When delving into the history of black lives, civil rights and military service, the story of George Arthur Roberts is nothing short of inspirational.
Among the names of black soldiers in WW1, George was a decorated soldier who not only became the first black leading fireman for the London Fire Brigade in 1939, but also campaigned tirelessly to improve the lives of fellow ex-servicemen - earning himself a level of status and respect that helped pave the way for a greater recognition of Britain’s black community.
If this were not inspiration enough, he was also a founding member of the era's most influential civil rights organisation and his personal fight also led him to founding a branch of the Royal British Legion in Camberwell, London.
George was born in Trinidad and Tobago in 1891 and during the First World War volunteered to travel to the United Kingdom as a young man to join the British Army’s Middlesex Regiment.
Rumoured to be one of the first black soldiers in the British Army, George, along with fellow Middlesex Regiment comrade Walter Tull, who was one of the first black officers to lead white British troops into battle, played a crucial role in demanding the equality black men and women so rightfully deserved.
During his time in the British Army, George fought and was wounded in the Battle Of Loos and the Battle Of The Somme and earned himself a British Empire Medal, 1914 Star, a British War Medal and Victory Medal.
Author Stephen Bourne spent time looking at George’s extraordinary life for his book ‘Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community And The Great War’. During his research, Stephen came across the following excerpt from the magazine Everyweek (February 14 1918) in which George is described as being well known among his peers for throwing German bombs.
“Attached to the Middlesex Regt., he showed great proficiency as a Battalion Bomber, being able to throw his bomb a distance of 74 yards. This extraordinary throw was largely the result of his youthful experience in bringing down cocoanuts [sic] from the palms in his native island.”
In 1916 George was allowed back to Trinidad and Tobago to encourage more men to join Britain’s armed forces. His efforts paid off as was reported by Everyweek:
“He returned to Trinidad on special leave, and there helped to recruit more than 250 men by his vigorous speeches on behalf of his adopted country.”
The Battle of Westminster Bridge
In the 1960s George wrote about a day in 1920 which went down in history for those who were fighting for better rights and pensions for former serving personnel after the First World War - The Battle Of Westminster Bridge.
He describes members of the British Legion (it became the Royal British Legion in 1971) across London proceeding “in military formation, accompanied by the disabled in lorries and cabs” to “converge with their banners and bands on Parliament Square and the House”.
Seemingly out of nowhere, their protest was halted by a “most deplorable counter-attack by the authorities”. He said:
“The columns from south-east and south-west were halted by the police, with order not to let us cross Westminster Bridge: this to men who had fought for Britain on the various battle fronts of the world.”
“But they were true men of the British people.
“They were not daunted, and Sir Ian Hamilton rose to their stature by saying “Across we go!”
Eventually, the police used their batons and the protester's banners were torn to pieces. George wrote:
“The wounded and disabled, game to standing up for their principles, used their sticks and crutches.”
What was the impact of this historic but little-known civil battle? George understood the significance and the part it could play in shaping the future of veteran care. He said:
“It … brought home to the public the justified discontent of our men, and it played a great part in unifying the various ex-service organisations into the British Legion and bringing nation-wide pressure to bear on the Government to implement the promises made to ex-Servicemen.
“There can be no disputing that what was conceded would not have been won without the militant action that led to the Battle of Westminster Bridge.”
George was made a life member of the British Legion on April 20th, 1962 as shown below.
The League Of Coloured Peoples
In 1931, two years before the birth of arguably the world’s best-known civil rights activist Martin Luther King Jr, George helped start the ‘League of Coloured Peoples’ (LCP), a British civil-rights organization formed by Harold Moody, a Jamaican born doctor who lived and worked in London, in terminology that was reflective of the time.
The League was set up with one overarching goal in mind - racial equality. For the 20 years it ran, the League had four objectives as quoted below:
- To promote and protect the Social, Educational, Economic and Political interests of its members.
- To interest members in the Welfare of Coloured Peoples in all parts of the World.
- To improve relations between the races.
- To co-operate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to Coloured People.
A chapter from ‘Black London: The Imperial Metropolis and Decolonization in the Twentieth Century’ by author Marc Matera highlights just how black people were treated in the 1930s. In 1934, South African Nyasilie Magxaka wrote:
“I thought that on leaving South Africa for England, I was at the same time leaving the infamous colour bar behind and was coming to the paradise of freedom.
"To the contrary, “the treatment of coloured people in London almost forces one to believe that [the] colour bar is the policy of the British Empire.”
Through his work with the LPC, George was instrumental in establishing a support network for black men and women and their families living in the UK. The LPC wanted to put an end to black people not have the same rights as white men and women.
In The League Of Coloured Peoples' newsletter from September 1944, Mr E G Hemmerde, KC Recorder Of Liverpool at the City Quarter Sessions, said:
“When people come here to risk their lives they are entitled to think that they are coming to conditions of decency and order fit for a country that claims the title of imperial in its best sense.
“If they find that what I am inclined to call a noisy intolerant minority are not prepared to give them equal rights I think they have a right to be angry.
“If you accept aid from coloured people you accept it as from friends, whose aid you are proud to receive, and they should be the first to receive justice at your hands.
“But they do not receive it, and it is a shameful business.”
Fighting Fires During The Second World War
At the beginning of the Second World War, George was training to become a firefighter for the Auxiliary Fire Service.
He was stationed at New Cross Fire Station during the London Blitz - eight months of devastating large-scale air attacks which would eventually destroy 2,000,000 homes in Britain, 60% of them in London.
The relentlessly ferocious attacks caused 1.4 million children to leave their families and evacuate to the countryside.
George, who was made section leader in 1943, would be putting out fires with his fellow firefighters while bombs were dropping around him.
In 1944, he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his bravery during the Second World War and for co-founding the fire service’s discussion and education group.
During Stephen Bourne’s research, he discovered a letter from the London Region Civil Defence Headquarters explaining why he was recognised in this way.
It said it was for “good service in the National Fire Service during the war and in particular your good work in the Discussion Group movement, of which you were one of the pioneers, which has contributed to the popularity and success of the movement in your area.”
In 1945, George was presented his British Empire Medal by King George VI at Buckingham Palace and 73 years later a red plaque was unveiled at New Cross Fire Station to honour and never forget his bravery and dedication to free speech.
However, this is not the only commemorative plaque honouring George.
Stephen Bourne’s research into George’s extraordinary life prompted him to nominate the former Sergeant and firefighter for a blue plaque, which mark the locations where people of historical importance lived.
It was unveiled at Warner Road, London on September 11, 2016, by Labour party MP Harriet Harman after a very popular public vote. There was also a guard of honour by today's black firefighters wishing to honour George’s memory.
George Arthur Roberts' family are ensuring his legacy is never forgotten. His great-granddaughter Samantha Harding spoke at the blue plaque unveiling and explained how pleasantly surprised she was by the public's response to her great grandfather. She said:
“When I heard he’d been nominated for a blue plaque and then won it in a public vote I suppose I sat up a little bit and thought, oh hang on, this isn’t just our Great Grandad who had done all these legendary things. You kind of suddenly realise that this guy has a lot more significance to a lot more people than just us in the family.
“It was the energy and vigour. He was a man who just said ‘look, let’s not think about this, get up and do it’ and that’s the important part.
“Don’t be disheartened because you can imagine the incredible racism he must have faced in 1916.”
“He’s met the Queen, he’s done Buckingham Palace, all of which he would have been incredibly proud of and that blue plaque today would have been almost a pinnacle."
Want to discover more about the unsung contribution of black men and women during the First World War? Read 'Black Poppies: Britain's Black Community And The Great War' by author and historian Stephen Bourne.