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Uncovering hidden histories

Celebrating Black History Month 2023

As a museum that celebrates all our emergency services, our mission is not just to care for a vast collection of historic objects but also to capture the real life experiences of those who served across the decades. However, as with many aspects of social history, it is often much harder to hear the voices of ordinary men and women; particularly those from communities whose involvement was unofficial or whose history tends to be overlooked or under-recorded.

The contribution of black personnel to the UK emergency services is a story that has not yet been fully explored. It is also an area where our archives, and our knowledge, are lacking. Are black people represented in our collection? Of course they are. But they tend to be unidentified faces in photographs, lone names in duty books or uniforms without owners. Who these men and women were, what their experiences were like and how they coped with the inevitable challenges and prejudices are sadly lost.

Black emergency services personnel appear in photos (as in this image from World War II) but can often remain anonymous in history.

As a museum, we are taking much-needed steps to change this. Recently we have begun using oral histories as a key element of our collection. When receiving major donations it has become standard procedure to request recorded interviews with the donor, giving us a much more detailed context to the historic items we have acquired. We are also building networks with members and former members of the emergency services, capturing their experiences for posterity, and ensuring that all communities are represented. This growing collection will eventually be made available to researchers while selected recordings are now being included as audio elements in our exhibitions, allowing those who worked with our collection to speak directly to museum visitors.

Capturing the experiences of the black community, alongside other ethnic communities, is a key element of our oral history project. One of the first names on our interviewee list was the amazing Rosalie Jones, one of the first black women to serve as a professional firefighter in London. Rosalie retired after 31 years in the brigade and, speaking to NESM, she was open about the sexism and racism she faced in the brigade, particularly in her first and last five years of service. In her early days in the service, seeing the prejudice directed towards herself and others, she promised, "One day I am going to be in charge and it is going to be different.” That is exactly what happened. She worked her way up the ranks and co-founded the Black and Ethnic Minority Members’ support group (BEMM). Her amazing career made her a pioneer not just for the black community but for women and mothers too.

The museum has captured the memories and stories of Rosalie Jones, one of London's first black firefighters.

We are also working towards ensuring better representation from all communities across all our new exhibitions and touring displays; not as a separate story but as a visible, key part of the history of the emergency services. Trailblazers such as Buzz Barton, a Jamaican born boxer who worked as a first aider and stretcher bearer with Air Raid Precautions during World War II and was killed in 1944 while serving with the RAF, feature across our museum. ‘!nspire', an exhibition that will become a fixture in our learning rooms as well for a travelling display to take to events, features a number of black pioneers including George Arthur Roberts, the first black man to service as a firefighter in the UK, and Bill Thomas, the first black officer with South Yorkshire Police.

Bill Thomas (above) and George Roberts will feature in a new 'Inspire' exhibition.

However we know that there is much more that we could do, and more hidden stories to be revealed. We would love your help and support to do it. We want to hear from all emergency services personnel past and present who would be willing to share their stories with us, and who might have photos, objects and memories to add to our collection. We would also be excited to speak to family members or friends of former personnel who might have personal records, archives and documents that would grow our knowledge of people’s lives within the emergency services. And if there are community groups, support groups or industry bodies who would like to work with us and our community engagement team to increase representation within our exhibitions and our wider collection, we would be excited to explore any opportunities with you. Through partnerships and community collaborations we can begin to fill the gaps in the story of our emergency services.

Find out more about the museum, and contact us, at

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