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George walked tall

22 October, 2020 — By John Gulliver

George Arthur Roberts leading members of the British Legion in a procession in 1954

MY eye was caught by this riveting photograph sent by a family member of a remarkable man whose heroic life remained hidden for decades as was the case for so many of the black men and women who came to these shores in the last century.

I publish it as part of the New Journal’s contribution to what is now a regular annual feature in the press of Black History Month.

The little-known hero was George Arthur Roberts and here you can see him leading a group of British Legionnaires in the Whitsun procession in 1954.

Who was he? He came from Trinidad at the start of the First World War, volunteered for the British army and fought in the trenches in France with distinction. After the war he campaigned for better treatment for war veterans and helped to set up the British Legion. He also took a leading part in a campaign for equal rights for “coloured people” in Britain in the 1930s.

Norman Hepple’s portrait of George Arthur Roberts, dated July 1941

During the Second World War he became a leading firefighter in south London, thought to be London’s first black fireman. He was awarded the BEM, befriended radical intellectuals like the poet Stephen Spender – and his portrait (above) was executed by the well-known artist Norman Hepple.

This, in a few words, sums up the life of a man, born in 1891 and who died in 1970 – and who played such an important part in British lives.

Members of his family who live in the Camden area sent me family album photographs a few weeks ago but I was drawn by this marvellous snapshot that seemed to me to sum up the man.

Here you can see him leading members of the British Legion but just look at him – tall, commanding, elegantly dressed, smart tie and collar suit, and swinging, not a swagger stick but – typically perhaps – an umbrella, every inch an “English gentleman”, seemingly of the officer class, leading his men into the foray! Whoever the anony­mous photographer was, he or she magnificently caught a slice of our history.

• A Zoom video talk will be held on George Arthur Roberts on Friday, October 30, 7-8pm. See for more information


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