top of page

Sam King - From the Royal Air Force to Windrush pioneer

Windrush Month 2024 'Celebrating the Caribbean pioneers of the 1940s & 1950s' - exploring the lives and stories of the the early Caribbean people who came to Britain after the 2WW.

The impact of the Caribbean passengers on HMT Windrush can not be ignored or forgotten. These individuals and those who followed in their wings, now referred to as the Windrush generation, opened the door to the multicultural Britain that is taken for granted today. And Sam King is a true proponent of their fighting spirit. He first came to the UK to volunteer to fight in the Second World War and later as a Windrush pioneer who became the first Black mayor of the London borough of Southwark and helped pave the way for Britain’s first multicultural street festival – Notting Hill Carnival.

Sam Beaver King was born in the small village of Priestman’s River in the rural parish of Portland in Jamaica on 20 February 1926. He was born into a traditional Christian family and was the second eldest of ten children. As a youngster he worked on his father’s banana farm with the intention of taking over after his dad retired. But the war in Europe meant that his life was going to take a different path.

King was planning to go to the United States to work when he spotted an advert in the Daily Gleaner appealing for volunteers for the British army. After passing the RAF test, he and the other men received a month’s basic training at an army camp in Kingston before travelling to the UK.

The new recruits arrived in Greenock, near Glasgow, in November 1944. King recalled: "I left Portland, Jamaica, in temperatures of 75F. I landed at Greenock, which was 39F. I thought I was going to die.” Then moved onto RAF Hunmanby Moor in Filey, Yorkshire for technical and combat training. After three months, the men were split up into categories for ground crew training – King was posted to the fighter station RAF Hawking near Folkestone and served as an engineer.

“My mother said, ‘Sam, the mother country is at war, go’. Let us get this straight: the Germans wanted to rule the world, and if Hitler had won, they would have put us [black people] in ovens and lit the fire. We had to fight for our own salvation.”

Within a few months, King was promoted, and then trained as an aircraft engineer at RAF Locking in Somerset. He had another four postings, finishing in Yorkshire, at RAF Dishforth in Ripon, maintaining transport planes. King said of his war efforts, that the locals were welcoming and the few incidents of racism he experienced were from the American GIs. Indeed, during one posting in Rivenhall in Essex, Fred Seagraves, a serviceman he befriended, took him home to Nottingham to meet his parents. Mr and Mrs Seagraves became Sam’s English ‘Mam and Pap’ with whom he kept in touch until their death’s decades later. (1)

In 1947, King’s war service officially came to an end and Sam, then aged 21, succumbed to RAF pressure to return to Jamaica. He had contemplated staying on in Britain after the war but recalled that attitudes suddenly seem to change overnight. “When we were in the uniform, you’re reasonably respected,” he said. When the war was over, they said, ‘What are you doing here? You should go home. I came to help them and now that they have their freedom, they said I should go home."

King returned to a colonial Jamaica struggling to recover from the 1944 hurricane – of which an estimated 90% of Jamaica’s banana trees and 41% coconut trees were lost – and high unemployment rates. His family’s banana farm was devastated, and he found it difficult to find work because of the discriminatory racial policies of the British colonial rulers. King said, “I could not see myself making a headway socially or financially at Priestman’s River or in Jamaica for that matter.” He had changed but Jamaica had remained the same. In Tony Sewell’s 1998 book, Keep on Moving – A Windrush Legacy, he elaborated further: “Having been in England and read a few books I decided I could not live in a colony. Everything was done by Westminster through the Governor. Only one man in 10 had the vote and 85 per cent of the land belonged to big English landowners.” (1)

So, King – enticed by another Daily Gleaner advert – booked passage on the Empire Windrush to return to the UK and re-enlist. His family sold three cows to raise funds for a troop deck berth. On board, there was a bit of a holiday atmosphere, and special camaraderie among the RAF veterans. However, he noted in his memoir that there was also enough apprehension about the government turning the ship back that he organised two ex-RAF wireless operators to play dominoes outside the radio room – and monitor incoming messages. (2)

King and his fellow West Indian passengers were met by officials from the Ministry of Labour and the Colonial Office. One was, the British civil servant Ivor Cummings – the first Black official in the British Colonial Office – and of course, a curious British press.

The welcome he received on his return was hardly fitting for a British ex-serviceman. Black men who had risked their lives during the war now faced a second battle. In his 1998 autobiography, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain, King recalled: “The host nation saw the influx as an imposition and became hostile ... The acute shortage of accommodation was the biggest problem facing immigrants who were arriving from the new Commonwealth countries.” (1)

King re-enlisted in the RAF in 1948 and served until 1953. While Black service personnel found they were respected and supported when they were in uniform, civvy street was far too often a different story. Racism restricted job opportunities: Mr King applied unsuccessfully to the Metropolitan Police in 1953 – it took them another 14 years to appoint its first Black officer. Racial discrimination also made it extremely difficult for many Black people to find housing — and thereby start putting down roots. (2)

In 1950, Mr King, then an RAF corporal, and his brother Wilton attempted to buy a house in Sears Street, Camberwell, but bank officials responded to a mortgage request with a letter suggesting he return to Jamaica. Mr King took the letter to the owner of the house, who was so disgusted that he gave him a mortgage himself. He made him swear on the bible that he would repay the cost of the house – £1,000 – in ten years’ time. He managed to do so in five years with the help of a ‘pardner’, a traditional Caribbean saving scheme, and by renting rooms to other West Indians. The Kings were the second Black family in Southwark to own a home. For other black Caribbean residents, the only way to own a home was to join a ‘pardner’ and Mr King took an active role in setting up many pardners.

King left the armed forces in 1953 and joined the post office. No doubt, his status as an army veteran helped ensure that his application was successful, but throughout his career he repeatedly experienced racism. In his autobiography, Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain on his experiences at the South Eastern District Office:

“I was not welcomed by some; not a smile crossed the faces of those who were too busy guarding the overtime. I spoke only when necessary. One week into the post, I asked for overtime on the Irish section sorting letters beyond Dublin to Limerick. There, my colleagues saw that I was not as green and naive as they thought. One fellow in particular was most obnoxious whenever I put in for overtime work. He made hurtful remarks and was not co-operative. Others joined in, but I was there to do a job and nothing was going to make me flounder or even show resentment. My performance was far above these petty non-entities. I held fast to my integrity’.

King worked for the Royal mail for 34 years, beginning as a postman in Waterloo and ending as senior manager for the South Eastern postal district. (He recalled being greeted with a heckle from a resentful white worker who yelled: “Send ‘em back!” King’s quick-witted riposte was: “I’m all in favour of sending them back, as long as you start with the Mayflower.”). (1)

He became involved with the Brixton-based newspapers the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News, which had been founded in 1958 by the communist Trinidadian journalist Claudia Jones. He was among those who helped her to organise the first Caribbean-style indoor carnival at St Pancras town hall the following year, which laid the foundations for the Notting Hill carnival. (1)

Faith played a significant role in his life, and like many African and Caribbean Christians in the 1940s and 1950s, he and his family had to hold their worship gatherings at home due to the racism they faced in British churches. When he and his first wife, Mae, moved to Herne Hill in south London in 1958, they didn't feel welcomed at the local Baptist church and never returned, although they allowed their children to attend Sunday school there.

Years later, as the Mayor of Southwark, he was invited as a guest to the same church, and he made sure to be addressed as ‘Your Worship’ and wore his full regalia as Mayor, which he considered as 'poetic justice' for the church to give him the respect and recognition he deserved.

He was involved in community activism on migrant welfare issues and was active in the post workers’ union. He joined the Labour party, too, seeing it as a political vehicle that could improve the life of black people. In 1982 he was elected the Labour member of Southwark council for Bellenden ward, Peckham, and a year later, when the Labour party Black Sections campaign for greater representation was formed, he was nominated to become mayor.

At the time, the National Front was very active in the area. “[They] let it be known that if Sam King became the mayor of Southwark, they were going to slit my throat and burn down my house. My reply was ... I am not against them slitting my throat, but they must not burn down my house, because it is not a council house.”

In 1983, King was elected as Mayor of the London Borough of Southwark, making history as the first Black mayor of Southwark, in the face of abuse and death threats. This milestone came seventy years after John Richard Archer became the first Black mayor of a London borough back in 1913.

As Mayor of Southwark, he played an active role in pushing to get the pirate stations playing gospel music to become community radio stations. But this was rejected by the Home Secretary, Leon Brittan, but it didn’t deter him and others, and, in many ways laid the foundation for Premier Christian Radio to be awarded a license years later.

Sam, alongside Diane Louise Jordan, was instrumental in organising the first gospel-inspired BBC 'Songs of Praise' at Southwark Cathedral in April 1985. This ground-breaking event allowed the British public to experience gospel music and Pentecostal fellowship on a BBC national show for the first time. The programme also served as a platform for Basil Meade and the London Gospel Community Choir, providing them with national exposure. As a result of the event's success, the BBC began incorporating more gospel music into their various shows.

In his capacity as a local councillor, Sam presented several motions to the British Council of Churches to enable Black Majority Churches to rent or purchase church venues that were derelict or underutilized. This motion played a crucial role in facilitating the growth of Black-led church buildings and places of worship.

After retiring from local politics, King focussed on preserving the experiences of his generation. He founded the Windrush Foundation with Arthur Torrington in 1996 to recognise and keep alive the memories of the young men and women who were among the first wave of post war settlers in the UK.

In his later years, Sam King was best known for his efforts to establish the anniversary of the Empire Windrush's arrival as a holiday, earning him the nickname "Mr. Windrush." In 1998, he was awarded the MBE during the 50th anniversary celebrations for Windrush and also published his autobiography, "Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain." In 2009, a public vote led to the installation of a Southwark blue plaque at his long-time home on Warmington Road. This was followed by the freedom of the borough of Southwark being granted to him in May 2016.

Sam King MBE died on 17 June 2016, less than a week before the 68th anniversary of his arrival on the Empire Windrush: more than 500 people attended his funeral at Southwark Cathedral. 

Arthur Torrington, a close friend and colleague, paid a heartfelt tribute to Sam, describing him as: “a giant with a voice that commanded respect that provided a positive message to all about the contribution of the Caribbean community but the wider benefits of migration. We need to give our gratitude to men and women like Sam who made sacrifices and laid the foundations that we take for granted today in the community.”

Two years after King's death, the UK government officially designated the 22 June as Windrush Day to recognise the contributions of the Windrush generation's contributions in helping to rebuild a post-war Britain. King paved the way for people such as Labour MP Diane Abbott, who aptly said after his death “[King] played a crucial role in breaking down barriers for Black people in politics. [For] someone like me, who was fortunate to become an MP, [I} stand on the shoulders of people like Sam King.”


"Sam King 'Mr Windrush' Ebook". Windrush Foundation


bottom of page