“Who was David and why should we remember him?”

This week’s article is written by Nina Whitfield, a BA History student at Leeds Beckett University. Nina was one of a student group who visited the Central Library in late 2018 for a workshop utilising books and other resources in the Local and Family History department to research the life and times of David Oluwale

Photo of David Oluwale, 1930 - 1969
David Oluwale, 1930 – 1969

‘Remember David Oluwale’ – these were the words spray painted onto the side of a Leeds building following the death and manslaughter trial of Nigerian migrant, David Oluwale. But who was David and why should we remember him?

In 1949, David left his home in Nigeria as a stow away on the SS Temple Bar, which was destined for Hull. Under the 1948 British Nationality Act, David was considered a British citizen, and so faced a short jail sentence for stowing away after being discovered, but could stay in the UK after his release. He had made the journey to find opportunities and, after making his way to Leeds, he spent numerous years working laborious and undesirable jobs in places such as Kirkgate’s meat market. While this work was un-glamorous and poorly paid, he had a good social life with many friends. He enjoyed drinking and dancing at the Mecca Ballroom (where Reiss stands today in County Arcade) and, according to his friends, American fashion.

Undated, Photo possibly dating from the early 1960s, looking from Cross Arcade into County Arcade to the front of the Mecca Locarno Ballroom. From www.leodis.net, (c) Yorkshire Post Newspapers
Undated, Photo possibly dating from the early 1960s, looking from Cross Arcade into County Arcade to the front of the Mecca Locarno Ballroom. From www.leodis.net, (c) Yorkshire Post Newspapers

However, David did experience a few run ins with the law following his initial stint at Armley Prison. While these were minor offences, the most significant was after David got into a dispute at the King Edward Hotel over an alleged unpaid bill. David was subsequently arrested, where he faced another prison sentence.

6th August 1946. View of King Edward Street showing the King Edward restaurant and public house. From www.leodis.net, (c) M. Kingston
6th August 1946. View of King Edward Street showing the King Edward restaurant and public house. From www.leodis.net, (c) M. Kingston

Following his arrest however, his mental health took a serious decline; it is believed that this was in relation to a blow to the head David sustained during his arrest. David was transferred from Armley Jail to Menston Asylum (also known as High Royds), where he would spend the next eight years of his life.

Undated. This atmospheric image shows High Royds Hospital in its early years in the background. From www.leodis.net, (c) Joseph Peter Davey
Undated. This atmospheric image shows High Royds Hospital in its early years in the background. From www.leodis.net, (c) Joseph Peter Davey

After almost a decade at Menston, David was released with little to no support. Due to his race, he struggled to find rental accommodation, and his mental health meant he struggled to hold down a job. David became homeless. After a few more problems with the law while living on the streets, David found himself back at Menston Asylum, where he spent another two years. Much like last time, he was released without any support.

David had become well known to the Leeds Police as they often found him sleeping in doorways of city centre shops. Two officers in particular however, took an interest in David; Sergeant Kenneth Kitching and Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker. In the aftermath of David’s death, numerous reports came out regarding the treatment David received from Kitching and Ellerker, including being beaten, sworn at and driven out of town and abandoned.

1969. Image shows the frontage of Millgarth Street Police Station. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service
1969. Image shows the frontage of Millgarth Street Police Station. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service

On 17th April 1969 David was sleeping rough, when he was found by Kitching and Ellerker. After allegedly beating David, an eye witness report claims David was seen at the bottom of Call Lane, shuffling towards the River Aire. He was being chased by two men, although the witness was unable to say with certainty that it was Kitching and Ellerker. A few days later, near Knostrop Weir, some local boys playing discovered something floating in the water – it was David’s body. The police noted bruising to the face and it was clear he had been in the water some time.

c1978. View from Leeds Bridge looking downstream, east, to former warehouses on the River Aire. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service
c1978. View from Leeds Bridge looking downstream, east, to former warehouses on the River Aire. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service

An investigation by Scotland Yard was launched, and a trial of both officers followed. Ellerker was found guilty of three cases of assault, while Kitching two. Neither of them were found guilty for manslaughter however. David’s body was passed to a funeral home on York Road, where they found very few belongings of his on his person. He was buried at Killingbeck Cemetery in a pauper’s grave, which can still be visited today.

This is the story of one man, a British citizen, who came to Leeds in search of a better life. Unfortunately, he was subject to racism and discrimination based on his mental health conditions, and found himself homeless. April 2019 will mark 50 years since David’s death. In commemoration, Leeds Beckett third year History students have been working with the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) in groups, each with a different focus. My group was looking at the memory of David; how he has been remembered since his death and what can be done to remember him and the problems he experienced better.

To help our research into David’s life, and to understand life in Leeds and Britain at the time he lived here, we visited Leeds Central Library to conduct some primary research. As there is little written about David outside the initial police reports, the book The Hounding of David Oluwale and the play of the same name, the project required a lot more digging into some more unconventional sources. During our visit, we had access to a series of ordnance survey maps, newspapers and magazines, photographs and a selection of published works which are harder to come by at a university library.

Front-cover of a 1972 issue of Race Today, held at the Central Library
Front-cover of a 1972 issue of Race Today, held at the Central Library

The maps are printed quite large which means they are a great way to picture the city through the years and to compare them to show the change in the city. For example, we looked specifically at the area where David is believed to have entered the water – The Calls, the area at the bottom of Call Lane, which faces the River Aire. In the modern day, this is a popular drinking spot which a multitude of bars and apartments and is quite busy with foot traffic. However, at the time David was alive this area was referred to as Warehouse Hill, which is easy to understand why by looking at the maps. They show an area built up with warehouses linked to Leeds’ industrial economy, a stark difference in use compared to today.

Extract from a 1952 Ordnance Survey map held at the Central Library, showing the Warehouse Hill area of Leeds City Centre, at 1:1250 scale, (c) OS
Extract from a 1952 Ordnance Survey map held at the Central Library, showing the Warehouse Hill area of Leeds City Centre, at 1:1250 scale, (c) OS

The photographs, like maps, provided a great comparison between the Leeds of David’s time and today’s Leeds. Unlike maps however, these provide a much more tangible and visual comparison, requiring a bit less imagination. These gave us a great insight into the living conditions in Leeds at the time and where David slept. They also gave us an insight into attitudes at the time, for example some photos showed images of Nazi-related graffiti, demonstrating possible racism in Leeds at the time.

1970. View shows a flight of steps leading up from Servia Hill (formerly New Camp Road) to Grosvenor Hill (formerly Camp Road), all in Woodhouse. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service
1970. View shows a flight of steps leading up from Servia Hill (formerly New Camp Road) to Grosvenor Hill (formerly Camp Road), all in Woodhouse. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service

While the library has access to electronic, online archives for many newspapers, during our visit we focused mostly on using the microfilm archive for the Yorkshire Post and the Yorkshire Evening Post. Microfilms offer a great way to see newspapers as close to how they would have originally been viewed, without having the original. This was useful to our research as we could find the original reporting on finding David’s body, and some of the articles in relation to the trial. It was very interesting to see not just the article, but also how much space was dedicated, the language used and the position in the paper.

Extract from a Yorkshire Evening Post article from the 10th of November 1971, p.7
Extract from a Yorkshire Evening Post article from the 10th of November 1971, p.7

Each group utilised the sources in different ways, which highlights the amount of information which can be taken from a single source. For example, one group working of newspaper used the microfilms extensively, while my group working on memory used them more to add context at the time. We also made use of the photographs, both from our library visit and from Leodis. As part of our project we designed a walking tour of Leeds which included modern pictures, as well as the contemporary photos. We hoped that by doing this we could help people visualise the Leeds that David lived in and the kind of similarities and differences there are to the present day.

24th April 1979. View of Lands Lane looking in the direction of Commercial Street. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service
24th April 1979. View of Lands Lane looking in the direction of Commercial Street. From www.leodis.net, (c) Leeds Library and Information Service

Overall, our visit provided essential, interesting and unique archival information which we would not have been able to find elsewhere. While much of the sources we looked at weren’t directly linked to David, they provided vital contextual information about Leeds and the UK in the 1950s and 1960s. Where we did find sources directly linking to David, it just goes to show that you never know what you will find hidden in the archives.

Front-cover of Strangers in our Midst, a 1955 report held at the Central Library
Front-cover of a 1955 report held at the Central Library

3 Comments Add yours

  1. Shaun Cohen says:

    An excellent article on a piece of Leeds history that really should not be forgotten.

  2. Barbara Fenton says:

    I agree with Shaun Cohen, I wondered why the name Oluwale caught my attention when skimming through the archive. I left the Leeds area in 1948 as a teenager, but visited many times in the 50’s.

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