Notts Rebels: Eric Irons

Words: Josh Osoro Pickering
Illustrations: Natalie Owen
Wednesday 12 August 2020
reading time: min, words

In celebration of the Nottingham Castle Trust’s #VoicesofToday campaign, our Notts Rebels series continues with the story of Britain's first black magistrate: Eric Irons...


In the late 1940s Britain was bankrupt. The Second World War was won, but victory had come at a great cost. Cities across the land lay ruined by German bombing and the nations famous industries, on which empire and war effort were built, were in desperate need of help. Some had been keen to parade the narrative that an inherent island toughness had seen Britain through its darkest hour, but vital assistance had come from two sources: American capital and colonial manpower. American intervention and millions of troops from the British Empire had turned a losing battle to ultimate victory. Now, as the dust cleared from the rubble, Britain again leaned on its allies. In 1948 America provided the Marshal Plan to stimulate post-war Europe and rebuild its broken infrastructure. The same year, the British Nationality Act sought to mitigate the impact that movements were increasingly having, with Canada, India and Pakistan already gaining independence. Citizens of the Commonwealth were now British subjects and had the right to live and work here. The empire was waning, but by rebranding it as The Commonwealth and legitimising its people, Britain could still utilise its resources to rebuild itself.

This was the beginning of multi-racial Britain. In July, HMT Empire Windrush arrived, bringing over 800 Jamaicans, mostly former servicemen who had fought in Britain’s war. They had been on leave or had finished their service and returned to their home country, but they had had a glimpse of British life and saw the opportunity. Most didn’t intend to stay more than a few years, but almost all of them settled for life. One serviceman in the Royal Air-Force, who had remained in England and married a white woman was Eric Irons. Irons was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica in 1921 and joined the RAF in the last two years of WWII, which brought him to Bedfordshire. After marrying Nellie Kelham, the couple settled in Clifton and raised six children together, the first generation of what would become one of the country’s largest mixed-race populations. Irons’ story was typical. Nottingham had become a logical choice for Jamaican migrants, with plentiful employment in its thriving industries of coal, cigarettes and bicycle manufacture.

A lot is rightly made of Nottingham’s unique rebelliousness and readiness to stand out. It is held up as a hot-bed of activism, free-thinking and tolerance, but it is important not to get carried away. The reality for black people was a case of taking the rough with the smooth. Yes, it was possible for a black man and white woman to marry, settle relatively comfortably and start a mixed-race family. Yes, it was possible for black people to find employment in Nottinghamshire pits or at Raleigh and Players, but there were caveats. Mixed couples were often hounded in the streets. Some companies, such as those in transport, imposed colour bars, meaning many black people took the first job that was offered for fear of not finding another. Pubs and clubs displayed signs that read “No blacks. No dogs. No Irish”. While it can probably be fairly claimed that most white working-class Nottingham folk had no issue with the new arrivals at first, when their numbers increased, so did a fear of loss of jobs and way of life, and black people bore the brunt of this frustration.

Eric Irons saw this clearer than most and was determined to do something about it. By 1956 there were 2000 black people in Nottingham and Irons, by then a prominent member of the community, spoke on their behalf at a conference set up by the Nottingham Consultative Committee for the Welfare of Coloured People. He described the problems faced by black people in the city. To some it was the first time hearing of the reality of racism they were confronted with on a daily basis. Nottingham’s black population, they heard, endured discrimination in housing where white landlords refused black tenants, or in church where there was often a “chilly” reception for Jamaican worshipers. As a result there was fear among black communities. They were apprehensive in mingling with white neighbours, joining white social clubs, or even spending break-time at work with anyone but their own group of fellow black colleagues. Irons was ahead of the curve of integration. He saw what needed to be done and was unafraid in confronting it. He worked tirelessly in the 1950s to help black communities to integrate into Nottingham life and for white people to understand where they were coming from.

The work of Eric Irons in bridging cultural differences by helping a cautious and fearful migrant community to make a home and a local white community to accept them is hard to overstate

But in 1958 Nottingham was rocked by racially aggravated violence. The events are often known as ‘race riots’, but in truth they were little more than a racist mob attack on black communities that prompted young Jamaican men in particular to group together and fight back. It had begun in a St. Ann’s pub when some white men had taken exception to a black man having a drink with a white woman. Large-scale violence followed and for weeks after, local teddy-boys were spoiling for a fight with any black person they could find. Eric Irons was the perfect man to help ease the tension and the city brought him in to assist. What Nottingham needed was community cohesion and the man who had previously started the city’s first Caribbean community centre from his Clifton home and founded the Colonial Sports and Social Club was the ideal choice to bring it about. Again, Irons worked tirelessly for the cause that had become his life’s work. With his help, the colour bar on black bus-drivers was overturned, the Caribbean Carnival and other cultural events grew and slowly the city moved out of the period of fear and racial tensions into a more tolerant time. That is not to say that racism ended there. Many of Nottingham’s outer suburbs and towns remained poor and were breeding-grounds for groups such as the National Front and British National Party throughout the twentieth century, but Nottingham, in no small part due to Eric Irons stood out as an example of what could be done, something Irons would receive death threats for, most notably from the Ku Klux Klan.

1962 brought his proudest moment. Following his fine work in bringing the city together after the trouble of ’58, and in response to a growing black population, “multi-racial” Nottingham made “a step in the right direction” and appointed Eric Irons as Britain’s first unelected magistrate (or Justice of the Peace). The reaction to this revolutionary appointment was captured in an ATV report, in which an over-zealous reporter, clearly looking for sentiments of racism, asked inflammatory questions of Nottingham’s citizens, officials and even Irons himself. Was Nottingham ready for a “coloured JP”, he asked. “How would you feel about coming up before a black man in court?” The vast majority of those interviewed, both black and white, were happy with the appointment, a testament to the tolerance of the city and the work of Irons in promoting it. When Alderman Cameron was asked about why it had fallen on Nottingham to take the lead on appointing the first black magistrate, he replied “we probably think ahead than most other towns and I hope, incidentally, that other towns will follow us”. He went on to explain that it was only right that the people of Nottingham were truly represented by people from their own communities, something that most of those interviewed echoed.

The work of Eric Irons in bridging cultural differences by helping a cautious and fearful migrant community to make a home and a local white community to accept them is hard to overstate. Nottingham is now proudly mixed and anti-racist, as the huge numbers present at the recent Black Lives Matter demonstration will attest. While Irons passed away in 2007, an honorary degree from UoN and OBE from the Queen to his name, his legacy is strong and alive. His entire life in Britain, from his marriage to his challenging of prejudice and setting of new trends, was rebellious, but always legal – “very strict, but very fair”, as his son, Paul put it. He was commemorated as one of the city’s outstanding rebels in Forest fan group, Forza Garibaldi’s ‘Rebel City’ banner display and became one of only two black people in Nottingham with a plaque, last year at the National Justice Museum. As one of Nottingham’s finest and impactful rebels, a fitting next step would be a statue.

‘Voices of Today’ is aimed at inspiring Nottingham residents to get creative and represent their experiences or perspectives on activism, protest and rebellion in a number of ways, including poetry, drawing, singing, acting, dance, creating a protest banner or something different altogether.

You can submit your artistic take on Nottingham's history of activism, protest and rebellion at @nottmcastle using the hashtag #VoicesofToday  

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