Breaking the Colour Bar

The little-known and extraordinary story of one particular land girl

Land girl Amelia King wearing gumboots surrounded by other workers

To tie in with our new online exhibition and most recent ‘object-handling at home’ blog, in this post Tamisan Latherow introduces us to the little-known and extraordinary story of one particular land girl. Amelia King was of Afro-Caribbean ancestry and her wartime story is one that highlights the racism faced by people of colour in mid-twentieth century Britain. It also helps to emphasise the relevance of the Black Lives Matter movement to English rural life and heritage.

Eighty-one years ago, Great Britain declared war against Hitler and Nazi Germany. 8.5 million men from the British Empire and Dominions were raised for wartime service, but that number doesn’t tell the whole story. In fact, by the end of the war almost 6,000 Caribbean people served in the Royal Air Force with another 4,000 in related military services, over 2.5 million Indian citizens were in uniform, and 600,000 Africans were recruited (sometimes forcefully). As part of my research into women agricultural workers during the Second World War, I came across a small article about a young woman named Amelia King. She was born in June 1917 in Stepney and was third generation Afro-Caribbean, with both her father and brother serving in the navy during the war (her father with the Merchant Navy and brother with the Royal Navy). Like many young women of the time, she wanted to do her part and join the Women’s Land Army (WLA).

Second World War poster showing the Commonwealth Armed Forces marching before a Union Jack, including (left to right) soldiers from India, East Africa, South Africa, New Zealand, a Canadian airman, an Australian soldier, and a Royal Navy sailor
There was considerable diversity in the British forces, as shown by this Second World War poster showing the Commonwealth Armed Forces marching before a Union Jack, including (left to right) soldiers from India, East Africa, South Africa, New Zealand, a Canadian airman, an Australian soldier, and a Royal Navy sailor. Image copyright and courtesy the Imperial War Museum (Art. IWM PST 8457)

Amelia King applied to the Essex County branch of the WLA in 1943 only to be turned away due to the colour of her skin. When raised in the Commons, the Minister of Agriculture said: ‘Careful inquiry has been made into the possibility of finding employment and a billet for Miss King, but when it became apparent that this was likely to prove extremely difficult, she was advised to volunteer for other war work where her services could be more speedily utilised.’ One MP told the minister that ‘the world listens to matters of this kind, which affect the integrity of the British people’, but the minister made no reply.

Her story hit the press like wildfire and ‘even those who did not entirely believe in colour equality were against this particular case of colour prejudice which was regarded as detrimental to the war effort’. One such was farmer A. E. Roberts of Frith Farm, Wickham, Hampshire. His grandchildren remarked he was a ‘’can do’ person and had no time for petty prejudices. He would [have] given anyone a chance if they were straightforward and hardworking.’

Frith Farm was the first to take on women workers in their region and Mr. Roberts said ‘he would certainly have her on the farm.’ Considering that Frith ‘is an old English word that combines the meaning of loyalty, friendship, freedom, and sanctuary [and] it is the commitment to family, friends, and community to consider their welfare in our actions,’ it is no wonder Mr. Roberts and his family offered Amelia employment.

However, ‘like other WLA workers she had to have lodgings in the village and there was worry about finding them for her but Mr. Robert’s daughter Betty remembers Mrs. [Ada Elizebeth] Davis on Dairymoor offered.’ The Davis’s lost both sons during the war and it would not be hard to imagine that having a young woman in the house wanting to help the war effort would be a welcomed addition.

Amelia’s story came on the heels of increased racial tensions in the UK between American White Servicemen and both their Black counterparts and Black Britons. ‘Beginning in the autumn of 1942 the welfare officers of the Ministry of Labour found themselves preoccupied with the issue.’ Racial riots within the American troops spilled over to Black Britons with the news spreading as far away as the Colonies of Jamaica, Lagos, and Freetown and while many of the general British populace were friendly towards the African-American GIs, there was an underlying tension from the authorities who neither wanted to promote American segregation, nor completely disavow it. A situation highly reminiscent to today.

1943 Holborn Trades Council leaflet promoting the Londoners' Protest Meeting Against Racial Discrimination
Amelia King’s experience was used as a rallying cry against racism, as shown by this 1943 Holborn Trades Council leaflet promoting the Londoners’ Protest Meeting Against Racial Discrimination.

It was quite possibly an echo of Amelia’s hidden story that inspired a recent short film called The Lost Land Girl. Supported through the BFI Network, this new piece tells the fictional tale of two Black British sisters who became land girls. It promises to bring the personal and human experience of the WLA to life in ways that archival histories do not always manage to reveal. You can watch a trailer here and keep an eye out for screenings, which were delayed by the pandemic but should launch soon.

To say we are living through an unprecedented time is perhaps the mildest of understatements. With our instant access to news and media we have the ability to literally shape history with each of our voices, our thoughts and words, but most importantly, our deeds. Standing up for the person beside you who is facing discrimination in any form, be they of a different race, sexual orientation, gender, socio-economic standing or any other reason will redefine what it means to be British, but most importantly, it will redefine what it means to be human and that is the real point in all of this. Amelia stood up for herself and other people of colour and became a small voice that changed society, what will your voice change?

Tamisan Latherow is a PhD student at the University of Reading’s School of Agriculture, Policy and Development researching Women’s Participation in the British Agricultural Community in the Second World War. Members of the WLA and Women’s Institute who wish to participate in her research should contact her at: t.l.latherow@pgr.reading.ac.uk. You can also find out more about sharing WLA experiences with the Museum here.

Wickham History Society has a local history board outside Wickham Community Centre (Mill Lane, PO17 5AL) referring to the WLA and to Amelia King’s successful struggle to join. The site is close to Frith Farm where she worked. We are grateful to the Society for allowing us to reproduce an image of Amelia King on the latest ‘object handling at home’ post.

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