In this guest article, TikTok star and cultural commentator Kayne Kawasaki writes about Asquith Xavier, the man who became the first non-white train guard at Euston station.
Hanging on a wall in one of London’s busiest rail stations is a framed plaque that was erected during Black History Month in 2016. It honours the tenacity of one Asquith Xavier.
Written in black with a white background, and sporting a Network Rail logo, there is nothing too unusual about the plaque. Chances are millions of passengers walk by it every year without even noticing its importance or even its existence.
Asquith Xavier was born on 18th July 1920, on the island of Dominica, which was a British colony at the time. Like many of the Windrush generation, he answered the call for those in the Caribbean to move to Britain to help rebuild the weakened economy after WWII.
In 1958, Asquith arrived in Southampton and settled in Paddington, West London. He gained employment with British Rail as a porter before progressing to a guard at Marylebone. The closure of the freight main line in 1966 meant that guards were no longer required and were being transferred to other London stations.
Asquith applied for a promotion and a transfer to Euston. However, he received a rejection letter that stated he wouldn’t be getting a promotion because of his race. Unknown to him, Euston unions and management had informally agreed to ban non-white people from jobs involving public contact. They could be cleaners and labourers, but not guards or ticket collectors. This racist policy didn’t only apply to train guards but to bus conductors and drivers as well.
Asquith was not protected by the first Race Relations Act which was passed a year prior in 1965. This act made it illegal to discriminate on the grounds of colour, race, ethnicity or national origin in public places, but the railways were not considered public places.
Despite the setback, Asquith persisted and with the help of a union official, he publicised the rejection by writing a letter of protest to the head of the National Union of Railwaymen.
All their efforts were not in vain, as on 15th July 1966, British Railway announced that the colour bars at stations in London had been lifted. Xavier was offered the job with his pay backdated to May, the month that he had been originally rejected.
Unfortunately, it wasn’t all jubilation as he received race hate mail and death threats, which subsequently led to him asking for police protection. Despite this he officially started work on 15th August 1966, making him the first non-white guard to be employed at Euston Station.
Asquith’s campaigning and triumph led to the strengthening of the Race Relations Act in 1968, which made it illegal to refuse housing, employment ,or public services to people because of their ethnicity.
In 1972, Asquith and his family moved from London to Chatham, Kent, where he commuted daily by train to work at Euston. Sadly, not long after, his health began to fade, and he passed away in 1980 at the age of 59.
To commemorate what would have been his 100th birthday in 2020, Network Rail, Southeastern Railway and RMT came together to erect a second brass mural in a waiting room at Chatham station. It details how Asquith overcame racial injustice and pioneered for racial equality in Britain.
This local nod acknowledges his legacy as part of modern history and was a stepping to the name ‘Asquith Xavier’ being nationally recognised as one of our unsung pioneers. His contribution to our society has undoubtedly shaped the way we live today and should be celebrated and never forgotten. If you’re ever in Euston or Chatham station, look out for his plaques. The Chatham mural is particularly impressive!
Moreover, my hope is that British mainstream education will include learnings teaching about UK black pioneers, who made a positive impact on British culture, compulsory. This should include Roy Hackett, Ignatius Sancho, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor and Asquith Xavier. These people helped shape this country and teaching of their accomplishments is necessary within the multicultural Britain we live in today.