How a house in north London became the centre of the anti-colonial struggle
It was built as the very image of Victorian respectability, a handsome four-storey villa for a well to do family in one of the leafier parts of Camden Town.
But in 1938, number one South Villas in Camden Square was taken over by the West African Students Union (WASU), the most important anti-colonial organisation for Africans in Britain at the time, and any hopes the neighbours had of continuing their splendid isolation were probably dashed.
Prominent African nationalists like Kwame Nkrumah of the Gold Coast and Jomo Kenyatta of Kenya would regularly meet there, while the singer Paul Robeson was also a frequent visitor.
It was here, too, that future Conservative prime minister Harold MacMillan got an early blast of the “wind of change” blowing through Africa during wartime talks over WASU’s demands for self-government.
“MacMillan visited South Villas in 1942 as under-secretary of state for the colonies,” explains Dr Hakim Adi, reader in the history of Africa and the African diaspora at Middlesex University.
“But he was not the only minister to visit during this period. Clement Atlee went along in 1941 as deputy prime minister – an indication of the importance with which WASU was viewed.”
The organisation was co-founded in 1925 by the brilliant Nigerian lawyer Ladipo Solanke. Solanke had come to London a few years earlier to complete his legal studies at University College. Fed up with the colour bar that denied African students like himself university accommodation, he campaigned for the purchase of a house in Camden Town to be used as a hostel.
‘Africa House’ was opened in 1933 at 62 Camden Road with funds raised in West Africa, a substantial mid-Victorian property that today lies at the end of a jumble of shops facing Sainsbury’s supermarket.
Apart from providing a home from home for African students and visitors, it quickly became the main centre for anti-colonial activity in Britain.
“Camden was probably chosen because it was a lot cheaper to buy there than in Bloomsbury and Holborn, where most of the students studied, but close enough to them for convenience,’ says Dr Adi, author of West Africans in Britain 1900-1960.
He adds, “These students were not necessarily young and many were already highly educated. A lot would have worked and were of independent means, while others were from affluent families.”
Many were to become radicalised by the racism they met in Britain. Others like Nkrumah and Kenyatta, who would both go on to lead their countries into independence following momentous nationalist campaigns, were already involved in revolutionary politics.
Nkrumah had arrived in London from the US in 1945 aged 34 to take further studies at the London School for Economics and headed straight for the WASU hostel before renting rooms in Burghley Rd, Kentish Town. Appointed WASU vice-president, he collaborated with Kenyatta – who lived in Cranleigh St, Somers Town – to form the Pan African Federation.
By this time, WASU had grown in stature and moved its hostel to larger premises in South Villas. The new Africa House was opened by Lady Simon, wife of the chancellor, John Simon.
It was here that Robeson, who ten years earlier had been feted by the London critics for his performance in Showboat but was still refused a hotel room, would befriend the two leaders and develop a yearning to visit Africa. He was made an honorary member of WASU and later became its patron.
From the beginning the government attempted to work with WASU because of its influence. At the same time, it also hoped to exert some control over it. “The Colonial Office wanted to monitor its activities, keep members away from communists and from English women,” points out Dr Adi. “In the early 1930s, it tried to secretly set up its own hostel in Doughty St [Bloomsbury], and this led to a major dispute.”
But WASU moved closer to communist thinking and became more radicalised as the struggle against colonial rule intensified, particularly in Nigeria and the Gold Coast, present-day Ghana, where anti-government protests after the war had been brutally suppressed.
The organisation’s international reach and ability to successfully lobby the government was enhanced by the West Africa Parliamentary Committee, which it set up in 1942. Among the five Labour MPs who sat on it was Arthur Creech Jones, future minister for the colonies under Atlee’s post-war labour government.
WASU opened a second hostel in Chelsea Embankment in 1949 and continued to play a prominent part in anti-colonial movement. Decolonisation was gathering pace and in 1957, the Gold Coast gained independence as Ghana. In 1960, after years of foot dragging by both Labour and Conservative governments, MacMillan made the historic ‘wind of change’ speech in which he signalled that most British colonies would soon be granted independence.
He said, “Whether we like it or not, this growth of national consciousness is a political fact.”
“Undoubtedly, WASU played an important role in all this,” says Dr Adi. “The houses in Camden Rd and South Villas should both be honoured with blue plaques so that the wider public know the remarkable history they represented.”
West Africans in Britain 1900-1960 by Dr Hakim Adi is published by Lawrence and Wishart, 1998.
30 October 2008