DIARY 4 May 1969. Race awareness. David Oluwale.

David Oluwale 1930 –1969

In Britain, by the end of the nineteenth century, tramps were folk heroes.[1] Tramping from place to place looking for work or a place to sleep, they were a common sight across Britain. Myths would grow up around them, such as how they would chalk codes on gate posts to denote how amenable the occupant might be to a little begging. Some would become local characters.[2]

As a child, seeing the occasional tramp was hardly noteworthy. Because of their ragged appearance and unsavoury smell, we would avoid them but considered them harmless, a part of the landscape. In Selly Oak, a few were attracted by a local convent which would dole out marmalade sandwiches. As a butcher’s boy whose job it was to deliver meagre supplies of meat and sausages to the nuns’ kitchen, I learned to avoid those times when I would be gently ribbed about carnivorous habits by the queue of tramps.

Every industrial city had its shifting population of tramps who might find opportunities for short term jobs, free food or places to sleep. Leeds was exceptional in the opportunities it provided among its small factories and shops, with accommodation in the many derelict houses left during slum clearances.[3] It was said that there were more hostel places than hotel rooms in Leeds.

The death of a tramp was unremarkable. In May 1969 when the body of a tramp was found in the Aire Navigation to the south of Leeds city centre, I did not even notice the news item in the Yorkshire Post. Only later, when the circumstances of his life and death became known, did his name become engraved on my memory – David Oluwale.

He was born in Nigeria in 1930. In 1949 he stowed aboard a ship bound for Hull. Arriving there, he was put in prison for 28 days in Armley Jail, Leeds charged with being a stowaway. He was not an illegal immigrant. At that time, all citizens of the British Empire were British Citizens and entitled to come to Britain as their Mother Country.[4]

Having been trained as a tailor, David remained in Leeds which was the centre of the woollen textile industry. In those days Leeds boasted the largest clothing factory in the world with 10,000 workers making suits for Montague Burton, the Tailors. David made a little money and bought a stylish suit of his own. With his smart clothing and swagger he was nicknamed ‘Yankee’.

A few years later he was arrested for disorderly conduct and imprisoned again for 28 days. It may have been during his arrest and imprisonment that he suffered some trauma. David suffered from hallucinations which resulted in him spending several years in a mental hospital diagnosed as schizophrenic, undergoing ECT and drug treatments.

David’s journey: Menston Asylum; Derelict houses;
Kirkgate market, Knostrop Weir.

Leaving the hospital in 1961, David’s youthful vigour had gone. Unable to hold down a job or find somewhere to live, he fell into a cycle of living off handouts, sleeping in doorways, petty crime and periods of time in prison and mental hospital.[5] He spent the last two years of his life sleeping rough in Leeds city centre, where he was the target of routine mental and physical abuse at the hand of two police officers, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching. David Oluwale was last seen in the early hours of 18 April 1969 being chased by the officers towards the River Aire. His body was found a few miles downstream two weeks later.

In 1970, a Leeds police cadet, Gavin Galvin, uncovered evidence of the way Ellerker and Kitching had treated David Oluwale. An inquiry began and charges of manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm were brought against the police officers.

At the trial in November 1971, the court was told how Ellerker and Kitching, made it their business to make life unpleasant for David Oluwale because they ‘simply did not want him in the city’. Racist terms were used on charge sheets relating to David, including having his nationality described as ‘wog’. Despite that, there was no mention of racism during the trial.

The officers were jailed for a series of assaults but found not guilty of manslaughter on the direction of the judge. The trial received national coverage but justice and civil rights campaigners considered it a whitewash, which presented David Oluwale as a social nuisance.

When the details of how David was treated came to light, it had a profound effect on me. Others died violently in the 1970s including Tosir Ali (murdered by racists, 1970), Gurdip Singh Chaggar (murdered by racists, 1976), Altab Ali (murdered by racists, 1978) and Blair Peach (murdered by the police while demonstrating against racism, 1979). These are only a few among many more racist murders in Britain.[6] I became a dedicated anti-racist, joining the Anti-Nazi League in the late 1970s.

David’s story is now well documented, with books, plays and events and activities by the David Oluwale Memorial Association.[7]


[1] The most famous fictional tramp was the character invented by British actor, Charlie Chaplin.

[2] I will ignore the later US usage of the word ‘tramp’ to denote a promiscuous woman, an insult both to women and to the usually mild-mannered tramp.

[3] Derelict houses were plentiful in Leeds due to clearance programmes which swept away acres of back-to-back houses. They were colloquially known as ‘derries’. I lived among them in Hyde Park and Burley between 1969 and 1975.

[4] This situation would not last long when it was realised that this could mean massive immigration from Asian and African countries. The Commonwealth Immigrants Act 1962 introduced immigration control for those without a connection to the UK. Further controls have been introduced since with successive Immigration Acts.

[5] I have used information about David’s life from Kester Aspden’s highly recommended book, The hounding of David Oluwale.

[6] The Institute of Race Relations has documented dozens of murders in the UK with a racist element since 1991. Website: https://irr.org.uk/article/deaths-with-a-known-or-suspected-racial-element-1991-1999/

[7] https://rememberoluwale.org/


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