To view this media, you will require Adobe Flash 9 or higher and must have Javascript enabled.

Duration 00:34:56

Black in the British Frame

Stephen Bourne shares his memories of growing up in Peckham and of his adopted Aunt Esther, a black Londoner born before the First World War and the subject of his first book. And he talks about how, from an educationally disadvantaged background, he came to write many successful black British history books including the award winning Black in the British Frame – The Black Experience in British Film and Television (Continuum, 2011) and The Motherland Calls – Britain’s Black Servicemen and Women 1939-45 (The History Press, 2012).

His latest book, Black Poppies-Britain’s Black Community and the Great War, was published by The History Press in August 2014.

This talk formed part of The National Archives’ Diversity Week 2014.


Thank you for inviting me and welcome everyone. I hope you’ll find this interesting. This is a different version of many, many black history talks I’ve given over the years. This one I actually put together for the police cadets, the young police cadets, down in the London Borough Southwark which is where I live. I live at the top of a high rise. I have the most fantastic views of London, but from my living room I can see all the landmarks of where I grew up which is kind of why I’m doing a kind of personal insight into my journey through this work.

This is the Sogardens estate where I grew up on Peckham Road, is sort of along there. So I grew up in the Peckham area. Travelled all this way to Camberwell Green and then to the secondary modern school just behind where I live now. This is Camberwell Green; this is Peckham; Brixton’s over there; Crystal Palace you can probably just see there and so that’s my… I’ve never left my sources. I was born in… the Camberwell of St Giles’ hospital Camberwell and as I say, originally, lived in a council house with my wonderful family in Peckham before they tore all these houses down and broke up that community. Some of you may have seen a wonderful series last year called ‘The Secret Life of Streets’, the Deptford one, not the Camberwell one because they only dealt with the posh people in Camberwell [laugher]. But the Deptford one really brought home to me that post-war re-development which actually destroyed a lot of homes and a lot of communities at that time. I had a very happy childhood but you wouldn’t know it from this particular photograph [laughter].

As I say, I come from a very close-knit, tight-knit working class family. My father was a pipefitter, my mother worked in a shoe shop in Peckham and… but part of my family included Aunt Esther, an adopted Aunt, who was adopted into my family during the Second World War. And this is how my interest in Black British History, particularly, began through her first-hand accounts of her life in London. She was a black Londoner born before the First World War. She was born in Fulham in West London which is where my parents originated from and where my parents met. They married in Peckham but they actually were Fulham people, and Aunt Esther was born there in 1912, and her father, Joseph, was a Guyanese settler, one of the early settlers. He was one of the black men who left the ships. He worked on the ships for many years. He was from British… what was then known as British Guyana. He arrived in the East End, the Seaport in the East End, Canning Town, in the Edwardian Era. He’s on the 1911 Census, I discovered, and he married Esther’s mother, who was white, that year 1912.

She was born later that year but they didn’t settle in the black community in the East End which was beginning to develop and come together. They actually settled in Fulham. I think Esther’s mother had connections with people in Fulham so they integrated into a predominantly white working class community and Esther said they were very happy. They were not troubled; they were not given grief. I do, in the memorabilia, that she left after she died, have a wonderful letter that was written by her from her mother to her father who missed her Christening in January 1913, describing how kind everyone was at the Christening .The Vicar kissed the baby; neighbours came and were at the Christening and there were very few black people around in West London at that time, but Esther did remember people like Augustus Greenwich, who was a witness at the marriage of Joseph and Edith Bruce. And he was from Jamaica. And they were other people later on. People like Prince Monolulu who was quite a well-known racing tipster.

Moving on very quickly, because there’s quite a lot to get through. Esther’s mother died at the end of the First World War 1918, and Joseph raised Esther as a single father through the 1920s and 30s. Esther left school at 14 and went into service and was treated appallingly, so her father took her out of that job and she then was trained up as a seamstress. There were very few working opportunities for young, black, mixed race girls in Britain at that time. Certainly, the nursing profession was not open to black women up until the Second World War. There was what they called a colour bar and Esther’s…women, black women or mixed race women of Esther’s generation, either they went on the stage as chorus girls, or they became seamstresses. There were these limitations but she was very happy being a seamstress and she was a very good seamstress right up until when she retired at the age of 74 because she wouldn’t give up work. She was adopted by my great grandmother, Granny Johnson, who was a matriarch in Fulham, in this community in Fulham where Joseph and Edith… Joseph and Esther lived. Granny was the mother figure. She looked after everybody .When Joseph was killed in an accident during the London Blitz in 1941 she’d know an Esther all her life. I mean Esther had grown up in that community so it was just natural for my great grandmother to say to her: ‘Look, you’ve got no relatives in this country. The only relatives you have are in Guyana’. She couldn’t get to them; they couldn’t get to her. In fact, she never even visited Guyana although she did maintain contact with her grandmother and her aunts right up until the 1950s.

So granny kind of adopted her into my family which was, as I now understand, a rather unusual thing for a white family to do at that time. Not many white families would welcome a black person into their family at that time. But then Granny Johnson was an extraordinary woman. Just very briefly, I think she had that kind of personality that character because as a teenager back in the Victorian era, she was put in a workhouse when she got pregnant. She had an illegitimate child and her father just banished her from the family but she survived that ordeal. She survived afterwards being widowed with five small children just at the beginning of the First World War. So she had hardships, so to me, it was just natural that she wouldn’t think twice about adopting Aunt Esther into the family. And then my mother grew up, was born in 1931. Esther was part of that community by then. So my mother grew up knowing Aunt Esther. My mother was about ten years old when Esther came into the family. And my mother said that they lived in very cramped, very poor conditions so Esther was always the one that would say to my mum: ‘Let’s go out for the day. Let’s go on the Green Line coach to Brighton, or different places’.

And my mother said they had a great time. So they were very much… she was very much part of the family by the time my sister and I were born in Peckham in the late 19 sort of 50s. So I grew up acknowledging her as an aunt not, I didn’t even say adopted then. I say adopted now because people pull me up about it. You have to say adopted; you have to be specific which I think is right and proper but she was just part of that older generation of our family. And I was always interested in family history. At school, hated school, went to a terrible secondary modern. We all left at the age of 16 with no qualifications and we didn’t do GCEs, O levels, A levels or anything like that but my because I was unhappy at school anyway before I left, I was always bunking off and going to visit my older relatives in Fulham including Aunt Esther but not just Aunt Esther, all the older relatives and listening to their stories of growing up in this working class family and, they were wonderful stories. And this was in the days before I had, could afford a tape recorder. Much later on, when I could afford a tape recorder, I started to record her life and my grandmother’s and other older people in the family, but Aunt Esther’s was intriguing because it was the perspective of a black, mixed race working class woman and that had never been really documented in this country.

One of the few books that was around at that time (this was the 1980s) was the re-issue of Mary Seacole’s 1857 autobiography ‘The Wonderful Adventures of Mrs Seacole in Many Lands’ and Ziggy and Audrey, Ziggy Alexander and Audrey ,and now I’m very good friends with Audrey, did a fantastic job in restoring Mary Seacole into the public consciousness and everything that’s happened with Mary Seacole since then, not just then, but also there were Jamaican nurses in England before this book was re-issued who were honouring Mary Seacole’s grave. They knew about Mary Seacole before Ziggy and Audrey enabled this book to be reprinted, re-issued. But now of course she’s embedded in the school curriculum in spite of Michael Gove’s attempts [boo] to banish her from the school curriculum but…

So when Aunt Esther and I eventually put together a book, we were very lucky because in Fulham and Hammersmith and I’ve always been very… at that time in the 1980s, there was a thriving local history publication, kind of ventures going on. There was one in Peckham where I live, the Peckham Bookplace which would publish…children that had absconded from school would go there and write poems and stories, and they would publish them in little pamphlets. Fulham and Hammersmith where Esther was still living had their own Ethnic Communities Oral History Project and they had already published books about Caribbean settlers in West London, Gypsies, Irish Travellers, all sorts of books, Polish; and then I took this idea to them and they just said: ‘Yes, we’ll get the money together’ and we did it. And the book was published in 1991 originally and was very, very successful. What was interesting it was the first book that I ever worked on, and it was mostly Aunt Esther telling her story with my sort of commentary and putting it into some sort of historical context but I’ve since discovered it’s now, the book is now accepted as really one of the first books to document the life of a black British woman, working class woman in this country. She died in 1994 when she was 81. But the book has lived on. And I have, in fact, asked Gerry, I think they have done it, to photocopy for you all a piece that I wrote for the Guardian newspaper about two years ago about Aunt Esther. It’s a nice sort of piece which more or less tells you what I’ve told you just now but there’s a bit more kind of depth to it, so hopefully you’ll all get a copy of that before the session is finished.

Moving on to something completely different: I left school with nothing [embarrassed laughter] but later on I… there was a College near where I lived at the Elephant and Castle called the London College of Printing and they did Access courses for unemployed people. When I had a spell of unemployment in 1983, 84, I did this sort of Access course to Media Studies or something. I can’t even remember what it was but I was allowed to, you were allowed to do that in Thatcher’s Britain, do stuff like that and it was great because they kept saying: ‘You’re too good for this course, you should do the Film course, you should do the Film and Television degree course’. Because I had a love of film and television anyway and I said: ‘Well, I can’t because I don’t have A levels or O levels or the necessary …’ I’d always believed up to that point, and I was in my, almost in my mid 20s then, that those options were not available to me because educationally I had been disadvantaged and you believed that. You believed you’re going to be like that forever unless you go to college and get qualifications. But, no, they encouraged me to apply for the course and I got a place on the BA, Bachelor of Arts in Film and Television which was fantastic.

I joined London College of Printing in 1985, a three year BA course, and was given a discretionary grant in Thatcher’s Britain, so I’m not a conservative or a Thatcher supporter, but [laugher] it is kind of ironic [laugher] that under Thatcher’s Britain one could get grants and go to College for three years. I kind of laugh at that but it’s not funny really. I couldn’t… if it was now and you had to get a loan, I wouldn’t do it. I just wouldn’t take that responsibility but racing through those three years, when I got to the end of it in 1988 and graduated, I did a research paper on Black people in British television, film and television, and I was encouraged to send it to the British Film Institute and I was so lucky being in the right place at the right time in 1989 because the British Film Institute and the BBC had begun to collaborate on a short project unearthing the history of Black people in British television, black being African, Caribbean people. And this was later called the Black and White and Colour project and I sent this research paper in to the BFI, the British Film Institute. They called me in to do an internal seminar and unbeknownst to me, this project had started and they offered me a three month contract to join that project. That three month contract lasted two years. And for two…this was in the good old days; this was in the good days when we had an African Caribbean Unit at the British Film Institute, African Caribbean Unit at the BBC. We had about five black newspapers, I remember, because I wrote for them all. Very different world, 20, 25 years ago, very different world to what we’re living in now. We can come back to that at the end when we do questions and answers if you like.

But I was just very lucky. The three month contract just kept getting renewed because the BBC and BFI with my research and my colleagues’ research … there were two of us researching, Trays (15:25, unknown) Daniels ,who was an academic and she was mostly interested in actuality documentary programmes, and I was more interested in the drama and the entertainment programmes so our interests pooled together, unearthed this amazing history of Black people in British television and evolved into a two part documentary programme that was shown on BBC television in 1992.

I jumped ahead a bit. Some of the things we discovered when we were doing the research, Edric Conner, who is a great favourite of mine, who was a Trinidadian folk-singer who came here during the War, worked for the BBC, acted in films. You may have seen him in films like ‘Cry the Beloved Country’ like as a supporting actor but was very much a pioneer in post-war Britain of bringing together African Caribbean artists and musicians and actors. He set up the first ever agency for black actors because black actors in the 1950s could not get representation from the white agents, acting agents, but he was also a television pioneer as you can see the old BBC camera. This is as early as 1946. He had his own music programme on the BBC. Sadly died too young. He burned out as so many of our black leaders did in Britain. He died in 1968, forgotten but …what…I discovered, some of it I already knew, and what I also discovered that the BBC, for example, was actually quite progressive in its early formative years.

So, for example, you had a black actor playing Othello on BBC television in 1955. That production, if you’re interested in seeing it, has survived in the Archives and can be viewed at the Media Tech at BFI, South Bank. Tommy Backteeth (unknown 17:18) became a good friend of mine, played a role in Coronation Street in 1963 with Barbara Asun who was also from Trinidad, playing his wife. They didn’t become regular characters but in 1963 this was ground-breaking stuff for a kind of mainstream programme to do something like that. So all of this Archive that we unearthed was used in the Black and White and Colour television documentaries which, I think should be shown more widely, but they kind of get shown on the BBC and then get forgotten too quickly which is a great, great shame. But we interviewed a whole host of people, Norman Beaton, who’s no longer with us, Rudolf Walker, Lenny Henry, Elisabeth Welch, who had a kind of family connection because Aunt Esther when she was a seamstress used to make dresses for her in the 1930s and actually met her long before I got to meet her when we made this programme.

So I’m very proud of that particular project that I worked on but I kind of wish there was more opportunities to do things like this. When we come to make the television documentaries, they assigned a black director called Isaac Julien who was determined to have a Black and Asian crew on the programme which was unprecedented in 1991 when we filmed all those interviews. We did about 40 odd interviews. Not all of them ended up in the programmes but they were amazing interviews and they’re all in the National Film Television Archive. So we had a black soundwoman, Judy Hedman (unknown 18:53). We had Remi Adefarasin (unknown 18:55) who was a cameraman who went on to do films like ‘Elizabeth’ and many other kind of major films. So it was a really interesting experience than the kind of white guy down there [laughter] which was wonderful to be part of that project.

And what I then did after I left that project in 1991, I then worked very hard to get a book published on the subject which I did in 1998 called ‘Black in the British Frame: The Black Experience in British Film and Television’ so that was a kind of landmark book because no-one had pulled together this history in that way and it’s still being used like 15 years later. There’s been nothing since and students are still going to the BFI Library saying: ‘When is Stephen going to do a follow up?’ You know, it’s the only book really that’s …there’s a couple of academic theoretical books but this is the book that a lot of students are still using on their courses and it’s like …although I did revise and update it in 2001, it’s still out of date …but still relevant information. But it’s a shame the publisher will not commission a new version.

One of the things I’ve continued to do since the Aunt Esther book is work at local level as …that’s why I now kind of describe myself as a community historian because I’m more interested in working with my community than…although I still do talks at the big organisations, I am very much kind of rooted in my community. And one of the black…figures I kind of have written about and discovered is Dr Harold Moody, who was a Jamaican doctor who settled in Peckham during…just before the First World War but became a very important community leader for the black community in pre-war London. He founded the League of Coloured Peoples in 1931 and during the Second World War did a lot of very important work, in representing, in fact campaigning, for example, to get black nurses into British hospitals because as I said earlier, they were barred from employment and then in 19… 2008, one of my community type books was published and 2000 and it was a little booklet about Dr Harold Moody. 2000 of those were distributed free of charge to the local schools and one of the nicest sort of outcomes of the kind of work that I’ve done at community level has been the Peckham Shared Group put together a little play about Dr Harold Moody based on my book and one of the nicest things that happened to me was that I was invited to come and introduce one of the performances at Oliver Goldsmiths school on Peckham Road which is my old primary school and that was weird because I’d never been back to my primary school in about nearly 40 years and everything just looks tiny…but the children that put on the play were just thrilled that the author was there because they just thought I was this invisible guy who didn’t know, didn’t live locally but it was nice to see something come from the community that was based on the work that I do and I would love to see more of that kind of work happening but it all comes down to funding.

That same year 2008, I featured Dr Harold Moody and Aunt Esther and many, many others in an exhibition that I put together with my local museum, The Cuming Museum ,on Walworth Road, called ‘Keep Smiling Through: Black Londoners on the Home Front’ so that was about the Second World War. The heart-breaking thing for me was that although the exhibition which had Heritage Lottery funding was fantastic. They did, the Cuming Museum did a brilliant job of taking the information that I provided, adding to it and then putting it together in this way, could not get like mainstream publicity, could not get a black personality to come and open it. They all said no or they wanted too much money or they were not interested. It was horrible because I think it was local not like the London…the Museum of London or some big museum. So for me it was a wonderful experience and it reached the local community, and the local community supported it but beyond that, nothing on television, nothing on the radio. No black personality wanted to launch it.

It’s… and that’s kind of the dilemma of the kind of work that people like me do is getting that attention in the media and getting that support so that a wider public, people like yourselves, might have read about it in whatever newspaper or television programme you read and come along. But one can only do what one can do. That exhibition in part led to the publication of two…sorry three years ago of ‘Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front’ and this was a book that I wanted to do for many years, was turned down. Took eight years to get a publisher in this country, eight years of being rejected, rejected, rejected but I didn’t give up [laughter]. You know what it’s like when you don’t … and fortunately for me when I sent the proposal to the History Press, they snapped it up but up till that point 2009, 2010, everyone had turned it down. A lot of the arguments I get from publishers in Britain was there’s no audience…readership. Are they saying black people don’t read? It’s like…there’s no market, sorry that’s the world they used. There’s no market for Black British books. At…for that eight year period that I was trying to get this book published, I had to live so I got a part-time job as a Library Assistant. I worked in the local libraries, Peckham Library, all those libraries where I live which was wonderful. I loved doing that, it kept me grounded but it was heart-breaking when books would come in and they were Michelle Obama’s fashion book [laughter] and it’s like what? [Laughter]

So they would buy in these African American titles and promote the African American stuff but no publisher which is what libraries have to do and I don’t…but it was like…but no publisher in this country would publish a book like this until as I say, the History Press picked up on it. And in that book you will find the stories, for example, of black evacuees, as I say, black nurses. This is princess Ademola who came from Nigeria. Her father sent her to Guy’s Hospital to train as a nurse during the War. The Colonial Film Unit even made a film, a little film, a propaganda film about her which has sadly been lost but a series of photographs of Princess Ademola at Guy’s Hospital tending patients in the recreation room exist in the Imperial War Museum and we managed to find them.

As you can see, there were black fire officers during the Blitz. I don’t know who this gentleman is but I think this is somewhere in North London but I’ve been able to identity Fernando Enriquez whose story is in the book. He was originally turned down for the RAF at the beginning of the War because the RAF didn’t recruit black recruits until after the Battle of Britain. When the Battle of Britain was decimated, the RAF was, sorry the RAF was decimated, then they opened the doors. So he was actually very bitter and angry about that but wanted to do something. Fernando originated from Jamaica and studied at Oxford but gave up his studies to join the Fire Brigade during the Blitz. And then History Press said, agreed for me to do another book which came out in 2012 so just about a year and a half ago on the service men, the black service men and women called ‘The Motherland Calls’. On the cover of the book, I have Peter Thomas who was the first Nigerian to be commissioned as an officer in the RAF. Once the RAF allowed black recruits in and sadly he was killed just before the end of the Second World War in a plane crash which happened to a lot of RAF pilots, not in battle, but just in like an accident in the Brecon Beacons. But an amazing story because he heard about the decimation of the RAF during the Battle of Britain in Lagos where he was growing up and was just desperate to join the RAF and once they relaxed their rules and allowed black men into the RAF, then with the support of a local colonial, white colonial in Nigeria, he managed to get recruited in 1941.

Black women, of course, particularly from the West Indies were joining the ATS [Auxiliary Territorial Service] and the WAFS [Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron]. They were barred, black women were barred right up to about 1942,1943 but once again that colour bar, that rules relaxed, then many came to this country to support the war effort. Others died in action, Vincent Tucker, who was I think Jamaican, killed in battle in the Second World War. Many gave their lives, others survived. Ulric Cross was the most highly decorated RAF officer during the war. He was from Trinidad. He only died last year at the age of 96. I did the obituary for him for the Independent newspaper and a very important figure. And then coming to where are we? Almost at the end. My latest book which I just finished a week ago called ‘Black Poppies’. ‘Black Poppies’ is again a third book for History Press because once you do a book for a publisher and you build up a good relationship with them, it can work in your favour. So this is my third book for the History Press called ‘Black Poppies: British Black Community and the Great War’ because as I’m sure you’re all aware by now, the Centenary begins on August the fourth when Britain entered the War, the First World War, 100 years ago. ‘Black Poppies’ will be published on that day. And what I said to the publisher when I discussed it with my editor at the History Press. I said I don’t want a j… I’m not a military historian and I know very little about the First World War. I know as much about the First World War as most people in general life. I’m not an expert but I do know about the black community at that time in Britain. I do know what happened and the lives they led and I do know something about black soldiers.

And there are a lot of myths about black soldiers in the First World War. There’s a lot of myths about black soldiers only been given the menial jobs. We’ve got to stop mythologizing and stereotyping the black men who joined the services during the First World War and start to try and dig deeper and look at…because we know, Walter Tull, who became one of the first black officers in the British Army didn’t do the menial jobs so we have to keep researching. My book is broad, it’s general. It will be in three sections, it will be in three sections: the military, the servicemen, soldiers and the navy. And then the Home Front although it’s more about black, interest in black people in Britain at that time so I’ve included Aunt Esther because a lot of what Aunt Esther told me about her early childhood which was all through the First World War is very interesting. It’s not about the War but it’s about her relationship with her father, what happened, how they lived in Fulham at that time and then the final third which is very important which not many people are aware of as I’ve discovered as I mention it is the 1919 riots and the publisher was intrigued because the editor there didn’t know about the 1919 riots and what happened in Britain in the Seaports mainly and all over the country were anti-black feeling, the white soldiers, the sailors coming home. The black people have taken their jobs, the black men were marrying their women. There were these vicious attacks, particular…Cardiff was the worst hit. Liverpool and the East End were hit.

It started even as early as 1917 in the East End in the black community there, and there was this really horrible kind of hostile reaction to those black communities. In fact it was around that time that Aunt Esther told me that her father took her to Hyde Park. They used to dress up; he’d dress up in his Sunday best, he’d dress her up in a little white dress with a little white hat and they’d walk through Hyde Park and this was around the time of the riots. They weren’t attacked but a toff, as she described him, a white upper class man stopped them and told Joseph that he shouldn’t be in the Park with Esther and to get out and Joseph just stood his ground and said: ‘You’re not in India, You’re not in Africa’, meaning the Colonies, ‘I’m in England, I’m as good as you, bugger off’. You know it’s …he always stood his ground and I think it’s an important lesson to learn because black people were not protected in law at that time. That comes much, much later. Harold Moody’s League of Coloured Peoples didn’t exist until 1931. So black men and women had to look after themselves and if you stood up to white oppression or white racism, you had a chance of surviving and he instilled in that in my aunt that sense of, you know, ‘You’re British, you’re as good as everyone else’.

As I’ve said, one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring the stories into the community and that was a talk I gave at Peckham Library a few years back to a teenage reading group and that’s really where I want my work to go, to reach young people, to give young people a sense of identity and a sense of history. And the First World War Centenary over the next few years has got to do that and it’s got to be more than just about Walter Tull, bless him. You know, Walter Tull, shouldn’t be expected to carry the burden on his shoulders of the only black man who existed in Britain during the First World War. There were many and some marvellous stories to be told. I hope my book ‘Black Poppies’ will kind of crack open the subject. It’s not meant to…none of my books are definitive. There are gaps in my books but that’s the point at which I am now looking forward to the Black Poppies book being published. Hopefully successfully applying to the Heritage Lottery Fund to do like a display to take around my local libraries. Something a bit better than just sticking pictures on a board, which you know, is fine if you haven’t got much funds but it will be nice to do like a series of boards and I’m working with my local authority on that application form so the work continues. I haven’t really…I don’t have a game plan…I never planned this, it just evolved. I’m glad it did because it’s a fascinating life that I’ve led. You’ve seen quite a bit of it in the last half hour so I’ll stop there. Thank you. [Applause].

Transcribed by Joy Omorogbe as part of a volunteer project, January 2015.