By Hannah McCann (REPRINT FROM VOLUME 14)
George Arthur Roberts was an incredibly brave soldier, a pioneering civil rights activist and a fearless firefighter. His life was full of hardships – two world wars and rampant discrimination to name but a few – but he fought for justice for all and helped others throughout his life.
In 1914, Roberts arrived in England from Trinidad – he’d made the journey with the aim of fighting in the First World War. His regiment would participate in battles at Loos, the Somme and in Turkey. He soon earned the nickname of the “Coconut Bomber”, so called because he would pick up enemy bombs and throw them back towards enemy lines. He’d honed this skill when he was a child, doing the same action with coconuts. Due to his reputation, skill and enthusiasm he returned to Trinidad to give recruitment speeches that were described by one newspaper as “vigorous”. He managed to convince over 250 men to sign up to the war effort.
He was also a founder of the Royal British Legion, an organisation that was created to care for veterans. After the war he would often lead protest marches of thousands of ex-soldiers – many wounded – to demand better rights and more financial support.
After the war, despite being a war hero, he struggled to find work due to racist discrimination. As a result of this, Roberts was one of the founding members and chairman of the League of Coloured Peoples. It was one of the first anti-racist organisations in London that worked to end the colour bar. The colour bar meant that black people were refused housing, jobs and service in restaurants and hotels. The League of Coloured Peoples also campaigned for decolonisation and independence for Britain’s colonies. Later in the Second World War, the league campaigned against white families who refused to take black children in as evacuees.
When the Second World War arrived in 1939, Roberts was too old to fight. Undeterred he became the first black man to join the Auxiliary Fire Service. These firefighters worked tirelessly during the Blitz to put out the fires caused by the bombing. In 1943 Roberts was made a section leader and created discussion groups to educate the local community on firefighting and fire safety. In 1944 he was awarded the British Empire Medal in the King’s Birthday Honours list.
In 1941 his portrait was painted by the artist Norman Hepple – which indicates how famous Roberts was at the time.
Over time Roberts was forgotten and pushed out of history by the white dominated academic field. However, in 2014 his story was rediscovered by the historian Stephen Bourne and featured in his book ‘Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War’. In 2016 a blue plaque was placed outside his London home to commemorate his life. This significant contribution to public history allows Roberts’ achievements to live on. This year, when the Royal British Legion commemorates 100 years of the Poppy Appeal, remember Roberts – one of their founding members.
The LIfe and Legacy of George Arthur Roberts: https://www.georgearthurroberts.com/