Black history: Asquith Xavier

A Train with black woman standing to the side.

Black History Month

The People’s Museum Somers Town founder Diana Foster writes of Black equal rights and unions in Euston

Somers Town is surrounded by Unions, including the RMT Union and The 1960s when Euston Station was modernised was also a time of progress in the fight against injustice towards black workers. If you look carefully, you will find a plaque on the concourse to Asquith Xavier, a black activist and a train guard.

After a summer of rail strikes, this week at Euston an Avanti Pendolino 390103 train has been named after Asquith, a man whose determination to get equal rights for black workers resulted in his overturning a railway colour bar and led to a new Race Relations Act in 1968, making workplace discrimination illegal.

The naming of the train at Euston Station is sweet justice because Asquith had been denied promotion at that station in the 1960s. He was turned down for a transfer to Euston, despite being qualified, and having been promoted from porter to guard at Marylebone.

A Windrush man

As an ex-police officer from Dominica, he was part of the Windrush generation recruited by BR to work in Britain. He was much respected amongst his fellow West Indians and workers, including  the future President of the Rail Maritime and Transport Union, Tony Donaghey, who looked upon him as a ‘semi-father figure’.  Donaghey himself had faced discrimination as an Irish man, and had been accepted for the job at Euston, only to turn it down in solidarity when he realised this was the very post Xavier had been rejected from. 

Asquith’s fight for his rights involved NUR branch secretary, Jimmy Prendergast, who leaked the story to the press; the Campaign against Racial Discrimination; two labour MPs who raised the case in parliament by; and finally Barbara Castle, the then Secretary of State for Transport. 

“The House has rarely faced an issue of greater social significance for our country and our children.”

Home Secretary Jim Callaghan

The Race Discrimination Act of 1965 had ended some arms of discrimination, but not in workplaces, which is how the injustice slipped through, so localised ‘colour bars’ still existed into the 1960s.

A King’s Cross strike against the colour bar inspired a song by Charlie Mayo, a young, politically active King’s Cross fireman: ‘The Colour Bar Strike’ which was later recorded by Ewan MacColl and Peggy Seeger:

My union badge shows two joined hands
With a lighted flame in common fight
But trouble’s brewing in the sheds
For both these working hands are white

But working hands are white and black
And the work they do is all the same
But prejudice and fear come in
To break the grip, and dim the flame…

Charlie Mayo

Asquith decided to fight the injustice, and finally the rejection was overturned British Railways, who scrapped the ‘whites only’ policy,  and he took up his post at Euston in August 1966, with pay backdated to May when his application had been rejected. 

A photo of the time shows him at Euston Station in his new role, packet watch in hand, a train – the Royal Scot – about to depart behind him.

But the journey to this point was not easy: he had police protection at the time of the photo because of threats and hate mail: the Daily Express quoted a message:  ‘When you have finished at Euston, we will send you back to the jungle’. 

The stress of his fight impacted his health; in fact, he was in hospital the day of the parliament decision. His ill-health forced him to leave the railway in the early 70s and he died aged only 59 in 1980. 

As his granddaughter wrote: 

“His dignity, strength of character and tenacity in the face of adversity makes me feel honoured to carry the Xavier name.  His contribution to our society has undoubtedly shaped the way we live today and should be celebrated and never forgotten. “

Camealia Xavier-Chihota is a grand-daughter of Asquith Xavier, 2020

The People’s Museum Somers Town has a selection of prints of this summer’s ‘picket line’ drawings of recent strike action by unions in London.

Visit Wednesday to Saturdays at 52 Phoenix Rd NW1 1ES