Gertrude Whitelaw


William Robinson Clarke

‘Intrepid 80-year-old was off on her travels again’

1868 - 1948

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An unaccompanied elderly white female is not what most people envisage when they think of the Empire Windrush. At 80 years of age, Gertrude Whitelaw was one of the oldest people on board and among the 160 first-class passengers who embarked at Kingston, Jamaica. She was also one of the wealthiest, her husband William being a Scottish landowner, railway director, and former MP.

There was nothing unusual in her being alone. She was a prodigious solo traveller and after the constraints of the Second World War it was a huge relief for her to be able to resume her globe- trotting. She visited Madeira every year and had already been to Jamaica, in 1937.

On that occasion she had to make an awkward journey back to England, arriving in New York from Kingston on the SS Quirigua, and completing the next leg of her trip on the Queen Mary. The fact that the Windrush was returning directly to England was an altogether more attractive proposition. Luxury was not an issue as even deluxe ships like the Queen Mary had been stripped out and used as a troop ship during the war, and so the Windrush was as good as anything else.

Born Gertrude Thompson at Milton Hall, Brampton, Cumberland, on March 27, 1868, and one of nine children, she married William Whitelaw in 1890. He was born in Old Monkland in Lanark, Scotland, on March 15, 1868.

The couple began married life at the Thompson family residence at Milton Hall, which was served by a footman, two housemaids, a kitchen maid, and a cook. Head of the household was Gertrude’s mother, also Gertrude, whose husband, Thomas, was a wealthy coal owner who had died in 1888. The Whitelaw family’s London residence was at Queen’s Gate in Kensington. The 1901 census reveals there were 11 members of staff living there to look after the needs of five family members.

William was a landowner and MP for Perth from 1892 to 1895. An old Harrovian, he went on to be chair of the London and North East Railway. He and Gertrude had six children, four of whom tragically died between 1905 and 1919, all before their 30th birthdays. Daughter Audrey went first in 1905 while sons Robert and Geoffrey both lost their lives in the First World War. Another son, William Alexander Whitelaw served in the war but died shortly afterwards in 1919. His son, Willie Whitelaw, would become home secretary in Margaret Thatcher’s first government in 1979.

Just over four months after arriving at Tilbury, Gertrude died on November 9, 1948. She is buried at Old Monkland Cemetery alongside her husband William, who passed away at Hatton House, Kirknewton, Midlothian, in January 1946.

Gertrude Whitelaw – copy of Landing Card – Courtesy of Goldsmiths’ College

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