As Britain commemorates the arrival of the Empire Windrush at Tilbury 70 years ago, the lives of many of those who lived through the era it has come to define are being looked at again with fresh eyes.
One of them is Billy Strachan, a former RAF flight lieutenant from Jamaica whose civilian life was as impressive as his military career as he went on to blaze a trail as a political activist and distinguished lawyer.
Emerging at a time when both the Caribbean and Britain were in a state of transition, Strachan exemplified the sterling qualities of a generation of West Indians determined to make a difference. Yet outside of the RAF, where he is officially commended for his successful missions as a bomber pilot, few people these days have ever heard of him.
“He was such a remarkable person yet until recently his name meant nothing to me,” says historian David Horsley who is researching into Strachan’s life.
“I was bowled over when I heard about his achievements and I thought if I were to do anything useful it would be to let more people know about him.”
His fascination for his subject was apparent during a recent talk at the Marx Memorial Library that began with Strachan’s early life as a member of Jamaica’s light-skinned elite and his arrival in Britain in 1940 aged 18 with a few pounds in his pocket but a great sense of adventure.
After spending his first night in London at the YMCA in Great Russell Street, he set off for the Air Ministry in Kingsway to apply for RAF training. This was in the days before the RAF launched its official call out for Caribbean volunteers and Strachan, as part of a tiny band of well-educated, middle class West Indians, became a member of its prestigious air crew, firstly as a wireless operator and air gunner, then as a pilot. He proved so successful in dodging German fighters with his daredevil tactics that he was finally promoted to flight lieutenant, a rank that brought him his own Jeeves-type batman.
Once demobbed he briefly returned to the Caribbean but decided he would be more useful to his fellow West Indians back in London and a month after the Empire Windrush’s arrival in June 1948 he helped organise a meeting for passengers at Holborn Town Hall to offer assistance and advice.
In the months that followed, letters began arriving at his home in Brondesbury Villas, Kilburn, from those who had fallen on hard times. “As one of the Jamaicans who came up on the Windrush I am in bad luck, can’t get a room to live all I try,” wrote one. Another pleaded: “Finding it difficult to live on the pay and conditions at the hostel – appealing to you for help”.
“Billy’s heroic tours over enemy territory at a time when the casualty rate was notoriously high had made him famous so when people found themselves in difficulty they automatically turned to him.” explains Horsley, who discovered the letters in the Strachan archive held at the University of London’s Institute of Commonwealth Studies.
Strachan, who had served as a RAF liaison officer sorting out racial tensions on bases and sometimes advocated for black servicemen in court martials, was only too willing to help. Suave and genial but possessing a steely determination to fight social injustice in all its manifestations, he was soon addressing meetings all over London on behalf of West Indian migrants, who were beginning to arrive in greater numbers in response to the post-war labour shortage.
Walking with a pronounced limp resulting from a crash early on in his flying career, he quickly rose to become one of the most important black political figures of the post-war era, once depicted with devil’s horns in a cartoon in the Daily Sketch alongside Stalin and Paul Robeson on account of his membership of the Communist Party.
His tussles with the authorities during a tour of the Caribbean in 1952 saw him celebrated in the calypso, Billy and Ferdie, by Mentoman, while a Pathé News programme from 1955, titled Our Jamaican Problem, featured him pledging West Indian solidarity with British workers.
As secretary of the London arm of the Trinidad-based Caribbean Labour Congress, Strachan worked closely with leaders of Caribbean independence movements like Guyana’s Cheddi Jagan, and those who supported them in the UK, among them Fenner Brockway and Claudia Jones. Back in London, Strachan’s leadership qualities once again came to the fore during the Notting Hill race riots of 1958.
But with a wife and three children to support, he needed a regular job and after studying law in his spare time he was called to the Bar in 1959. Within a decade he had become a senior clerk to magistrates courts, including Marylebone, Hampstead and Clerkenwell, and in 1971 was elected president of the Inner London Justices Clerks Society. He would also write several definitive legal guides on subjects ranging from adoption to drink driving.
Three years before his death in 1998, the Telegraph reported on a proposed film about his RAF heroics starring Lenny Henry, comparing him to Brit flying ace Douglas Bader. It came to naught but the Imperial War Museum possesses footage of the many interviews it conducted with Strachan regarding his wartime experiences.
“As a communist who was active at the height of the Cold War Strachan has been more or less written out of history,” concludes Horsley, a retired teacher who spent part of his career in Jamaica.
“Nevertheless, he remains an extremely important figure. Throughout his life he always gave of himself to people and that’s what made him so popular and influential in his day.”
This article first appeared in Camden New Journal and Islington Tribune on June 22, 2018