Firefighter who fought for racial justice in West Ham remembered
- Credit: Archant
In the year of the Queen’s coronation, Joseph Stalin’s death, Ian Fleming’s first James Bond novel and catastrophic floods in England, a humble man from South America with a strong sense of justice arrived in the country – and changed London forever.
His name was Frank Arthur Bailey and he came to the UK in 1953 from the small, tropical, territory of Guyana – then part of the British Empire.
Soon after his arrival, he was solemnly told that he could not join the fire brigade – because black men are “not strong enough physically or well enough educated to do the job”.
Speaking in 2007, Frank said: “I immediately recognised racism and said, ‘I’m going to apply to be a firefighter and see if they find me unfit’.”
He did, of course, prove himself to be fit – and was taken on by West Ham Fire Brigade in 1955, serving in Silvertown. This gave him the historic role of being the capital’s first black firefighter since the end of the Second World War.
On the job he showed he was as tenacious and devoted to preserving life as he was to changing attitudes towards race.
“I saved a fellow firefighter’s life when he fainted while we were on the fifth floor of a ladder drill session,” he said.
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“I brought him down to the ground in a fireman’s lift.
“The guy’s weight was 16 stone – and he was 6ft 2.”
After more than a decade in the brigade, which included time as an activist with the West Indian Standing Conference, Frank managed another pioneering notch – becoming the first black legal adviser for black youths at Marylebone Magistrates’ Court in 1965.
He died at the end of last year, six days before his 90th birthday, and was given a guard of honour by 80 firefighters at his funeral last week.
London Fire Commissioner Ron Dobson said: “Frank was a pioneer and rightly challenged the outdated practices prevalent at the time.
“He played an enormous role in the history of black firefighters in this country and his legacy is still felt today as we strive to make London Fire Brigade reflect the diverse communities it serves.
“As the brigade celebrates its 150th year we will fittingly mark Frank’s passing and his contribution to our history.”
Frank’s relationship with the Fire Brigades Union won him many friends, including ex-secretary John Horner, and his role in history was also praised by the union.
Michael Nicholas, general secretary for black and ethnic minority members, said: “A chance encounter between his daughter Alexis and an FBU London official in 2000 brought Frank to our attention.
“His knowledge and passion for black self-organisation and progression in our society remains an inspiration to us today and he is rightly thought of as the father of black firefighting in this country and should not be forgotten.”