Black History Month UK 2023 'Before Windrush' - exploring the lives and stories of Black Britons who were living in the UK before the arrival of Empire Windrush in 1948.
Ivor Gustavus Cummings was born on 10 December 1913 in West Hartlepool. His mother, Johanna Archer was a white English nurse and his father, Ismael Cummings, was a Black doctor from Sierra Leone. He had come to England to study to be a doctor and was one of several African professionals working on the Tyneside. The couple met whilst working together at Newcastle’s Royal Victoria Infirmary. After a whirlwind romance they conceived a baby boy they named Ivor.
At a young age Ivor and his mother moved to Addiscombe in Surrey, while his father returned to Sierra Leone. Ivor’s family befriended the widow of composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor to whom they were related by marriage, and he got to know his cousins Avril and Hiwatha Coleridge-Taylor who were following in their father’s musical footsteps.
Growing up in Addiscombe, Ivor was most-often the only person-of-colour in his local environment. One can only imagine how difficult it was for the young Ivor dealing with the prejudice he faced and it certainly help shape the man he would become. Ivor was privately educated and was racially bullied at school. He told how when he was at the Whitgift School how, in one particularly traumatic incident, the boys set his curly hair on fire.
After that terrible incident, his father stepped in, and arranged for Ivor to come to Sierra Leone to complete his education. He thought that he would have a better time in Africa, but Ivor also struggled to fit in at school there. He was packed back off back to England and enrolled in Dulwich College in South London. Here, he excelled, and his academic talents were nurtured, but, unlike his half-brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone, poverty prevented him from going further in his education and becoming a doctor.
After graduating from Dulwich College, he moved back to Sierra Leone to work briefly as a clerk for the United Africa Company in Freetown. He returned to England to look for medical scholarships but was unsuccessful and then tried to join the British Army as an officer. His application was rejected due to a law stating that all British army officers had to be “of pure European descent”.
There had been a colour bar on officers in the British armed forces since the First World War. Under the 1912 Short Guide to Obtaining a Commission in the Special Reserve of Officers to qualify for a commission, a candidate had to be of pure European descent, and a British born or naturalised British subject. This unambiguous regulation was not officially lifted until the Second World War when Harold Moody mobilised the League of Coloured Peoples, the International African Service Bureau and the West African Students Union (WASU) to campaign against the colour bar.
By time the ‘colour bar’ had been lifted in 1940, Cummings had taken a job as warden of Aggrey House in Bloomsbury, London and started his career in the civil service.
Aggrey House was opened by the Colonial Office in October 1934 as rival accommodation to the West African Student Union (WASU) run hostels. These places provided accommodation to African and Caribbean students who might otherwise have had to face the brutal reality of being barred from renting rooms. The hostels proved to be very successful, providing practical support and creating a sense of community.
However, the Colonial Office viewed the WASU-run hostels as hotbeds of Anti-Colonial activism and opened Aggrey House to monitor and discourage political discussion against the then British Empire and Commonwealth. WASU lobbied against the hostel and successfully convinced African and Caribbean students to boycott it. Aggrey House remained empty for an entire year until a deal was brooked between WASU and the Colonial Office.
In his role as warden, Ivor looked after student welfare, including organising meetings and lectures and arranging dances and social events to which he invited the small contingent of black British women in an attempt to make life more pleasant for his almost exclusively male charges. He was clearly politically engaged, with speakers at Aggrey House covering themes such as ‘Present day slavery and the problem of its abolition’ by Anglo-Irish anti-slavery activist Lady Simon and hosting esteemed pan-Africanists such as George Padmore.
There continued to be competition between Aggrey House and the WASU run hostels. In August 1937 Cummings even informed the police that two Aggrey residents had taken girls to spend the night at the WASU hostel. Aggrey House closed in 1940, after reports that communists had come to dominate the House Committee and that one student had brought a sex worker into the hostel.
Despite the controversy connected to Aggrey House, this was one of many instances that showed Ivor’s interest in the welfare of Black individuals. Shaped by the racial discrimination he had experienced from his school days and beyond, he tirelessly advocated for Black Britons. Rallying against police brutality, after receiving reports that Black people were being “unduly molested” by officers in the 1930s.
He was a prolific press correspondent. The merest hint of a slur against people of Black Britons caused him to lift his pen. He even had an indirect hotline to the monarchy through the good offices of Edwina Mountbatten, a supporter of the 'coloured cause' (a phrase used at the time), who would report back the King's ‘supposed’ displeasure at incidents of discrimination.
In their book Windrush: The Irresistible Rise of Multi-Racial Britain, authors Mike and Trevor Phillips describe Cummings as “a fastidious, elegant man, with a manner reminiscent of Noel Coward” who “chain-smoked with a long cigarette holder and addressed visitors as ‘dear boy’”.
Ivor was gay and socialised in Black queer intellectual circles in the 1930s and 1940s. He enjoyed London’s night life, as a gay member of ‘the group,’ a set of African intellectuals in London which included the American singer John Payne and the British composer Reginald Foresythe, to whose Nigerian family Cummings's father was doctor in Lagos. Like these two and many others in the social and diplomatic circles in which he moved, Cummings was gay at a time when openness about homosexuality was illegal.
Despite criminalisation, there was a significant underground gay community in interwar London. Individuals frequented private members clubs and other spaces. Particularly popular with the Black community was the Shim Sham club, a venue that championed jazz music from across the Atlantic. Though we don’t have evidence that Ivor visited such places, it’s entirely possible, as some of his acquaintances were known to.
One of Ivor’s closest friends was the gay Guyanese dancer and bandleader Ken Johnson, a leading figure in Black British music in the 1930s. When Ken died in the 1941 bombing of the Café de Paris, Ivor led on the memorial arrangements through his position of influence at the Colonial Office and was able to obtain exemption from munitions work for band members injured in the bombing.
Cummings never hid his gay friendships, according to the Conversation he provided emotional support to mixed heritage actor-turned-lawyer Paul Danquah. At Cummings’ memorial service, Paul recalled how Ivor advised him “You must not disparage your father. Your father is a very important person, and you have his heritage.” Which perfectly encapsulates his relationship with his own father and how he saw himself in the world, as a Black man living in Britain.
At the onset of the Second World War, Cummings joined the Colonial Office in 1941 becoming the first Black person to obtain the position. Not surprisingly, the Colonial Office’s public relations team tried to spin his appointment as proof that there was no racial discrimination in Britain.
He also served as a secretary of a new Advisory Committee on the Welfare of Colonial People in the United Kingdom, a Colonial Office initiative to assume direct responsibility for housing colonial students. And rapidly gained a reputation of someone who would help any person of colour, whatever their social standing. He used his position to fight the colour bar in boxing and prevented African and Caribbean merchant seamen from entering air raid shelters to helping British Honduran foresters in Scotland.
With the arrival of the first Caribbean RAF volunteers, his responsibilities grew, and he travelled widely to combat difficulties arising from racial prejudice. Initially minimal, these increased when the segregated US forces appeared.
Although both Ivor Cummings and Learie Constantine were both members of the Welfare Office. We don’t know for sure if their paths ever crossed. In 1942, the League of Coloured Peoples commended the increasingly important and visible roles being taken up by Black individuals such as Cummings and Constantine. But they also received backlash for supporting government institutions which were perceived by many to be upholding systems of oppression at home and across the Colonies.
After the war, when extra nurses were needed for the National Health Service, he recruited them via his family in Sierra Leone. He continued to work in the Colonial Office and was on close terms with many future political leaders. Like Constantine, he was recognised for his work with the Welfare Office. Ivor was awarded an OBE in the 1948 Birthday Honours. It was following this that Ivor became the official representative for West Indians immigrants arriving on the Empire Windrush.
When the Colonial Office was informed of the imminent arrival of 492 job-seeking Caribbean migrants aboard the Empire Windrush via a delayed telegram from the governor of Jamaica. They became the responsibility of the second most senior officer in the Colonial Office – the 35-year-old Ivor Cummings.
Cummings replied with apprehensive determination:
“Although we shall do what we can for these fellows, the main problem is the complete lack of accommodation and being unable to put in hand any satisfactory reception arrangements.”
Though Ivor Cummings’ involvement with Windrush was officially to greet the West Indian arrivals as an envoy of the crown and instruct them on how to find housing and jobs, he continued to support many for as long as they needed. For example, records document Cummings’ dogged efforts to help one Dudley Yapp, 30, secure employment, which Yapp finally did in Warwickshire in September 1948.
It was Cummings who, after all other options were exhausted, negotiated the use of a former air raid shelter beneath Clapham Common as temporary accommodation for Windrush arrivals without any prearranged accommodation. The choice of location led to the nearby Brixton becoming a permanent centre for the African Caribbean community in Britain.
Despite Cummings huge influence behind the scenes, his name is hardly ever mentioned in the Windrush story. Incredibly, the Independent newspaper revealed that he was omitted from a Brixton History Tour app. So why is Cummings’ name not remembered in the Windrush story? The answer probably lies in his sexuality. Cummings was an openly Black Gay man and consequently, over the years his story has deliberated erased. But activists within the LGBT+ community and people interested in UK Black history are reclaiming and telling his story.
Cummings resigned from the Colonial Office in 1958. He’d been offered a high-ranking post in the Colonial Service in Trinidad, but he turned it down. Instead, he accepted an offer from Kwame Nkrumah, then prime minister of the newly independent Ghana, to train diplomats for foreign service. He was widely tipped to be the country’s first Black governor but was posted instead to the Ghana High Commission in London to recruit West Indian professionals, including Ulric Cross. He later worked as a training officer for Yengema Diamond Mines in Sierra Leone and then as a public relations adviser to the London-based distillers Duncan, Gilbey and Matheson.
Cummings died of cancer in Westminster Hospital, on 17 October 1992, just shy of his 80th birthday.