Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

Its hard to overstate just how important this book is in terms of the social history of wartime Britain. Personally, I have always been quite unhappy with what I call the ‘windrush assumption’ – that the first ever black people to live in Britain arrived in the 1950’s, no-one in Britain had ever seen a black person before, and that everyone was most unpleasant to them. One national museum even staged a major exhibition that subscribed to – and no doubt helped propagate – this myth.

Stephen Bourne, however, has shattered some misconceptions here. Black people WERE part of British society long before 1939. Black people DID play a part on the Home Front, and DID even serve in the armed forces. And it is very important that their contribution to the war effort is understood and recognised. Black people faced exactly the same risks as their white compatriots, and contributed to the war effort in much the same way – serving as ARP wardens, Firemen, Foresters, factory workers, and in many other roles.

Many different countries became part of the British Empire; the Empire on which the sun never set. Many different ethnic groups came under the imperial banner – African and Carribean among them. Inevitably, black people came to view Britain as the ‘mother country’ (something that goes against the grain of apologist imperial history), and many came to settle in Britain from the Nineteenth Century onwards. In some parts of Britain there were sizeable black communities – the east end of London and Bristol, for example.

Another interesting contribution of black people in wartime was in the field of entertainment. Performers such as Adelaide Hall and Ken ‘Snakehips’ Johnson played an important part in keeping up morale, both at home and overseas with the armed forces. Johnson was killed during the war when a bomb struck the theatre in which he and his band were performing. Not only were they contributing to morale, but they were also facing exactly the same risks as their white colleagues. The BBC also produced radio programmes aimed at black people in Britain, and also in the West Indies and Africa.

Sadly, it does seem that discrimination against black people reached a height when the US Army came to Britain after 1941. US servicemen came from what was still a deeply segregated society, particulary in the deep south. The US authorities imposed the same restrictions whilst on British soil (historians have described the situation as ‘when Jim Crow met John Bull‘) which not only upset many British white people, but also had knock-on effects for British black citizens too. There were cases in my area of white GI’s attacking Black servicemen, and then being confronted by locals who were sympathetic to the Black GI’s.

Stephen Bourne has made a fine contribution to the historiography of the Home Front. Hopefully this book will shatter some myths and bring about a new understanding not only of wartime Britain, but also broader black history too.

Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 is published by The History Press



Filed under Empire History, social history, Uncategorized, World War Two

28 responses to “Mother Country: Britain’s Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45 by Stephen Bourne

  1. x

    You are right that different ethnic minorities have a longer than generally known history of settlement in the UK. Tiger Bay in Cardiff for example. And not forgetting UK’s many Chinese communities. Generally I find we British are happy to accept anybody and everybody into the wider population.

    One of the things I find distasteful about a majority on the left that they like to point out difference. How many times did your lecturers at uni’ talk about “the other?” I think if anything this if not ignites racism at least plants the seeds.

    As this is principally a military blog I should point out that the military is often held up by the left as an example of racist (and homophobic) organisation. Is this true? 1 in 10 soldiers comes from the Commonwealth; there is hardly a wholly white platoon in the Army. As for homophobia, in the old navy (perhaps today’s!) a good number of sick bay attendants were gay and what they did ashore or didn’t do was there own affair.

    History teaching in the UK is to skewed to this defining of the other. In my first year “at the Kremlin” I did medieval history. When I came to write my essay for some reason I went against my normal rule and wrote about a subject I knew something about “The Purpose of the Castle.” Fearing this would be a popular choice I completed my essay about 4 weeks early convinced that I wouldn’t be able to keep the books for a further 4 weeks. There was indeed a book shortage. A good proportion of my 170 or so course fellows had chosen to right about persecution of minorities. And there was apparently much gnashing of teeth and waling, and even hair pulling (and that was just the boys!) The broad reach of history is being ignored; the politics that move and drive a society, the economics, and dare I say even the simple facts (the when’s and where’s) are at best ignored or at worse deemed of little value. I escapes at Christmas and I haven’t looked back.

  2. James Daly

    Too right x, on all counts. I would consider myself a left-winger, and not a champagne sipping variety either. A lot of what the liberal left spout about empire, race, conflicts etc is complete bull.

    I’ve been on race and racism awarness courses – part of the job – where we’re all told how we have to feel guilty about the Empire, and so on. The facilitator didnt like my arguments that the British Empire – although it had some unpleasant sides to it – was a lot more wholesome than say the Belgians in the Congo, or the Dutch in the East Indies. Also, British Imperial rule left a legacy of the rule of law, administration, railways, etc etc, thats lasts today in many places. Look at the chaos that took place in various countries after we were forced to pull out by our bankrupt state and US ideologically-driven pressure post 1945.

    The British military is a beacon for multiculturalism. Look at the black Guardsmen on duty outside the palace, the Fijians and West Indians making up the numbers across the board (including Johnson Beharry VC), the chinese laundrymen in the RN, and of course the Gurkhas. Closer to home, Irish soldiers and officers have punched well above their weight for hundreds of years.

    I’ve never understood why a certain section of the historial profession and the political spectrum want us to feel guilty about the past… or is it to justify their plans for the future?

  3. x

    In the opening chapters of his book “Rules of Engagement” Col. Tim Collins described what is was like to command Irish troops from the South in the highly charged atmosphere of Ulster during the “Troubles.” Quite interesting………..

    At the heart of socialist thinking is the admirable aim to bring equality to humanity. But as we all know we are not all the same. And without resorting to cliche as Orwell wrote even in socialist systems there are some who are more equal than others. Further with the rise of feminism (understandable after the West women had tasted the world of men as the backbone of the workforce in two world wars) and as you mentioned the economic immigration from the Commonwealth you can see how this fuelled the need in some minds for in a broad sense “positive discrimination.” Of course this can be coupled with the growing prominence of the Soviet Union, supposedly the workers’ paradise and land of universal opportunity, counterbalanced with the huge disparity in wealth in the capitalist US.

    Also uou have to remember lastly that academia in the 50’s,60’s, and ’70s was still even in the red brick uni’s a land of privilege. In some ways those who took the soft subjects were the second sons; outside science and law it was still possible for the middle class youth to start a career without a degree. The second sons would trail behind allowed to think their high minded political thoughts; when you are on the bread line you don’t really have much time for philosophy. (In the 19th and early 20th century the driver of socialist thought in most industrial communities were the teachers and clergy; well read and on a safe income.)

  4. James Daly

    I do feel that a certain part of the political spectrum subscribes to what i think of as ’empire guilt’, basically a serious guilt trip over the british empire. It probably explains our lavish overseas aid budget (which incidentally has been ringfenced in the budget cuts). Developing countries are prone to blame the British Empire for their modern faults too – Mugabe, for one.

    One of my lecturers at uni was majorly into womens history. It just seems to have a belligerent edge to it. I remember one seminar where we were invited to think that the biggest effect of the first world war was that women started smoking and riding motorbikes. Millions of men being killed was just a side issue, apparently. But thats what gender/race history seems to do, isolate a particular strand of history to the detriment of its place in the wider context.

  5. x

    Sorry I tailed off with my earlier comment but I had a kitten emergency and when I returned I had forgotten my thread.

    I am sorry but I would scrap the international aid budget (and EU payments!!!) altogether for at least the life time of this parliament. We need to put our own house in order first…..

    I understand what you say about “empire guilt” and I would like to say more but I think it would turn into a mini-dissertation.

    One of my professors wasn’t just into women’s history; she is probably one of the top three experts in that area in the country. She would even argue the toss if something was a documented fact. I am ashamed to say that out of the 5 essays I wrote for history the one I wrote was so I had something to hand in. A pitiful 2.2 compared with 4 firsts……..

    But that does lead me onto the only time I openly questioned “empire guilt” and racism at uni. The faculty expert on India did a lecture about the British. She put up a slide of a group photo of Lord and Lady Mountbatten and the entire Viceregal household staff; two white faces in a sea of a couple of hundred brown faces. The point the lovely Dr S. tried to make was that (all) white men lived in unabashed luxury; that the Indian was there to serve. On the way back across campus I spoke with personal tutor who also happened to be in the lecture. I told him that India society was highly stratified before the British arrived and that if the photo had been of one of the rulers of the princely states there would have been just as many servants, probably more. The Mountbattens were living the standard of life expected by Indian society for people of their rank. This all fell on deaf ears. There was only so much that can be said in the lecture. Blah. Blah. Still Dr S did give me an 82% for essay on Partition………..

  6. James Daly

    Our international aid situation really bugs me. We send millions to India, China, Pakistan… these are not poor countries, despite what they would like us to think – nuclear weapons and millions-strong military forces do not come cheap. No-one has ever really explained properly why exactly we’re sending money to countries that can look after themselves if only they wanted to.

    I’m not against international aid in principle, in fact i think its quite important if a country is really on its uppers we do our bit to help – Haiti, for example, or Sierra Leonne when it almost fell apart, for example. Not money necessarily, but real genuine help. Its another reason why poleaxing our amphibious capability makes no sense – an LPD, LPH or LSL is ideal for aid work.

    As for Indian Society, its more statified even now than British society has ever been – the caste system is incredibly rigid (with cows at the very apex, but thats another topic…). And throughout history there have been hundreds of Indian princes who lived in the kind of splendour that the Mountbattens did, but because the Mountbattens were white it becomes an issue.

  7. x

    International aid is supposedly about gaining influence. But yes you are right. The Chinese middle class numbers about 300million roughly the population of Western Europe. The Indian middle class isn’t quite that big but getting close. So just think of all those tax revenues. One nuclear submarine does equal many water pumps. Of course socialist would say that “Third World” armies about the elites protecting themselves and their wealth.

    And yes I agree that international aid would be better given in practical aid than in grants. Look at was is happening in Pakistan where British Pakistanis are taking the aid in themselves because they don’t trust the government. £9billion would certainly buy a couple of “civilian amphib’s”, imagine all the trade jobs it would create, and materials it would buy. Now that is real aid.

    As for the caste system. Current thinking in history unsurprisingly blames the British for hardening the caste system. If you look at the time the British took a real hold on the sub-continent we were having an industrial and scientific society. The period from 1650 to late the Victorian period the Brits examined and categorised everything from astronomical phenomenon to tortoises to native peoples. In an attempt to understand caste the British turned to Brahmin pandits (priests) who unsurprisingly like any section in any society put there own bias into their replies. You should look up Sikhism and the British Army; it seems that Army had more influence on this young religion than the gurus! The word Hindu came from Arab/Muslim(?) word for those to the east of the Indus, because to the Arab/Muslim world the myriad of peoples defied a single collective term. So all tensions in the caste came about because the British put too much emphasis on the system. I find it a stretch seeing that there were only tens of thousand of whites in the sub-continent populated by 100s of millions. (As a side note tribalism in Africa was caused by the Europeans too.)

  8. James Daly

    Another thought that has occured to me is how diverse the Royal Navy has been throughout its history. The crew of the Victory at Trafalgar was made up of 90% Brits and 10% foreigners, from America, Scandinavia, Africa, West Indies, India, even France and Switzerland.

  9. I want to say thank you to James Daly for his positive review of my book Mother Country. It is much appreciated. It took me a decade to find a publisher in this country for this book – almost twice as long as WW2 itself! The rejections were painful and frustrating. The first publisher I approached said that they would not consider publishing a book about the home front which detracted from the popular image of Winston Churchill and Vera Lynn. So I approached another publisher, HarperCollins, who had published Mike and Trevor Phillips’s excellent Windrush book in 1998. I was certain they would be interested in looking at my proposal. I couldn’t even get past their switchboard when I asked to speak to their commissioning editor for history: “You have to have an agent.” So I bought a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, only to discover that agents in this country are VERY white and middle class and not interested in representing a historian of Black Britain, so I gave up searching after twelve agents turned me down. However, I did not allow these setbacks from publishers and agents to deter me from finding a publisher. I persevered and in 2009 The History Press offered me a contract. There was no advance offered. I have been supporting myself by working part-time. Illustrating Mother Country has been a nightmare. Publishing contracts now insist that authors have to pay for all images and clearances, but I successfully applied for a grant from the Arts Council England to help me cover the cost of images, but I am an author. I do not have any training or background as a picture researcher. Picture research and clearance work is a minefield. It has been time-consuming, frustrating, exhausting and costly. Has it been worth it? Of course! Mother Country has been a labour of love but worth labouring over, and I could write a book about the trials and tribulations historians of Black Britain have to face to get their books into print and then, when they do, how to get them promoted. Thanks again, James, for your endorsement. It means a lot.

  10. James Daly

    Hi Stephen, you’re very welcome! As I mentioned in my review, I found it very interesting to read. I enjoy books that present a different light to the perceived wisdom that we are fed.

    I’m embarking on a possible book at the moment, I’ve found some wonderful stories that really deserve to be read, but still have a lot of research to do. I’ve got a good idea of illustrations but can sense that will be a costly and time consuming part of the process. And all while I’m trying to work a full-time job too! But your experience is very inspiring, feel free to drop by and tell us about anything interesting you have planned in the future.

    Best wishes


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