King, Samuel Beaver [Sam]
- Stephen Bourne
King, Samuel Beaver [Sam] (1926–2016), community activist and founder of the Windrush Foundation, was born on 20 February 1926 at Priestmans River, Portland, Jamaica, the son of George and Caroline King, farmers. He later said he felt ‘doomed’ to be a farmer, so when he saw an advertisement in the Daily Gleaner in 1944, asking for men from the British West Indies to join the Royal Air Force, he seized the opportunity to leave home and support the war effort. Having been raised a half a mile from the Caribbean sea, ‘I spent a lot of my youth in the waters’, he said, ‘therefore I should have joined the Royal Navy if they would have me, but when the war was on the Royal Air Force took me and I think I did my little bit’ (The Invisible Force, 16 May 1989). He also said: ‘I don’t think the British Empire was perfect, but it was better than Nazi Germany!’ (Bourne, Speak of me as I am, 64). He left Jamaica in October 1944 on the SS Cuba, which brought him to Scotland. He was eventually sent to work at RAF Hawkinge, near Folkestone.
After the war King planned to stay in England and continue serving with the RAF:
But they said if you are from the colonies you have to go back. I wanted to study. I read [George Bernard] Shaw and all that in the library when I was here and I realised I was a peasant mentally and I wanted to stay. They said no, you are from the colonies so you have to go back.(Rory O’Connell, interview, 1993)
He remained in the RAF until he was demobilized in 1947, and then returned to Jamaica. However, while he had been away, a hurricane had destroyed much of the farm land. In addition to servicemen like King, Jamaicans who had been working on the Panama Canal were sent home, as were those who had gone to America to work on farms and in war factories:
I, being the eldest son, should have been a farmer but when I returned it was shocking. 30,000 of us were thrown back without any planning and I decided that my children would not grow up in a colony because we had no control over education, welfare, health and things you produce. They were decided in London markets. So, I had no intention of planting bananas for them at their price. I would rather come to London and work on their terms.(Surtees, 220)
In 1948 King returned to England as one of the passengers on the MV Empire Windrush. He rejoined the RAF straight after returning to Britain and served until 1953, after which he worked for the Post Office. He said: ‘When I was in uniform there was respect but once I was in civilian clothes, it was hard’ (private information). In the 1950s, after making south London his home, he became involved in his local community and joined the Brixton-based West Indian Gazette as its circulation manager. It was this monthly newspaper, launched by the Trinidadian journalist Claudia Jones in 1958, that established the Notting Hill carnival as a popular cultural event that celebrated Britain’s Caribbean communities.
On 26 June 1954, in Camberwell, King married Mavis Winifred (Mae) Kirlew (1922–1983), a nurse, and they had two children, Michael and Althea. King already had a daughter, Daslin, from a previous relationship. Following Mae’s death, on 27 October 1984 he married her distant cousin Myrtle Clarabelle Kirlew (b. 1930/31), a schoolteacher, and a fellow member of the congregation of the Church of the First-Born in Brixton.
King served as a Labour councillor in the London borough of Southwark between 1982 and 1986. Although there were other black councillors in Southwark at the time, he was the first to become mayor of Southwark in 1983 and the first Jamaican to hold the position in Britain. He retired as a councillor in 1986 and became a leader in the Pentecostal Church.
King always made himself available for television and radio interviews about his wartime RAF service and arrival on the Windrush and these included Yesterday’s Witness: the Ship of Good Hope (BBC2, 1974), The Black Man in Britain, 1550–1950: Soldiers of the Crown (BBC2, 1974), and The Invisible Force (BBC Radio 4, 1989). In 1984 he took part in a special edition of BBC1’s Songs of Praise at Southwark Cathedral and in 1988, for the fortieth anniversary of the arrival of the Windrush, he was interviewed by Terry Wogan for BBC1’s popular teatime chat show Wogan. Ten years later he was featured in BBC2’s Windrush series. He was also seen in two documentary films: Julien Temple’s London: the Modern Babylon (2012) and Marc Wadsworth’s Divided by Race (2014). In 1988 he observed:
For every third of the average English people who are unreasonable to us there is another third who will go out of their way to help you. The other third couldn’t care less one way or the other as long as their football team plays on Saturday and they can get beer in the pubs.(Forty Winters On, 9)
Known in Britain’s black community as ‘Mr Windrush’, in 1995 King, together with Arthur Torrington, set up the Windrush Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to keeping alive the memories of Britain’s post-war Windrush generation. As a representative of the foundation, he spoke at hundreds of community events and in schools. In 1998 he was appointed MBE and in 2009 the people of Southwark voted for him to receive a Southwark heritage blue plaque which he unveiled on his former home at 2 Warmington Road, Herne Hill. In 2016 he was awarded Southwark’s freedom of the borough at a ceremony in Southwark Cathedral. He died of heart disease one month later, at St Christopher’s Hospice, Sydenham, on 17 June 2016. He was survived by his wife Myrtle and his children. His funeral took place at Southwark Cathedral. Arthur Torrington told The Voice (18 June 2016): ‘Sam was a giant with a voice that commanded respect that provided a positive message to all about the contribution of the Caribbean community and the wider benefits of migration’.
- Forty winters on: memories of Britain’s post-war immigrants (1988)
- S. King, Climbing up the rough side of the mountain (1998)
- M. Phillips and T. Phillips, Windrush: the irresistible rise of multi-racial Britain (1998)
- A. Osborne and A. Torrington, We served: the untold story of the West Indian contribution to World War II (2005)
- S. Bourne, Speak of me as I am: the black presence in Southwark since 1600 (2005)
- J. Surtees, ‘Star of a long voyage’, Southwark News (20 Oct 2005), 22
- S. Bourne, The motherland calls: Britain’s black servicemen and women 1939–45 (2012)
- P. Vernon, ‘“Mr Windrush”, Sam King passes away at 90’, The Voice, 18 June 2016, www.voice-online.co.uk/article/mr-windrush-sam-king-passes-away-90, accessed 14 Aug 2019
- P. Vernon, ‘Windrush pioneer and Christian advocate (1926–2016)’, Keep the Faith, 6 July 2016, www.keepthefaith.co.uk/2016/07/06/sam-king-mbe-by-patrick-vernon-obe/, accessed 14 Aug 2019
- The Times (20 June 2016)
- The Independent (20 June 2016)
- Evening Standard (20 June 2016)
- The Guardian (30 June 2016)
- personal knowledge (2020)
- private information (2020)
- The Invisible Force, BBC Radio 4, 16 May 1989
- R. O’Connell and S. King, interview, 1993, ‘Voices of London’, Museum of London,
- oral history recordings, Southwark council
- interview and performance recording, BL NSA
- obituary photographs