Black History, Women's History

Black Women in Wartime Britain 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

At the height of the London Blitz in 1941, Esther Bruce, who was then a young woman aged 28, became part of my family. Her Guyanese father had just died, so their neighbour, 63-year-old Granny Johnson (my great-grandmother), ‘adopted’ her. Granny was a warm, caring mother figure in their close-knit community in Dieppe Street, Fulham. She said to Esther: ‘Come and live with me, love.’ It was as simple as that. Granny had known Esther since she was a baby. Aunt Esther, who barely remembered her birth mother who had died in 1918, said: ‘Granny was like a mother to me. She was an angel.’ My mother, Kathy, told me: ‘They had a sense of fun and knew how to enjoy themselves. Esther was the only black person living in our area. She was part of our community. She made friends with everyone. She was always chatting to someone in the street.’ During the war, Aunt Esther volunteered as a fire-watcher on the roof of Brompton Hospital, where she worked as a ward cleaner. ‘It was dangerous,’ she recalled, ‘but I wanted to do my bit.’

Aunt Esther remained part of my family until she passed away in 1994. I enjoyed spending time with her and listening to the stories she shared. I was especially intrigued by her memories of life on the home front in London during World War II. In spite of the hardships Esther, Granny and my family endured, such as food rationing and the nightly terror of air raids, they kept smiling through adversity and danger. Esther’s overriding memory of the Blitz was the friendliness and community spirit that existed in Fulham at that time.

This was not the case in other parts of London. In 1941 the prime minister, Winston Churchill, received a letter from a black housewife in Camden Town pleading with him to do something about the discrimination faced by black people in her community. Air raid wardens and police officers were ejecting them from air raid shelters and the underground as if, the housewife stated, ‘they were Jews in Germany.’ Her letter was passed to the Colonial Office in Whitehall and, after they intervened, the situation was resolved with the co-operation of the Chief Warden of the Camden Town ARP and a senior police officer.

My interest in documenting the experiences of black citizens on the home front and in the armed services began with the stories Aunt Esther told me. I also learned from Aunt Esther the importance of first-hand testimony which has become a feature of all my books. In spite of racism, black people in Britain and from across the Empire contributed to the war effort. The colonies played an important role. Support came from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

During the war, there were many black singers and entertainers who helped to boost the morale of the troops and the public. Among the most popular were Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch. In 1941 BBC Radio appointed the Jamaican feminist and writer Una Marson as the producer and presenter of a popular weekly series called Calling the West Indies. Black women in Britain volunteered as civilian defence workers, such as firewatchers. These were activities crucial to the home front. There were also factory workers and nurses. Others joined the forces but there was a ‘colour bar’ against black women in the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS) until 1943. After it was lifted, many women from the Caribbean islands volunteered to join the ATS including Nadia Cattouse, Norma Best and Connie Mark.

Lilian Bader was born in Liverpool to a Barbadian seaman who had served in the First World War. Lilian enlisted with the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941 and she was proud of her war service, but she later told me: ‘I am dismayed by the lack of recognition given to the part black people played in helping Britain win the war.’ For younger generations it may seem strange that black people would take part in a war for a country which did not treat them with equality, but the need to win the war, and avoid a Nazi occupation, outweighed this. Lilian Bader once observed that, if black people hadn’t supported the war effort, the Germans would have invaded and “we would have ended up in the ovens.”

Someone recently asked me if Aunt Esther would have approved of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations. ‘Absolutely,’ I replied. ‘One hundred per cent.’ Aunt Esther was proud to be British but she was also proud of her Guyanese heritage. She believed in helping her neighbours when they were in trouble. For her, World War II was a time when people from all walks of life came together to fight a common enemy and in doing so it changed their lives forever.

For further information see Under Fire – Black Britain in Wartime 1939-45  by Stephen Bourne (The History Press, £12.99)

Photographs of Esther Bruce, Adelaide Hall and Elisabeth Welch from Stephen Bourne’s private collection can be purchased from the Mary Evans Picture Library Photograph 1: Dora Plaskitt, Kathy Joyce (Stephen Bourne’s mother) and Esther Bruce. 2: Elisabeth Welch, both courtesy of Stephen Bourne.