Croydon’s Vignalë brothers and the First World War


By - Tuesday 28th August, 2018

The story of two Croydon-based, Trinidadian-born brothers who lived incredible lives


Vignalë photo, thought to show either Otho or Raymond.
Photo by Joan Leggett, used with permission.

Two Trinidadian brothers living in Croydon, Ralph and Otho Vignalë, joined the British Army during the First World War. Sons of a cocoa plantation owner from Arima, County of St. George, Trinidad, they are recorded as living together at 17 Amberley Grove, Addiscombe, in the 1911 census. Their lives give us an insight into the experiences of men from the British West Indies and other colonies during and after the First World War.

Details of the circumstances of the Vignalë brothers’ arrival in Britain are limited. Their father’s cocoa plantation business is known to have run into financial difficulties and this could have prompted the family’s migration – Ralph and Otho moved to Britain, whilst the rest of the family were to settle in Canada. Additionally, two further Vignalë family members, named Victor and Randah, described as ‘destitute natives’ approached the Croydon Charitable Society in 1910 for help with the cost of repatriation, without success. This was an era of mass migration within the British Empire – in all directions; between 1903 and 1913, an estimated 3.15 million people left Britain, almost half for Canada.

By the time the First World War broke out, in 1914, Ralph and Otho had been living in Croydon for at least around three years. Ralph lived with his wife, Henrietta Adelaide (née Waters), born in Deptford but resident of Croydon before her marriage, and the couple’s two young daughters. The younger, unmarried brother, Otho, a ‘dental mechanic’, signed up to the Territorial Force in 1916 and was drafted into the Royal Garrison Artillery (RGA). His military records show that he was not deployed abroad and suffered from influenza during the global pandemic of 1918, after which he was finally moved into the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) so that his dental training could be put to use.

Ralph re-enlisted with the British West Indies Regiment

Ralph Vignalë enlisted into the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment in July 1915 and did serve abroad, once he had resigned and re-enlisted with the segregated British West Indies Regiment (BWIR), made up of non-white Caribbean men. Having served five months, he was evacuated in October 1917 suffering from acute nephritis, an illness of the kidneys. The Caribbean men, initially drawn from the middle classes, were mostly restricted to a non-combatant role of transporting ammunition and supplies, digging trenches and working on roads at the Western Front; of the 1,249 men who died, the vast majority succumbed to illness. It was not until 1920 that Ralph Vignalë was certified fit and his army pension ended.

Ralph’s wife, Henrietta, had given birth to their third daughter, Joan, in 1916, whilst Ralph’s unit was based in Cambridge. After his discharge from the Army and release from hospital, he trained as a barrister. In 1922 Ralph left the UK on the ship, The Speaker, for his birth country of Trinidad, leaving behind his wife and children. In Trinidad, he worked as a lawyer and wrote columns for newspapers. He was also to become mayor of his home town of Arima during the 1930s.

After leaving military service, meanwhile, Otho Vignalë settled in Croydon and worked as a dentist. He married Florence M. Earl in 1933. During the Second World War he moved to Lincolnshire where he was appointed a school dentist officer, charged with the care of evacuee children. He passed away on 1st August 1955 in Grays, Essex.

Vignalë family photograph taken in Trinidad, thought to show Otho (back row, left) and Ralph (back row, middle).
Photo by Joan Leggett, used with permission.

At least two further Vignalë family members served in the Allied forces during the First World War. Their brother, Percy Lazarus Vignalë, an artist, served with the Royal Army Service Corps (RAMSC), whilst twenty-three-year-old Raymond Vignalë was killed on 8th November 1918, serving with the 5th Brigade, Canadian Field Artillery, days before the Armistice.

The War Office had been reluctant to recruit black men into the British Army to fight in Europe, particularly from the colonies, on racial and political grounds. As well as doubts about the capacity for warfare amongst non-white races, the British government and its colonial offshoots, were concerned about the potential for dislocation of the racial and political hierarchies that the Empire was based on. The South African newspaper, the East Rand Express put it starkly: “(i)f the Indians are used against the Germans they will return to India disabused of the respect they should bear for the white race. The empire must uphold the principle that a coloured man must not raise his hand against a white man if there is to be any law or order in either India, Africa, or any part of the Empire where the white man rules over a large concourse of coloured people”.

Britain accepted £2 million in cash donations and £54 million in goods and materials from the West Indies, including supplies of sugar, rum, cotton, medical supplies and oil for the war effort. Trinidad, in particular, was critical for its oil supplies. Yet the physical presence of Caribbean men was not so welcome to the authorities. Nine men from Barbados arrived in England in May 1915 on the SS Danube from Trinidad and were charged as stowaways. Remanded for a week by West Ham police court, they claimed to have come to enlist in the British Army but were told that they were barred by colour but could approach the War Office to join a black regiment. Two of the men, both Trinidadians, are known to have served with the Merchant Navy during the war.

In late 1915, facing heavy losses and fearing unrest in the colonies, a compromise was reached by the War Office and the Colonial Office and a segregated new regiment, the BWIR, made up of black men from the Caribbean, with white officers, was raised. These men were sent to France and Belgium unarmed, to work primarily, in non-combatant labouring roles sometimes in the line of enemy fire. Some battalions were sent to serve in East Africa and, also, the Middle Eastern campaigns against the Ottoman Empire – in Palestine and Mesopotamia, where some did see front-line combat.

Ralph Vignalë had been accepted into the 4/4th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment and was promoted to corporal. However his reserve battalion remained in Britain. In 1917, he resigned and joined the 3rd Battalion, BWIR, and then went on to serve at the Western Front. He may have a played a non-combatant role in the Third Battle of Ypres, also known as the Battle of Passchendaele. “We were taken there to expedite the delivery of shells to the heavy artillery. Our location was a real danger spot”, a contemporary of Vignalë in the BWIR wrote. Between August 1917 and September 1917, some 500,000 men died without meaningful territory gained by either side. After being invalided to Britain in October 1917, Vignalë convalesced in hospital, including at Brooklands Auxiliary Hospital, Surrey, where it is recorded that an ordinary diet caused him albuminuria.

Some black men were able to serve with regular Army regiments

Inconsistencies in recruitment practice meant that some black men, including Caribbean men, such as Lionel Turpin, from British Guiana, were able to serve with regular Army regiments. He travelled to Britain and signed up with the Warwickshire Regiment with whom he fought in Europe, suffering wounding and gas poisoning. He died of capillary bronchitis and emphysema in 1929.

Illustration by Percy Vignalë from The Adventures Of Four Beguiling Idiots, edited by Ralph Vignalë, published 1908. A copy is on display in the Museum of Croydon.
Photo author’s own.

The risk of travelling to Europe during the war was highlighted when the third Jamaica contingent of the BWIR – Jamaicans made up the majority of the 16,000 BWIR volunteers – set sail for England on the SS Verdala on 6 March 1916, only to be diverted by the Admiralty to Halifax, Canada, in fear of German submarine activity. The ship was hit by a blizzard and more than 1,000 men aboard faced freezing temperatures without adequate heating or clothing. Six hundred men suffered frostbite, with more than 100 requiring amputations and at least five men dying.

The following year, on 21st February 1917, 616 mainly black South Africans, who had volunteered as labourers, drowned off the coast of the Isle of Wight – along with 30 crew members – as their ship, the SS Mendi, was struck in a collision with a larger steamship, the SS Darro, which was carrying passengers and cargo. The SS Darro‘s master, Henry W. Stump, was found to have sailed dangerously and of having failed to attempt to rescue survivors and had his licence suspended for a year as a result.

After the Armistice, on 11th November 1918, the BWIR battalions found themselves awaiting demobilisation in the port city of Taranto, Italy. However, rather than being readied for return home, they were required to perform demanding manual labour at the dock, loading trains and to clean latrines for white units. Tensions were already high; as well as the discrimination that men of the BWIR had faced in being utilised as labourers at the front and being barred from certain promotions, they had been excluded as ‘natives’ from a pay increase granted to all Imperial troops in 1917.

The BWIR battalions at Taranto would have been burying colleagues between their duties, as men continued to succumb to wounds and illnesses, such as pneumonia and bronchitis, after the Armistice. A petition by a Barbados contingent of the BWIR seeking redress for exclusion from promotions and pay increase had not moved the War Office to action. It was against this backdrop, on 6th December 1918, that sergeants from the BWIR forwarded a petition to the Secretary of State complaining again of these issues, as well as their exclusion from separation allowance increase for relatives despite the fact the “cost of living in the West Indies has greatly increased on account of conditions arising from the war – as in Jamaica where it has gone up over 130 per centum”. That same day, the 9th battalion attacked their officers and four days of unrest ensued, including a strike and clashes, as other BWIR battalions joined in resistance, with one BWIR man being shot and killed.

The revolt was quelled, the 9th battalion disbanded and sixty men charged with mutiny. Of those convicted, most received prison sentences of up to five years, whilst one individual received a twenty-year sentence and one was executed by firing squad. In 1921, the entire regiment was disbanded.

The First World War triggered vast social and economic upheaval

The First World War triggered social and economic upheaval and 1919 was a year of great unrest; 35 million strike days occurred in the UK, compared to 6 million in 1918. Canadian soldiers stationed in camps in Britain staged three major riots in response to delays in demobilisation and frustration with camp conditions. Two thousand British soldiers at Folkestone, Kent, refused to board ships for service abroad and formed a soldiers’ union. Racialised violence broke out in port cities, with black merchant seaman, in particular, targeted, being seen as an economic and social threat in the midst of high unemployment. The Government’s response was to tighten ‘alien’ registration and deportation schemes and to introduce a voluntary repatriation scheme. In the words of the Home Office to authorities in Liverpool, “while it is not possible to deport compulsorily any coloured men who are British subjects it is considered desirable that so far as possible all unemployed coloured men should be induced to return to their own countries as quickly as possible”.

In 1922, Ralph seems to have left Britain of his own accord, for Trinidad – leaving behind his wife and children. Inflation in Trinidad had reached 145% by the end of the war, worse than experienced in Britain, and rioting and violence had been triggered by discontent with repatriations and unemployment. Trinidad was an increasingly important source of oil for Britain and authorities made strikes illegal and arrested labour leaders but, nonetheless, the unrest came to bear as in 1925, the first elections for positions on the Legislative Council in Trinidad went ahead. The Vignalë brothers were reunited for a few months in Croydon in 1937 when Ralph traveled from Trinidad to visit his brother, Otho, living at 1 Oakfield Road.


Research for this article was supported by the work of black British history researcher and writer, David Gleave, at Historycal Roots.

Samuel Ali

Samuel Ali

Samuel recently worked as a Heritage Trainee with the Museum of Croydon, in conjunction with arts and heritage charity, Culture&. He is interested in opening archives and museum collections to engage diverse and under-represented audiences. All views are his own. Contact: sam491812 (at) protonmail (dot) com or @museumpoetry

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  • Robert Ward

    Lionel Turpin, mentioned here, settled in Leamington Spa. His son Randolph became a national hero when he defeated Sugar Ray Robinson for the World Middleweight boxing title. He unfortunately lost the return bout.

    His elder brother Dick was also a boxing champion and I believe was the first black boxer to hold a British boxing title. As far as I am aware the family still live in the town.