Frank Bailey was born in Guyana, and, like many other Caribbeans of his generation, came to the UK in the 1950s. Black History Month is rightly seen as a time to celebrate the contributions of Black British people to society, and Frank made a hugely positive contribution to his new country after his arrival. By the 1950s, many of the country’s key workers in vital sectors, such as on the London Transport Network and in nursing, were of Caribbean origin. Frank, however, is particularly remembered for his status as the UK’s first full-time Black Firefighter, a position he took up two years after his arrival in Britain, in 1955.
Despite, shockingly, being told that the fire brigades ‘were not hiring black men because they were not strong enough physically or well enough educated to do the job’, Frank decided to challenge this injustice by applying to join the service. He was accepted, and began working for the West Ham fire brigade in East London. A highly talented firefighter, Frank was also a dedicated trade unionist, and became the Fire Brigades Union’s (FBU) Branch Secretary in his station. However, despite breaking into a previously closed-off profession, Frank still faced discrimination, and left the brigade in 1965, citing the fact that he was consistently passed over for promotion.
While Frank’s subsequent career as a social worker was also very successful, as he broke new ground in becoming one of the London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea’s first black mental welfare officers and psychiatric social workers, it is perhaps his status as a pioneer in the fire brigades that is his most enduring legacy. When he died in 2015, the FBU National Secretary for Black & Ethnic Minority Members Michael Nicholas said that Frank’s “knowledge and passion for black self-organisation and progression in our society remains an inspiration to us today and he is rightly thought of as the father of black firefighting in this country and should not be forgotten”. According to his obituary, until his death Frank had remained a committed follower of African and Caribbean politics and a consistent champion of equality and the rights of working people, particularly black people.
Nowadays, fire brigades such as West Midlands Fire Service, far from not hiring black men, are committed to “actively encourage applications from members of the West Midlands’ black, Asian and ethnic minority communities”, as part of their drive to make the brigade more representative of the area it serves. Since the West Midlands Fire Service changed its approach to recruitment in January 2018, 32% of successful candidates for firefighter roles have been from black or other ethnic minority backgrounds. While much more needs to be done, these are encouraging signs that the discrimination suffered by pioneers such as Frank Bailey was not in vain. The gains that have been made so far have been thanks to the tireless organising and campaigning of black men and women such as Frank, and that is why it is important that we should use the opportunity provided by Black History Month to remember and honour the vital contributions that these people have made to British life.