October is Black History Month in the UK and the history of the emergency services is not short of pioneering personnel from BAME communities for us to celebrate. So in this blog I want to shed light on black emergency services personnel from the past as well as more modern day ones. The ones I have chosen are trailblazers, who were among the first black people to enter the emergency services field, to climb up the ranks or to be a part of the services in a particular role. There are hopefully some names you may have heard of and after this blog, some names you will not forget.
Bill was the first black officer in South Yorkshire Police, serving for forty years. You may recognise his name as last year he was the topic of a Channel 4 documentary ‘Yorkshire Cop: Police, Racism and Me', made by his son Alex Thomas. His story is an inspirational one, as he turned the racism he faced into helping others who were in his position and becoming an integral part of the community he served in Swinton.
His decision to join the police was due to his own arrest. He was walking home from work one evening in 1981, during riots in Chapeltown in Leeds (where he lived), when we was arrested for simply being black. He signed up as a police officer the next day. During his career Bill was at many significant events in South Yorkshire during the 1980s, including the miners' strikes, where he protected miners who chose to work. He was actually accused of assault by one of the miners (even though at the time he was in Mexborough watching his daughter being born); the charges were only dropped because another mother on the maternity ward vouched for him. Bill believes this would not have happened to a white officer.
After the miners' strike he had to rebuild trust with his community and he did this by leading a series of community projects. He even acquired the nickname 'Bobby Bill', which he is still affectionately known as today.
During marches by the National Front in the 1980s Bill’s job as a police officer during one particular protest was to protect the organisation's members. Many members of the public along the route questioned why he was doing this, but what he remembers is one black man coming out of the crowd, shaking his hand and thanking him, as he did not think he would see a black police officer in his lifetime. One of the main things that Bill did during his career was help to set up the Black Police Association, to aid other black officers and show that they were not alone.
George Arthur Roberts
The first black man to serve as a firefighter and probably one of the most well known names on our list is George Arthur Roberts. George was a soldier during World War I, enlisting first in the Trinidad Army before making his way to England and joining the Middlesex Regiment. He fought in many of the Great War's most famous battles including Loos, the Somme and in the Dardanelles, and was wounded twice. According to the wartime magazine Every Week he was nicknamed the 'Coconut Bomber', because of his ability to throw bombs back into enemy lines just as he had thrown coconuts as a child.
After the war he stayed in England, settling in London. When World War II came around he was too old to enlist as a soldier again so he volunteered as a firefighter with the Auxiliary Fire Service (AFS), serving instead on the Home Front. He completed his training in 1939 and fought in the worst of the London Blitz, saving many lives. He was made a section leader in 1943 and was in King George VI's 1944 Birthday honours list, awarded the British Empire Medal. The legacy he left behind him was impressive and his memory is kept alive right up to the present day. In 2016, a blue plaque was erected in Southwark in his honour, remembering him as the first black man to serve within a UK fire service.
One of London’s first black female firefighters and the only woman in our list, Rosalie has recently retired after 31 years in the brigade. In her oral history with NESM, captured this year, she speaks openly about the sexism and racism she faced in the brigade, particularly in her first and last five years of service.
When she began and saw the racism faced not just by her but others, including from those they were trying to help, she said to herself, "One day I am going to be in charge and it is going to be different.” That is exactly what she did. She worked her way up the ranks and co-founded the Black and Ethnic Minority Members’ support group (BEMM).
It was an amazing career for for someone who did not know any firefighters, even within her own community, when growing up. She did however have a fire station that backed on to her school, where she would eventually work. Rosalie had a rocky start in the beginning, putting her ability to do plaits as one of her skills on her application; at least showing she had good dexterity! She did not complete her first course of training and left to work at headquarters, helping to recruit others. She puts this down to many things, including not believing she was good enough and comparing herself to others. However after a year she was encouraged to go back by colleagues at headquarters and her family, especially her mum, who made her believe she was just as good as anyone else. This time she succeeded. She went on to have an amazing career, all the while being a single mother to two children. A pioneer not just for the black community but for women and mothers too. One of her favourite things about the fire brigade was the fact that people came from all walks of life, but all had the same purpose.
Born in Port of Spain, Trinidad, John won a scholarship to study medicine at Edinburgh University in Scotland, graduating in 1899. He worked in London hospitals, in Plaistow, Hampstead and Camberwell, going into practice on his own in around 1907. When war broke out in 1914, Alcindor was denied a place in the Royal Army Medical Corps on the ground of his "colonial ethnicity”. So although war often brings change and opportunity, not always as quickly as we would like. He brushed aside the army rejection and instead joined 90,000 others in signing up as a British Red Cross volunteer. As the war raged on, he aided countless wounded soldiers at London railways stations as they returned from battlefields. His work was eventually recognised when he was awarded a Red Cross medal for his lifesaving work.
Stafford 'Buzz' Barton
A famous Jamaican born boxer, much loved in and out of the ring, Buzz won 33 out of the 51 contests he entered after arriving in England in 1936. He left the boxing ring to do his bit at the start of World War II where, as part of his job as an Air Raid Precautions warden during the Blitz, he worked as a first aider and stretcher bearer. Later in the war he joined the RAF as an air gunner and was sadly killed in 1944 in a plane crash at the age of just 29. Buzz faced racism in his boxing career, where he was unable to represent the country he called home in titles, but war changes things. He was able to aid his adopted country, first on the home front in a medical capacity then as an RAF pilot.
You will meet some of these personnel in our exhibitions around the museum but others will be featuring in ‘!nspire', an exhibition that will become a fixture in our learning rooms as well for a travelling display to take to events. This will be up and running in 2023.
- Oral history of Rosalie Jones - NESM
- ‘Yorkshire Cop: Police Racism and Me’ Channel 4 Documentary.
- For King and Country exhibition at NESM
- Blood, Bandages and Blue Lights exhibition at NESM
- On This Day: Middleweight Stafford 'Buzz' Barton, the fighting pride of Jamaica, died with the RAF in the Second World War - Boxing News (boxingnewsonline.net)
- One of London’s first Black female firefighters inspires next generation on International Women’s Day | London Fire Brigade (london-fire.gov.uk)
- George Arthur Roberts BEM | London Fire Brigade (london-fire.gov.uk)/ The famous black doctor of Paddington (redcross.org.uk)