Meet Frank Arthur Bailey, London’s first Black Firefighter

Frank Arthur Bailey is widely known as the very first Black Firefighter in England and was born in Guyana. He moved to England as a political activist in 1953, where he joined the West Indian Standing Conference (WISC), an organization that represented African-Caribbean communities in Britain.

He heard about the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) while he served as a member of WISC but was unfortunately discouraged by one of the representatives. However, he still went ahead and applied for the position.

“I was told that the authorities were not hiring black men because they were not strong enough physically or well enough educated to do the job. I immediately recognized racism and said I’m going to apply to be a firefighter and see if they find me unfit,” he said.

He was received into the service in 1955 and joined the West Ham Fire Brigade. He served at Silvertown Fire Station, making history as possibly the first full-time Black Firefighter in the country, according to Black history month.

Before joining the Firefighters, London Fire Brigade records that he attended local schools growing up, and eventually got employed on a German trade ship which took him to New York. There, he once again found employment, first as a porter and later as an assistant in the physiotherapy department. During this time period, he staged a walkout to protest racially segregated dining facilities.

Bailey became very active in the Fire Brigade Union (FBU) and even attained the position of branch secretary, however, he later left the brigade in 1965 despite his commitment; a decision that a former colleague believes could have been caused by Bailey being passed over for a promotion for racial reasons.

Though he left FBU, Bailey didn’t leave behind his passion for helping people. He continued in his journey to become a social worker and the first Black legal advisor to Black youths at Marylebone Magistrates Court. The pioneer spent most of his life advocating equality and broke many limitations while doing so.

Frank Bailey died six days after his 90th birthday in 2015. In a statement to Google, his daughter, Alexis, wrote, “I’m very proud of my dad. He spent his whole life fighting against injustice and he never gave up. He taught me to challenge things I believe are wrong and stand up for myself and others even when it scares me,” according to the Independent.

She further explained that though she didn’t appreciate her father’s actions at a younger age, she has grown to see its benefits and learn from them. Alexis added that years after he left the fire service, he continued to support and motivate Black firemen to get involved in politics.

She also mentioned her late father’s determination to effect change wherever he found himself, as a trade unionist, a firefighter, a medical assistant, a warden at a social club for ex-soldiers, and an advocate for young black men appearing in court.

She recounts that although he got in trouble many times, he always stood to his principles. In 2020, Google commemorated his memory and 95th birthday with a doodle by West Yorkshire-based guest artist, Nicole Miles.

The London Brigade also honored him during their 150th anniversary in 2018. The then London Fire commissioner Ron Dobson said: “Frank was a pioneer and rightly challenged the outdated practices prevalent at the time.” He added that Frank was a pacesetter who played a big role for Black Firemen in the country.

Dollita Okine

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