A Bridge too Far, 2
by Bill Hartley
To enter Leeds city centre from the south it is necessary to cross the River Aire and for many years two bridges provided access. Victoria Bridge, opened in the late 1830s, is a grade II listed construction. The other is Leeds Bridge, also grade II listed, which opened in 1870. It is the place where in 1888 the pioneer cinematographer Louis le Prince filmed what was probably the world’s first successful moving pictures. The two bridges are only few minutes walk from each other along a footpath. Despite this and with much fanfare, a pedestrian footbridge has recently been installed between the two. Leeds City Council talks in the usual vague, local government language, about how this will ‘open up’ land on the south side of the river and ‘improve’ cycling/pedestrian access to the street on the opposite bank. Soon it will be possible to cross the river without having to make the gruelling two minute trek to either of the road bridges.
Naturally the question arose of what to call the new bridge. In theory at least, there was no shortage of deserving candidates. For example, several holders of the Victoria Cross were born in the city. Another possibility might have been footballer Jack Charlton OBE (1935-2020) who spent his entire career as a player with Leeds United. Charlton was briefly a miner and a lifelong socialist. He also held a World Cup winner’s medal. They think a great deal of him in the Irish Republic, due to his success in managing their national team. Of course there was his regrettable participation in field sports, which might in some eyes have overshadowed his footballing achievements.
If a VC winner or a white, working class, former coal miner are seen as hopelessly outdated, then a more progressive choice might have been Nichola Adams OBE, who apart from being a double Olympic boxing champion is also black and gay. Unfortunately Nichola didn’t make it either, although there is a somewhat crude mural of her on a wall a short distance down river. She shares this dubious accolade with playwright Alan Bennett, another Leeds native, who was also overlooked. Actually no public consultation seems to have taken place, perhaps because for the decision makers on the council, the choice seems to have been so self evident that none was necessary. The name which is to go on the bridge isn’t that of some war hero, sports personality or writer. Rather, it is to be that of David Oluwale (1930-1969).
Mr Oluwale arrived in this country in 1949 as a stowaway on a merchant ship from Nigeria. No complete biography of the man exists, though the BBC overlooks the illegal method of entry and calls him a migrant. The BBC also imagines him working in local industries ‘to help rebuild the post war city’.
Life wasn’t kind to Mr Oluwale. He developed mental health problems and served short periods in prison. He was also a patient at the local mental hospital, before he ended up living on the streets. In 1969 he was found drowned in the River Aire. Witnesses reported seeing him being chased by police. In 1970, a whistle blower in Leeds City Police reported the behaviour of two senior officers. A Scotland Yard investigation followed and whilst a charge of manslaughter was thrown out by the trial judge, the officers received three years and twenty seven months imprisonment respectively, having been found guilty of serious mistreatment of Mr Oluwale during his time in police custody.
Clearly this was an awful case. However, it is worth noting the positive aspects. A junior officer was prepared to report what he had seen and heard. Senior management took the matter sufficiently seriously to bring in Scotland Yard to carry out an investigation and two officers received custodial sentences. The system may have worked imperfectly but even more than half a century ago it operated well enough to bring two men to justice.
For some people though, this was far from sufficient. There are those who seek to promote Mr Oluwale’s death as a form of martyrdom on the altar of racial injustice, even though how he ended up in the river was never established. Predictably those in officialdom have lined up to show their allegiance to this view.
The American author and academic Steve Salerno, writing recently, describes a conversation he had with a young Nigerian student who expressed his relief that the annual Black History Month was over. The student complained about what he described as ‘the litany of shared suffering’ and ‘the overarching message that people with brown skin require sympathy, understanding and constant reinforcement to survive let alone thrive’. He went on memorably to call this ‘an extended pat on the butt for the losing team’.
The student probably wouldn’t be at all surprised about how the Oluwale case is being commemorated. Certainly it is impressive the way that the ‘Remember Oluwale’ charity has kept up the pressure on Leeds City Council, ensuring they publicly express their contrition for events which took place over half a century ago; though they probably didn’t have to push too hard at that particular door. The bridge according to the charities’ secretary represents ‘real progress’, though how a piece of superfluous urban architecture constitutes this is unclear. Others too have been queuing up to abase themselves. Leeds City Council, in a classic example of local government waffle, see the bridge as a ‘symbol of its commitment to inclusively and equality in Leeds’. Not to be outdone, West Yorkshire’s Deputy Mayor for Policing and Crime said: ‘the case of David Oluwale will continue to reverberate and is why it is so important that inclusion sits at the heart of the Mayor’s first police and crime plan for West Yorkshire’. Just in case you thought the priorities might be the prevention and detection of crime.
It seems all residents must share the burden of guilt. Again, to quote the secretary of the charity, the purpose is to ‘remind Leeds of its tragic past’. The bridge is a physical manifestation of ongoing, officially endorsed hand wringing, paid for out of public funds. If you live in Leeds, then you will now be reminded of this every day.
William Hartley is a former Deputy Governor in HM Prison Service