Friday, 14 August 2015

Asquith Xavier and the Euston Colour Bar

Reanimating History: Jean Joseph, a visual artist and art facilitator, looks back to the Euston Colour Bar and the first Black guard, Asquith Xavier, who helped overcome it. 

Passengers, using the plethora of rail services that traverse London on a daily basis, naturally take one thing for granted. That is, the members of rail staff they encounter, drawn from a wide demography of the multicultural landscape. Further, those commuting to and from Euston Station are unlikely to know, or remember, a landmark victory won in 1966.

The 16th of July this year will mark 49 years of a cause célèbre and momentous uplifting - though not of the World Cup and the roar of a full capacity crowd at the old Wembley Stadium - that still resonates today. It was of another victory, won by Asquith Xavier, a Dominican passenger guard and accidental hero campaigner who help topple a colour bar at Euston Station.

He was a close friend, compatriot and work colleague of my father, Charles Joseph. My brother, as a young boy, recalls that he first met Asquith Xavier in 1963 when he accompanied our father to Southampton Dock. My father had come to meet his family after a fraught journey from Dominica. I had remained with my paternal grandmother - following the family a few years later. We remember Mr Xavier, as we addressed him, as a warm and kindly man.

Both men were part of the Caribbean community living in the Notting Hill area, settling in the 1950s after responding to the call for employment opportunities. They were of a similar mindset; they had many shared interests and a sense of injustice in terms of resisting racial discrimination in its many forms, including the deprivations of extremely poor housing and unfairness in the workplace. Neither had the stomach for another battle, yet they would not accept this injustice, although my father was pre-occupied with concurrent issues.

Asquith wished to transfer from Marylebone where he started work over a decade before as a porter, to a better-paid job at Euston Station. His National Union of Railwaymen (NUR) representative, James Prendergast, (a name I remember from my father) liaised with British Rail. Trade union membership did not necessarily guarantee genuine representation however, as, they too were prone to discriminatory practices. It was the Staff Committee, members of the NUR themselves, who wrote to deny him the job, and it was under the auspices of British Rail that this practice took place. This ignited the campaign to bring an end to an exclusion that is said to have persisted for at least 12 years. Black and Asian workers were widely subjected to racist abuse and a wall of resistance in the workplace on a daily basis with impunity, exacerbated by a further insult to ‘remove the chip from their shoulders’ if they dared to protest. The Race Relations Board and other watchdog bodies received a regular flow of complaints. However the outcomes were more often than not unsuccessful at investigation, due to the intense subterfuge in the workplace.

The official end came on July 15th and the bar was subsequently lifted from all of British Rail stations. This represented a major shift in industrial and race relations and led to positive implications for Black and Asian workers. A British Rail, manager Leslie Leppington declared that one [a bar] had not actually existed and commented that "If we had wanted to impose a real colour bar we would not have done it this way. We would have found some excuse to show he was not suitable for the job, wouldn't we?" [1]
On the ground, it was ‘business as usual’. Asquith Xavier (and others who followed and supported – including my father) continued to experience the expected retaliation over a period of time. Asquith specifically, because of his unwavering outlook was subjected to a tirade of abuse, requiring protection to and from his place of work.

One prominent supporting organisation, the West Indian Standing Conference, whose secretary at the time was Jeff Crawford, had taken the matter up with British Rail and the government. They were not convinced of the change being implemented across the rail industry. There is an iconic, or even symbolic photograph of Asquith Xavier taken in August 1966 on his first day of work, wearing his regulation issue black, brass-buttoned uniform. He is seen consulting his watch prior to boarding the train - in the background are white passengers and porters’ barrows as though to illustrate his trajectory [2]. I have fond memories of my father wearing the very same uniform setting off to work, carrying his holdall containing his guard’s paraphernalia and a flask. He would travel as far as Scotland on his many journeys.

The campaign was ahead of its time, given that the Race Relations Act was only amended in 1968 and was precursory to arguably further amendments well into the seventies and the present time, such as the setting up of the now defunct Commission for Racial Equality in 1976. It began because one modest yet, determined man from a small Caribbean nation applied to his employer for a transfer to improve his prospects. The rejection was a catalyst to achieving a milestone in addressing racism in the workplace, not only at British Rail, but in the wider industry.

Jean Joseph, June 2016 

 1. BBC On This Day, 15 July 2008.
 2. Credit: Keystone / Stringer
From the archive, 16 July 1966: Colour bar ends at all London stations by Eric Silver Originally published in the Guardian on 16 July 1966 First-class Hero, 15 July 2006, by Ros Wynne-Jones


  1. Just visited the Journey to Justice at the Beckton Globe Library absolutely brilliant-brought tears to my eyes and a great feeling of pride.