Before Windrush: Black People in Leeds and Bradford, 1708 – 1948, Part IV

This week on the Secret Library we hear from researcher Danny Friar, who explores the rich history of people of African heritage making Leeds and Bradford their home over a 300 year period. This is Part IV of a four part series during Black History Month: the result of new research, these articles will shed new light on a long forgotten local history. An exhibition on the same theme can be seen in the Local and History department of Leeds Central Library from October 13 – November 13. Danny is also delivering a talk exploring his research at the Central Library on October 22.

Once published, all four parts of this series will be available on our dedicated Black History in Leeds page.

World War II (1939 – 1945)

Black men from Leeds and Bradford were again among those who served during the Second World War. Among them was musician George May from Bradford and three Thompson brothers from Leeds. Theodore Cecil Thompson served in the Royal Navy, Bob Thompson served in the York and Lancaster Regt., and Aubrey Thompson served in the RAF. While all the above were mixed-race England-born men, men from overseas travelled to England to aid the war effort as well. One young Jamaican, Victor Garrick, stowed away to England to join the Royal Navy in 1942. He lived in Leeds for a time and became known as ‘The Singing Sailor’. Other Black men who served in the RAF would often visit Leeds during their down-time to dance in the Mecca Ballroom. These men often stayed at the Greenbanks Hostel in Horsforth. In 1948 the Yorkshire Evening Post reported that during the war years American GIs had been the first men to jive at the Mecca. Black women also played their part during the war years. Frances May from Bradford was one of the women employed at Avro Aircraft Factory in Yeadon.

The Mecca Ballroom in Leeds where many Black servicemen danced during and after the Second World War. (c) Yorkshire Post, www.leodis.net

The war was not without its casualties. One Jamaican man, Leslie Beskey, had arrived in England to serve in the Royal Engineers. He died in Ilkley in 1942 after being discharged on pension with consumption. His funeral, with full military honours, took place at Lawnswood Cemetery in Leeds.

While racial tensions eased during the war years, Theodore Cecil Thompson would later recall in his autobiography how he was racial abused in Leeds before and after the war.

Post-war & Pre-Windrush (1945 – 1948)

Many of the Black men who served during the Second World War settled in Britain after the war including a number who settled in Leeds. Some men continued to serve after the war. After being demobbed from the RAF, Jamaican man Marcus ‘Roy’ Mitchell joined the Leeds Rifles for fifteen and a half years. Another Jamaican airman Luther Martin Henderson was stationed at the Government Training Centre on Kirkstall Road in 1947. Leeds was also home to a number of Black students. R.H. Gordon was a Jamaican medicine student at Leeds University in 1946. Dan Brown and Quafo Manti, both from Ghana, were studying at Leeds University in 1947 and Jamaican man Laurent Lloyd Phillpotts was enrolled at Leeds Collage of Technology in 1947. Other men arrived in England from West Africa as stowaways and settled in Leeds. Neemoi ‘Speedy’ Acquaye came from Ghana in 1947 and Gabriel Adams and Johnny ‘Slim’ Otse came from Nigeria in 1948.  A number of Jamaican men were living in Leeds in 1948 prior to the arrival of the HMT Windrush. These men were employed as welders, turners, mechanics, fitters, and draughtsmen. Finding employment and accommodation often proved difficult for these men due to racist attitudes. In his autobiography Herbert Glendore English, a Jamaican who settled in Leeds after the war, recalls the struggles he faced during the late-1940s.

View of Lisbon Street in 1937 showing the Salvation Army Hostel where both Gabriel Adams and Johnny ‘Slim’ Otse stayed when they first arrived in Leeds in 1948. (c) Leeds Libraries, www.leodis.net

 Seven Jamaican men and one Trinidadian man settled in Leeds after arriving in England on-board the HMT Windrush on 22 June 1948. A series of letters printed in the Yorkshire Evening Post in July 1948 show that residents of Leeds had mixed opinions on the increasing number of Caribbean migrants in the city. These men, and those who came later, were the beginning of an Afro-Caribbean community in Leeds that continues to have a positive impact on the city.  A group of Caribbean men who had settled in Leeds after the war founded the Leeds Caribbean Cricket Club in 1948 – the first Black organisation in the city.

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