From the SS Windrush to Croydon: the life of Alex Elden

By - Thursday 4th May, 2017

The late Alex Elden made a rich contribution both to London’s black community and to Croydon

Photo by Jayne Elden, used with permission.

Alex Elden, a member of the Royal Airforce from 1944, and a passenger on the SS Empire Windrush on its famous voyage to England in 1948, died on Thursday 6th April at Croydon University Hospital, after being looked after in his last years at the Norbury Hall care home.

Alex was born in Jamaica on 9th July 1926 and baptised Emanuel Alexis as a Roman Catholic. His father was a civil engineer who was responsible for most of the buildings constructed in the country at that time, and he later learnt that his great-grandfather had been a pirate who retired in the Bahamas. Alex was educated at Calabar School and St. Simon College.

Young Alex was captivated by aircraft, and particularly inspired by watching movies with Errol Flynn flying and shooting down jets’. His enthusiasm led him to enlist in the RAF in Kingston on 29th September 1944. He travelled to Britain for training, arriving in Glasgow on the SS de Cuba, where he was warmly greeted and a reception was held in his honour. He then trained at Filey and Yatesbury, becoming a runway controller at RAF Cramwell.

The women stood up for the black men and fought with their stiletto heels

According to the valuable record available in the book The Windrush Legacy: Memories of Britain’s Post-War Caribbean Immigrants: “promotion in the RAF very much depended on the officer in charge, but also Alex did well in his exams and won promotion. The white officers behaved as if they were superior, but Alex always met these aggressions head-on. On some occasions the officers resorted to sarcasm and intimidatory antics, but he always confronted the issue which gained him much respect”.

“There was not much of a social life and the black servicemen tended to organise their own. Caribbean servicemen met up in London and enjoyed the limited night life available. Black men could dance and swing their hoops which the white women loved. This caused jealousy and fights. The women stood up for the black men and even fought with their stiletto heels. Without the support of these women, the black men would have suffered more harassment and humiliation.”

“Most of the outings in London while on leave ended at Clapham Common air raid shelter, where they stayed for protection from the bombs.”

When black cinema goers were told that they could only watch from the back, a big fracas broke out

When the war ended, Alex joined a specialist team looking for deserters. In 1948 he supervised the return of servicemen to the Caribbean on board the Lady Rodney. Not being able to find work in Jamaica, he then came back to Britain on the SS Windrush.

When the ship stopped in Bermuda, some of the passengers, including ex-servicemen, wanted to watch a movie at the cinema. They were informed that they could only do so from the rear of the complex. An argument ensued and Alex remembers that a big fracas broke out. They were eventually allowed front seats.

The efforts of the Windrushers, supported by the Windrush Foundation, have ensured that its voyage has become the symbol of the West Indian migration to Britain to assist with rebuilding the country after the war.

The SS Windrush started its life being used by the Hitler Youth

The Windrush is also symbolic of the defeat of Nazism, to which so many men and women from the empire contributed. The ship had originally been built by a businessman to provide Baltic holidays for members of the Hitler Youth. It had been captured during the war by the British and used as a troop ship, then afterwards as a passenger ship.

Alex Elden married Joan, his first wife, in 1949. He was officially discharged from the RAF in January 1950. He and Joan lived in Carshalton and had three children: Bonnie, Denise and Glen. Having trained in scientific glass blowing and glass technology, he worked for J. Arthur Rank at Crystal Palace until 1952, making TV tubes and other laboratory equipment. Then, in 1956, he became the second black person ever to gain the famous ‘knowledge’ and work as a London cabbie.

He played cricket for Carshalton, the West Indian Student Union and the Caribbean Cricket Club. As a supporter of the League of Coloured Peoples, his children took part in its celebrations. From 1970 he helped the Melting Pot Foundation, for example by teaching driving skills to young underprivileged adults.

For the last twenty-two years of his life, Alex became a Croydonian

Having met her in the 1960s, he married his second wife Jayne in 1976. They had two sons, Gary and Don. In 1980 he set up the Green Badge Taxi School at the Windrush Foundation and received grants from Lambeth Council and then the government to train unemployed young people. The school also gave training in literacy and numeracy skills, in acquiring the ‘knowledge’, and in helping the community. Hundreds successfully qualified. As a member of the West Indian Association of Service Personnel (as it is now called), he was its vice-chair in 1995.

Alex’s Croydon connection began the same year when he and Jayne moved to Norbury, and he spent the last twenty-two years of his life in the borough. They were rich and rewarding years: by 1998 he had six grandchildren, and in 2016 saw his son Gary awarded the OBE for achievement and service to diversity in business.

Alex’s funeral took place on Thursday 27th April and gave the opportunity for his many friends and admirers to pay their respects to a well-liked adoptive Croydonian and true citizen of the world.

Sean Creighton

Sean Creighton

A former employee of and freelance project worker with community and voluntary organisations, Sean is active with Croydon Assembly and with the Planning and Transport Committee of the Love Norbury group of residents associations. He is Chair of the Norbury Community Land Trust. He is a historian of Croydon and South-West London, British black society, social action and the labour movement. He coordinates the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Croydon Radical History networks. He runs blog sites covering Croydon, Norbury and history events, issues and news. He runs a small scale publishing imprint called History & Social Action Publications. He gives talks on a range of history topics and leads history walks.

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