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First-Class Hero

Daily Mirror: 15 July 2006
By Ros Wynne-Jones
jeff_crawford_wisc (13k image)
Forty years ago this man changed the face of race relations in Britain after beating a colour bar on the railways.

AT FIRST glance, there is nothing unusual about this photograph. But the train guard waiting to check passengers' tickets has been forced to fight a legal battle for the right to wear his uniform.

Astonishingly, in the 60s there was a colour bar at Euston Station in London, banning black people from jobs where they might meet the public.

And it was this man, Asquith Xavier, who took on British Railways and the unions to smash it exactly 40 years ago today. He was Britain's version of Rosa Parks, an Alabama seamstress whose refusal to give up her bus seat to a white man was a key moment in the fight for civil rights in America.

Although 1966 was a relaxed World Cup summer of mini-skirts and pop music, Euston was still bound by rules and attitudes that would not have been out of place in the Victorian era.

Hailed as a "Rail Pioneer" in the Daily Mirror, Asquith's victory led to the strengthening of the Race Relations Act and the creation of the Commission for Racial Equality.

It also led to a full and independent inquiry into discrimination inside British Rail, which found that colour bars were in place in several London stations from Camden to Broad Street.

Yesterday Asquith's sister-in-law Agatha Xavier remembered a gentleman who never sought confrontation. "He was a kind, honourable man," she says. "He was so honest. But he also refused to accept being treated differently because of his colour. We are all very proud of him."

Trevor Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, explains why Asquith's actions were so important. "Asquith's stand against discrimination brought to light the inadequacy of early race discrimination laws and persistent widespread discrimination faced by ethnic minorities," he says.

"People who, like him, were willing to speak out against racist policies brought about changes to the way we live, changes which underpin today's multiethnic Britain and led us to become the envy of other countries."

Asquith was 46 and had come to Britain from Dominica, the largest of the Windward Isles in the eastern Caribbean. He had started work for the then British Railways in 1956 as a porter, working his way up to rail guard at Marylebone station, where there was no colour bar.

He applied for a transfer to Euston, which would have meant a pay rise of 10 to 50 a week. But, as the Daily Mirror reported, there was an agreement between British Rail officials and staff at Euston that black people would not be allowed jobs where they met the public.

"Coloured people could have jobs as cleaners and labourers, but not as guards or ticket collectors," we revealed.

In the United States it had been 11 years since Rosa Parks, 42, had refused to give up her seat to a white passenger. Her arrest and trial for this action - seen as civil disobedience - led to the Montgomery bus boycott, engineered by Martin Luther King.

By 1966 the US civil rights movement was giving way to Black Power in the wake of violent reprisals against activists.

BRITAIN, too, was struggling to change. In 1945 the country's non-white residents had numbered the low thousands. By 1970 there were around 1.4 million - a third of them born in the United Kingdom.
After the Second World War there were severe labour shortages as Britain rebuilt itself, and Commonwealth citizens were encouraged to come to the UK.

Modern immigration was born on June 22, 1948, with the arrival of the ship Empire Windrush at Tilbury Docks, carrying 492 Jamaicans. Companies such as London Transport, the NHS and other organisations actively recruited in the West Indies. But those who came here often faced racial discrimination.

Phillips explains: "Like many of the Windrush generation who arrived from the Caribbean during the 50s, Asquith would have travelled to this country expecting to find a place that looked like the exported version of colonial Britain' where people were treated with respect and where even train workers knew Shakespeare.

"What greeted them was a society - dependent on them for its reconstruction following the war, system - which was prejudiced towards blacks, Jews, gipsies and other minorities."

The first Race Relations Act had been passed in 1965, making it illegal to "refuse anyone access, on racial grounds, to public places such as hotels, pubs, restaurants, cinemas, public transport or any place run by a public authority". But the legislation did not apply to the workplace.

At a press conference 40 years ago today, British Railways denied the 12-year colour bar at Euston had ever been a "real bar".

Suggesting it had been instigated by the workers out of a desire to protect their jobs, he said: "If we had wanted to impose a real colour bar we would not have done it this way. We would have found some excuse to show he was not suitable for the job, wouldn't we?"

For Asquith, a father of seven, starting work at Euston came at a price. He had to ask for police protection because of threatening letters from the public. But well-wishers gathered at the station on his first official day of work. "We expect Mr Xavier to fit in very well here," station manager Ernest Drinnan told reporters. "His record at Marylebone was exceptionally good and we know everyone here will take to him."

Mr Leppington shook hands with Asquith and said: "You will be fairly treated." He added: "There is now no colour bar at Euston. A coloured man can rise to any position here."

Jeff Crawford, secretary of the West Indian Standing Conference - formed in 1958 to promote the interests of the African Caribbean community in Britain - called on the government to take action at other stations.

Two years later, in 1968, a new Race Relations Act made it illegal to refuse housing, employment or public services to people because of their ethnic background.
Presenting the Bill to Parliament, then Home Secretary Jim Callaghan said: "The House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children."

Trevor Phillips says: "Today, when an organisation steps out of line, the Commission for Racial Equality's legal team is ready to hold it to account. Last year we dealt with over 1,000 complaints of racial discrimination.

"The last 12 months have seen compensation of 1.6million and over 2million awarded in employment tribunals in cases of race discrimination.

In 2005 the CRE spent well over 1million on grassroots legal support, in addition to handling several hundred cases directly."

Asquith's contribution - like Rosa Parks's to the history of the US civil rights movement - was to refuse to accept that his colour should be a barrier to doing anything he was capable of.

"People like Asquith have undoubtedly shaped the way we live today," Phillips says. "Their contribution to our society should be celebrated and never forgotten."

See also:

1966: Euston staff 'colour bar' ended

BBC ON THIS DAY: 15 July, 1966

A West Indian refused a job at Euston Station will now be employed there after managers overturned a ban on black workers.

Two months ago Asquith Xavier, a train guard from Dominica, was refused a transfer from Marylebone Station to Euston because of his colour.

The new job would have meant a pay increase of around 10 a week for Mr Xavier who started work for British Railways (BR) as a porter 10 years ago.

He was informed about his rejection and the reason for it in a letter from Euston's local staff committee whose members belong to the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).

We are going to urge the government to conduct a full and independent inquiry into discrimination throughout British Rail
Jeff Crawford, West Indian Standing ConferenceBR does not have to abide by staff committees' recommendations on appointments but they are very influential.

However, at a news conference on Friday BR spokesman Leslie Leppington said the colour bar at Euston Station had now been ended and Mr Xavier would be given a job.

However, Mr Leppington insisted the ban - rumoured to have been in place for 12 years - had not been a "real" colour bar.

He said it had been instigated by the workers out of a desire to protect their jobs and had never been management policy.

"If we had wanted to impose a real colour bar we would not have done it this way.

"We would have found some excuse to show he was not suitable for the job, wouldn't we?" Mr Leppington said.

Mr Xavier, 44, is currently off work due to ill health and was not at the news conference.

But afterwards the secretary of the West Indian Standing Conference, Jeff Crawford, said they would be calling for the government to take action.

"We are going to urge the government to conduct a full and independent inquiry into discrimination throughout British Rail - to find out the extent of the problem, the cause and effect and the solution," Mr Crawford said.

Similar bans to that ended at Euston are reported to be in force at other London stations including Camden and Broad Street.

But under current law the government's options to curb them are limited.

The Race Relations Act was passed last year but contains only measures to combat racial discrimination in public places such as hotels and pubs.


Footage of the British Rail news conference and reaction


In Context:

*Racial discrimination in various forms was a feature of everyday life for many Commonwealth immigrants who had been invited to Britain in the early 1950s and 1960s to fill labour shortages.

*Discrimination in the workplace did not begin to be tackled until an amendment to the Race Relations Act in 1968.

*However, effective measures were not put in place until the 1976 Race Relations Act which set up the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE).

*The CRE had the power to force companies and other bodies to comply with the Act.

*In spite of attempts by various governments to curb immigration the number of people from Commonwealth countries in Britain continued to climb over the years.

*The Census in 2001 showed 4.6 million people living in the UK were from an ethnic minority, or 7.9% of the population.