishness: my history lessons did not look like this.”

Changing the Story: Photographs of British Life in Black and White, 1917-1962 is at the North Wall Arts Centre, Oxford, 10-29 January

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