Spaces of solidarity: the International Coloured Mutual Aid Association and the Colonial House in North Shields
Essay by Vanessa Mongey
A band plays at Colonial House @IWM (D 10716)
The first World War brought significant numbers of Afro-Caribbeans and Africans to Britain. On paper, they had full civil and political rights, including the vote and equality before the law. In practice, they faced hostility and discrimination.
The Colonial Office noted, "the colour prejudice in [North Shields] was quite unbearable. Coloured men on land remained in a perpetual state of unemployment, as the white man considered them only fit to perform the most menial task in the segregated atmosphere of a cargo ship at sea." The Special Restriction Order (or Coloured Seamen’s Act) of 1925 required alien seamen to register with their local police. Black and Asian British men who worked as sailors often had no proof of identity and could be laid off and arrested. Many places implemented a colour bar; cinemas, pub, and dance halls frequently refused service to people of African descent.
Africans and West Indians began to think of themselves as members of the same community. Yet collective action was difficult as national and ethno-linguistic divisions remained firmly entrenched. Differences in education and class added to this fragmentation. A Caribbean sailor noted, "We [West Indians and West Africans] seem to get on very well together, although I wouldn’t say there have not been some difficulties. Take food and language for example.”
The most famous Pan-African organization at the time was WASU in London. This is a link to the WASU project that document the organization's history.
The North Shields Black population in the interwar period never exceeded 500 people: it was a small but diverse group. The migrants who came from Barbados, British Honduras, and Jamaica often clashed with those coming from West Africa, who were also divided by ethno-linguistic lines. Most of the West Africans in North Shields belonged to the Kru and Mende groups from what is today’s Sierra Leone and eastern Liberia.
A key figure in community organizing in North Shields was Charles Udor Minto. He was born around 1900 in Nigeria. The British government had assumed control of the Southern and Northern Protectorates. When Minto's career as a professional boxer came to an end, he came to the North East, probably as a seaman, and married a local woman. Minto believed in equality and respect for all; he made it his life’s mission to, "organise unity among our people, and their descendants so also get a chance to explain them their position, and where they stand, and as to let their descendants know, that if a human is not white, he must be black, and there is no need for the Black to think he is inferior!"
Trying to foster solidarity across racially and nationally heterogeneous groups, Minto became president and worked with members from Barbados (Evan Carter), Lagos (E. Thomas), Nigeria (W. Samson), Liberia (J. Thomas, J. Sango, A. Brown) and Sierra Leone (S. F. Walker, T. Toby), and South Africa (E. Reese). The Association claimed 126 members in 1941 and tackled economic and social difficulties resulting from racial prejudice.
Aims and activities of the ICMAA
The League had seven aims:
(1) To promote and extend the universal sociability of Brotherhood among the African race and their descendants, including the coloured races of all descriptions
(2) To improve the general condition and protection of the coloured people in the interests of all members.
(3) To provide funds for the relied of members when in distress and for emergency needs.
(4) To provide voluntary work for the children of the coloured races, and to promote self-respect and self-defense among the coloured race and their descendants throughout the United Kingdom.
(5) To provide funds for the training of the children in the highest education; which is the medium by which people are prepared for the creation of their own particular civility and the advancement and glory of their own race.
(6) To provide funds for the training of the children in Commercial, Agricultural and other industries, and to maintain a placement bureau through which qualified members in any particular industry can obtain a post in any part of the Continent, preferably in Africa.
(7) The association absolutely refused to attack any race or person of any description, but is prepared to defend itself and its members of all costs.
Confronting employment discrimination, Minto and other members of the Association visited factories, ship-owner offices, and labour exchanges. They tackled compensation issues with the Shipping Office, demanding equal pay on behalf of sailors. When the manager of a fish cannery factory turned down two young women, Minto intervened with a solicitor and convinced the manager to hire them .
The ICMAA was particularly preoccupied with the welfare of children. The Association estimated that about 300 Black children lived in North Shields in 1941. Some of the children lived in poverty –their fathers being often away at sea. The Association provided clothing to these children.
The ICMAA saw education as a way to move away from poorly-paid occupations like seafaring for men and domestic work for women. The Association set up a scheme with the Red Cross and Tynemouth Education Authority to compensate working-class parents when they sent their children to secondary school instead of sending them to work. It also provided grants for academic and vocational training. Despite this extra help, social mobility remained a challenge. One girl had won a scholarship to take secretarial courses but her parents were unable to supply her with all the necessary equipment.
Tensions within the ICMAA
The ICMAA’s ambition was to advocate for equality locally. In promoting unity among people of African descent while also insisting on the need for interracial cooperation, the ICMAA was in line with other organisations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the United States and the League of Coloured Peoples in London.
Unlike other Pan-African organisations that campaigned against British colonial rule in Africa and the West Indies, the ambitions of the North Shields Association were local: Minto assisted with securing housing and employment, acted as a liaison officer for seafarers, advocated for those accused of crime, settled disputes and organised social activities. His administration met opposition from other Black inhabitants who organised a rival association that proved short-lived. This kind of rivalry along class, linguistic, generational, or political lines were common with voluntary associations. Many felt that organisations like the ICMAA and the League of Coloured Peoples worked too closely with the British imperial state and promoted middle class and Christian values to the detriment of more radical or anti-imperialist actions.
War efforts and the Colonial House
In the 1930s Fascist Italy invaded Ethiopia, introduced racial segregation, and banned interracial marriage. Meanwhile, Hitler came to power in Germany and transformed this country into a totalitarian, racist, and anti-Semitic state. Germany invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, launching World War II with Italy declaring war on France and invading its North African colonies in 1940. Many feared a return to slavery if Italy and Germany won the war.
The ICMAA published an appeal to support British war efforts, "We do not want new masters … [The Germans] have no time for Jews, and they will have less time for us, we coloured men." The war effort came with a heavy human cost: the ICMAA held a memorial service for twenty-two sailors lost to enemy action in 1944. Minto’s young son, who had volunteered as a greaser (also known as an "oiler," someone who worked in the ship's engine-room, oiling the machinery), was one of them.
The war increased the number of Black sailors in North Shields. A pressing issue was accommodation. Minto wanted a space for them. In a letter to the Shields Evening News, he asked "Do the general public realise that the coloured people do not feel at home unless they get together to discuss their own little problems and topics of the day?" At the beginning of the war, 300 to 400 West Indians and West Africans lived in North Shields, with 20 children under the age of six.
Minto leveraged his relationships with the Colonial Office to open a hostel. THe worked closely with Ivor G. Cummings, a senior member of the Welfare Department who had personal connections to the North East. Cummings’s father was from Sierra Leone and worked as a doctor at the Royal Victory Infirmary in Newcastle.
The Colonial House was the second hostel in the region after the one in Newcastle Learn more. The Shields Evening News described it as a "splendid hostel with ideal recreational facilities." It opened its doors at 3 Northumberland Place on 1 May 1942 in the presence of Harold Macmillan, then parliamentary undersecretary for the colonies and future Conservative Prime Minister (1957-63). The Colonial House did not simply provide accommodation for transient seamen; it became the centre of Black life in North Shields. With the help of his wife and daughter, Minto kept an active social schedule and organised cinema screenings, dances, lectures, and concerts at the Colonial House.
The highlight of the year was the Christmas party. The festivities were held in the YMCA hall. Each child could bring one white friend because, Minto declared,
"We want to feel that we are one people because God made us all … we want to make friends with everybody. These white bairns whom our coloured bairns take along with them got to show that we want to make friends with white and coloured."
Members of other Pan-African organisations, like the West Indies House and the Colonial Students House in Newcastle, joined the festivities. Charles or Edna Minto dressed as Santa to the delight of the children.
Sports also became a safe space for men of African descent. There was a billiard table at the Colonial House; games of checkers and dominoes were frequent. An Athletic Club was formed and the football team began to play other local teams, forming friendships along the way.
After the war
This sense of solidarity faded away after the war. The size of the Black population in North Shields dwindled to 175 individuals and a third of the men in North Shields being unemployed. Employers, including public utilities such as coal board and railways, refused to employ them. When these men were skilled workers, labour unions insisted on the fulfillment of apprenticeship rules but these men had been educated in West Africa and the Caribbean where these apprenticeships did not exist. Language was also an issue for newly arrived African immigrants. Minto and the ICMAA continued to help with employment and housing discrimination until the situation improved after 1950 as the economy started to boom and larger numbers of Commonwealth migrants arrived in Britain to help with reconstructing the country.
The Colonial House closed in June 1950. Outside of the hostel, most Black residents of North Shields lived in two neighbourhoods. The first was Dockwray Square along the waterfront, where one third of the population was of African descent. Families and single sailors often lived in accommodations in desperate need of repair. The Municipal Planning Department decided to re-house some of the residents in Ridges Estate after the war. This estate in Meadow Well (where Minto and many middle-class families resided) was made of self-contained houses and so-called Tyneside flats, or semi-detached two-storied dwellings with flats top and bottom.
The ICMAA and the Colonial House were centres of sociability in North Shields. These spaces created a short-lived international solidarity that cut across colonial, class, and linguistic divisions.