Jake Jacob: “nothing was easy”

Born in Trinidad in 1925, Prince Albert Jacob left his homeland at the age of 17½ to serve with the Royal Air Force in the Second World War. Returning to Britain after being demobbed, he worked hard and overcame enormous difficulties, including discrimination and racial abuse, to have a successful career with the Post Office and represent Great Britain in athletics. After living in various Midlands towns since 1948, he and his wife settled in Knowle where they have lived for almost 50 years.

Jake – as he has been known since his RAF days – was born in Port of Spain, Trinidad in 1925, and was the fourth of 14 children (nine boys, five girls) born to Joseph Adolphus Jacob (1895-c.1985) and his wife, Renelia Greaves (1900-1993), who had married in 1921. Joseph was a headmaster and taught at Carapichaima RC School until his retirement in 1952.

In 1971, Joseph and Renelia celebrated their Golden wedding anniversary with a sung Mass at their home in Ninth Avenue, Barataria, Trinidad. In an interview with a local newspaper they said that they felt the secret to true happiness in marriage was “to give a little and take a little.”

Renelia was the daughter of Joshua Greaves and Noelise Henry (1879-1950). Joshua was born in Barbados and Jake told us that he understands that the Greaves family was of Scottish descent and that his grandfather apparently worked for the British Government in Barbados before being sent to Trinidad to work on the railways.

Brought up to be disciplined and a go-getter, Jake left school, aged 16, and went to work at the Government’s Printing Office in Trinidad.

RAF

As the Second World War progressed, the Royal Air Force began recruiting in Britain’s colonies in November 1940. From a Caribbean population of around 3 million in 1939, some 6,000 men volunteered for the RAF – about 450 as air crew and the remaining 5,500 as ground staff.

Jake was one of these, joining the RAF at the age of 17½. Together with other volunteers from the Caribbean islands he went first to Jamaica and then onto Camp Patrick Henry in Virginia, USA for training. This was a staging area established at the end of 1942 and which, at its peak, had the capacity of hosting 35,000 personnel at a time.

At the time, there was racial segregation in place in America, and Jake said that the Caribbean airmen experienced discrimination, including on buses which had signs telling Black people where to sit. However, according the Jake, the British Government told the American Government in no uncertain manner that the Black airmen were equal. Therefore, the “British flyers” as they were called by the Americans, sat wherever they wished on the buses, although Jake tells us “a lot of people didn’t like it.” An Air Ministry Confidential Order of June 1944 stated that “there is no colour bar in the Royal Air Force.”

After a short time, Jake and his fellow airmen were transferred to Canada and then to England, arriving at Liverpool in 1943 before being dispersed to various camps.

Jake spent time at RAF Kirkham in Lancashire, and in Wheaton Aston before going on to RAF Kingstown in Cumbria, which was renamed RAF Carlisle in the 1950s. It was home to 15 Elementary Flying Training School 1941-47 and Jake was attached to No. 14 Maintenance Unit (14 MU) which stored and maintained equipment ranging from aircraft engine parts to firearms, ammunition, office furniture, aircrew clothing and small hardware items.

A photograph shows Jake (centre) running a 220 yards race in June 1945, whilst stationed at Carlisle.

Whilst at Carlisle, Jake attended a Christmas Eve dance. Men from the Royal Navy arrived and a fight broke out so the police arrived and took the Caribbean airmen to prison for their own safety, meaning that the men spent Christmas Eve in gaol.

In February 1945 the Liverpool Daily Post reported on the House of Commons proceedings in which it was stated that a WAAF officer at an unnamed RAF station had read out to WAAF personnel a message advising them against association with “coloured volunteer airmen” from Jamaica who were then about to arrive.

In response, the Secretary for Air, Sir Archibald Sinclair, replied that WAAFs at the station were reminded of the Air Ministry’s standing instructions that at RAF stations all personnel should observe towards the volunteer airmen from Jamaica the normal standards of service comradeship.

Transfer to Warrington and demobilisation

After the end of the war, Jake was transferred to RAF Burtonwood near Warrington to work as an equipment assistant. He and several other airmen were also sent by the RAF to technical college there. It was at the college that he met his future wife, Mary, who was studying shorthand and typing.

A few weeks after their first chat, where Jake impressed Mary by quoting Shakespeare, they went out for a picnic with a friend of Mary’s and several of Jake’s fellow airmen. The sight of two white girls with a group of Black men was so shocking at the time that someone reported the outing to Mary’s father, who banned his daughter from seeing Jake again.

In 1947, Jake was demobbed from the RAF and returned to his previous employment with the Government’s Printing Office in Trinidad. He had hoped that his RAF experience would lead to a job at the airport in Port of Spain, but it didn’t materialise. There seemed no prospect of promotion in the Printing Office so, after about six months, Jake decided to go back to England and seek work.

As British subjects, residents of the West Indies had full rights of citizenship, reinforced by the British Nationality Act 1948, so there was no restriction on movement from the Caribbean. Large-scale immigration was not envisaged at the time, and around 2,000 people moved to Britain from the colonies each year 1948-53.

During his time in Trinidad, Jake had also been exchanging letters with Mary in Lancashire although, as he said to us recently, neither of them was sure at that time that the relationship had a future, especially given the opposition from Mary’s father.

Return to England

Jake returned to Britain by air around July 1947, the year before HMT Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948. There was a lot of work available at the time and Jake said that people could get five different jobs in as many days.

However, opportunities for Black people, no matter how well-educated they were, were usually restricted to the most menial tasks. Jake said that office work was out of bounds, as a Black man in an office with white women was not considered to be safe.

Jake went to live at Causeway Green Hostel in Oldbury, which had opened in 1942 as one of 72 industrial hostels run by the National Service Hostels Corporation Ltd on behalf of the Ministry of Labour. The hostel closed in Spring, 1956.

By the time Jake moved into the hostel, racial tensions between West Indian and Polish residents often erupted into fights. Jazz musician, Andy Hamilton (1918-2012) was apparently the only person who could calm the situation and get the two groups to sit down and talk.

Jake left the hostel and went to live with a family in Oldbury.

Jake started work for Accles and Pollock (part of Tube Investments), makers and manipulators of seamless steel tubes, in Oldbury. He embarked on a correspondence course in General Engineering Metallurgy with the London-based International Correspondence Schools Ltd, receiving a testimonial from them in June 1949 to say that he had completed eight lessons in Mathematics and they had much pleasure in recommending his ability and perseverance. He also undertook an evening class in concrete technology.

Jake subsequently went to work for BSA in Birmingham, working in cost and estimating. Feeling that his options for promotion were limited, he approached the Royal Air Force Association, who said that they would arrange an interview at the Labour Exchange. Jake was then given the options of work in the Post Office, the mines or the railways, so he chose the Post Office. He passed the necessary exam and chose the telecommunications area of the service.

He worked for the Post Office for 32 years and ended up as an Inspector at Acocks Green, managing around 120 staff. In 1981, when the business was split into the Post Office and British Telecom, he decided to stay with the telecommunications part of the business. Jake said that he never regretted his decision to move to the Post Office and that he’d found the harder you work, the luckier you get and the better promotion you get.

Marriage

Speaking in 2011, Mary reminisced:

Jake said to me: “Would it ever be possible for me to marry you?” And I said “Possible but not probable!”

Despite opposition from Mary’s father, Claude Gore (1902-1960), Jake and Mary married on 27 April 1948 at Oldbury Register Office. Not a single family member attended the wedding. However, as Mary was only 18, and the age of majority at the time was 21, her father did have to give his permission for the marriage to take place.

Newlyweds, Mr & Mrs P. A. Jacob, April 1948

Nonetheless, despite giving his permission, Claude told his daughter that she would never set foot inside his house again if she went ahead with the marriage. In time, he did come round to the situation and allow his daughter and son-in-law to visit. By contrast, Mary’s mother, Margaret (1907-1999), was described as “lovely” by Jake, who said that she gave help “from the heart.”

In 2011, Mary told George Alagiah for BBC2’s Mixed Britannia series that the first few years of her marriage were “hell” – she cried every day and barely ate. No one would speak to them, they had no money and struggled to find somewhere to live. She would regularly be shouted at in the street and told that she should be ashamed of herself for being with Jake.

Accommodation was hard to come by, as landlords would slam the door in Mary’s face when they realised that her husband was Black, saying that they were full, despite the “vacancies” sign outside. To begin with, Jake and Mary shared a house with a Jewish couple, Joss and Zena, who became lifelong friends. When it came to buying a house, Jake told us that the mortgage had to be in his wife’s name, as it wasn’t possible for a Black man to obtain a mortgage and buy a house at the time.

Having moved to Birmingham from Newton-le-Willows and found work as a secretary, Mary applied for a job as a weather forecaster, and also applied to Birmingham University. The acceptance letter from the university arrived first, so she took up the offer to study. She subsequently became a secondary school teacher in Birmingham and had become Deputy Head by the time she retired. If the other acceptance letter had arrived sooner, she could have had a weather forecasting career on TV instead!

In 2013, Mary – then aged 83 – wrote a letter to her 21-year-old self, which was published in McCarthy and Stone’s Life & Living magazine. She reassured her younger self that the verbal abuse she received in the street would eventually stop and that she would make good friends who supported her and her husband. She also said that Jake was a kind and thoughtful man and her 21-year-old self could be assured that he would look after her and they would have a long and happy marriage, working hard, having a lovely home and growing old together.

The couple lived in Balsall Heath, Coleshill and Sheldon before settling in Knowle around 1974, which Jake describes as a wonderful area to live in – very peaceful and quiet.

Discrimination

Despite being a British subject, and having been brought up to think of England as the “mother country,” Jake’s experience was that West Indians in Britain were looked upon as foreigners and were treated very badly.

In October 1953, Jake and his wife were refused admission to a “Bop club” at the Embassy Ballroom in Birmingham.

“The girl at the pay desk said there was a colour bar operating,” [Jake] said. “I have travelled in many countries and have never had this happen to me before. I am a British subject, served in the RAF, and have represented Britain at the international Jewish sports in Israel.”

Birmingham Gazette, 31st October 1953

Racism was blatant at the time and racial slurs were an everyday experience. Mary said:

Slowly we made friends together, but it was so hard. I used to say to new friends: “Look, I have to tell you this before I invite you to my home — my husband is black.”

Daily Mail, 2011 (online article updated 2016)

As a result, it was very unusual for Black people to have white friends who invited them into their home and to meet their family. One such friend to Jake was Derek Smith. Derek also introduced Jake, a keen runner, to the Sparkhill Harriers athletics club.

Athletics

By August 1949, Jake was participating in athletics competitions, running in the 100 yards open flat handicap for Oldbury Athletics and Cross Country Club.

As was usual for most working men at the time, Jake had to work 5½ days per week, so worked on Saturday mornings until noon. In the afternoon, he attended race meetings. Only the City Transport meetings were on Sundays – the rest were on Saturday afternoons.

As an athlete, he would regularly encounter cyclists at the same events and so got to know Tommy Godwin, who also settled in Knowle in his later years. Jake and Tommy were both involved in the opening ceremony when the Lord Mayor of Birmingham opened the new Salford Park cycling and athletic stadium in Erdington on 11th July 1951.

In August 1950, Jake won the two Worcestershire sprint titles – 100 yards and 220 yards – and retained the latter in the 1951 Worcestershire championships. In 1952, he once again secured the double, now competing on behalf of Small Heath Harriers. The Sports Argos 6th June 1953 reported that Jake carried off the Worcestershire senior 100 yards championship title for the fifth consecutive year.

The Birmingham Daily Gazette, 5th August 1952 reported that Jake, running for Small Heath Harriers off a handicap of eight yards, won the 300 yards handicap at Bromsgrove Athletic and Cross Country Club’s sports.

At the annual sports of the BSA Recreation Association in July 1953, the Birmingham Daily Post reported that Jake received a great ovation from the crowd of more than 10,000 as he passed each of his nine rivals to win the day’s “outstanding event” – the final of the 220 yards handicap.

In 1954, Jake was also part of the Birmingham team that won the men’s inter-city relay race at the Highland Games in Edinburgh.

An advert in the Jewish Chronicle invited athletes to come forward to take part in the 3rd Maccabiah Games (often called the Jewish Olympics) taking place in Israel, 1950.

The British Maccabiah Committee held trials, and Jake was selected to be one of the 77 British athletes taking part in the international competition which included 800 athletes from 20 countries. Described by the Jewish Chronicle as “an exceptional sprinter with magnificent finishing power,” Jake was selected to run in the 100m and 200m events, as well as in the relay events.

Jake came second in the 100m. In the 200m he was first in the semi-final but was beaten into third place in the final.

He ran the third leg of the 4 x 100m relay, with the British team finishing second to the USA. In the Swiss Relay (400m, 300m, 200m, 100m) he ran the 300m leg and helped the team take second place. Overall, in the team rankings for the Games, Britain was second, with Israel in first place and the USA third.

Jake was asked by the Organising Committee to carry the flag for Great Britain at the opening parade, a great honour that he says he will never forget:

I felt so proud and was overcome with emotion. This was history in the making.

Flag bearer, P. A. Jacob, leads out the British team at the opening ceremony of the 3rd Maccabiah Games in Israel, 1950

Jewish friends

Jake’s wife is Jewish and the couple found that the Jewish community in Birmingham was a tremendous support. At Sparkhill Harriers, Jake met Eddie Salomon, and the two men became good friends. They both attended evening classes at the Hebrew School in Balsall Heath and were taught Hebrew by Mr Michael Winters.

With no facilities in the Midlands for Jewish boys, the Jewish Lads’ Brigade was where the boys did their exercise – the Institute at the rear of Singers Hill Synagogue. Around this time, Jake met the Rose family – Archie, Leah, Zena and Tony – who adopted Jake and his wife. The Jacobs family lived with Zena and her husband, Joss, in Hertford Street, Balsall Heath, in the early years of their marriage and Jake describes them as family.

Another friend was Paul Oppenheimer, who was also involved in local sports, being a popular footballer and table tennis player. Jake worked for a time at the BSA in Birmingham, where Paul was an engineer, so the two men got to know each other.

Jake helped to found the Birmingham & Midlands branch of the Trinidad & Tobago Association in the 1950s, and spent some time as Chairman. By 1969, the organisation had about 300 members and it apparently raised funds for the Lord Mayor of Birmingham’s Charity for around 40 years.

Retirement

After his retirement in the mid-1980s, Jake volunteered for the probation service, supervising offenders sentenced to community work in old people’s homes in Birmingham.

Jake and Mary also travelled, spending three months each year in Spain. They also visited Trinidad, where some of Jake’s siblings and relatives still live. Other family members are spread around the world, with a sister in Canada and a brother in Texas. Jake is now the oldest of the surviving siblings.

Postscript

Mary and Jake in their 80s

In Mary’s 2011 letter to her younger self, she ended on a positive note – “keep your chin up, everything will turn out right” and also added a postscript – “you will live to see a far kinder world.”

This is undoubtedly true and the racial slurs and overt discrimination are no longer a routine experience for most. As Mary says in her letter, “young women like you will think nothing of marrying a man from a different race.” However, as Jake says, racism in the past was blatant whereas now it still exists “but it’s behind your back.”

Mary said in 2011: “I do not regret marrying him for an instant, despite all the pain we have suffered.” Jake replied, “I feel so fortunate to have met and married Mary, but it saddens me that we could not be accepted by society.”

Further reading

Interview with Carl Chinn

RAF Museum: the Second World War – recruitment

Clip from interview with George Alagiah, 2011 as part of the BBC2 series “Mixed Britannia”

Daily Mail article, 2011 featuring stories from the “Mixed Britannia” series

Second World War Digital Living Memorial: Jake Jacobs

“Fighting prejudice in a new world,” Birmingham Daily Post, Saturday 18 July 1998, page 51 (available via the British Newspaper Archive free of charge from library computers)

RAF veteran who couldn’t buy a house in Brum…,” Birmingham Live, 29 October 2022

Meet the interracial couple whose love defied odds in 1950s Birmingham,” Birmingham Live, 1 November 2022

© Solihull Council, 2022.
You are welcome to link to this article, but if you wish to reproduce more than a short extract, please email: heritage@solihull.gov.uk

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: