The hounding of David Oluwale
May 3, 2007 — Comment
Written by Harmit Athwal
An important book investigating one of the first known Black deaths in custody – that of David Oluwale – has been written.
Thirty-eight years ago to the day, on 4 May 1969, the body of David Oluwale was pulled from the River Aire in Leeds. Two years later, in November 1971, two police officers – Inspector Ellerker and Sergeant Kitching – were prosecuted for involvement in his death and were found guilty of various assault charges. This was the first and last time that police officers have been successfully prosecuted for involvement in a Black death in custody.
Nationality: Wog – The hounding of David Oluwale by Kester Aspden details the circumstances surrounding the suspicious death of David Oluwale. Despite its title (and I do consider it racist – words like these have implications beyond just grabbing sales) this important book should be read by anyone interested in how the state and its officers treat the most vulnerable.
The offensive title of the book is taken from police charge sheets from February and March 1969 (recently released at the National Archive), on which police officers had noted David’s nationality. On one, in the nationality box, the word British, which had been typed in, was crossed out and replaced by ‘Wog’. On the other charge sheet David’s nationality had been typed in as ‘Wog’. These entries were made in the last months of David’s life as he was persecuted by officers of Leeds City police. In the subsequent police inquiry into his death, all officers denied making the racist defacements to the charge sheets.
Aspden’s book is a mixture of recent interviews with police officers, lawyers and people who knew David, and evidence from old documents held in the National Archive, including police statements and logs, records from the police inquiry into his death and information from the later trial of the two police officers. It painstakingly details David’s life, from his arrival in the UK as a stowaway on the boat that brought the Nigerian national football team on its first overseas tour to showcase its talents in the UK, to his ignominious death.
David’s slow decline into destitution and a life on the streets of Leeds is told alongside the ‘success’ story of Albert Johanneson, a young Black South African footballer signed to Leeds United in April 1961. Both men struggled against the stark racism of 1960s Britain but one was successful for a time and was adored by a city which loved football and the other was left to rot.
Reconstructing David’s life
David arrived at the port of Hull in September 1949. After serving a 28-day sentence in Armley prison in Leeds for stowing away, he found a place to live and employment. Interviews with people who knew David as a young man paint a completely different picture of him to that which was later conveyed at his assailants’ trial, where even the judge, Mr Justice Hinchcliffe, made his feelings about David quite clear: ‘I would have thought that had been established a thousand times. It is accepted on all hands that he was dirty, filthy, violent vagrant.’ One friend described David as ‘a quiet man and he was always happy and smiling’.
On 25 April 1953, just three years after arriving in the UK, David was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, assault on a police officer and damage to a police uniform and jailed for two months. This was the beginning of his problems. At Armley prison, a medical officer reported David as acting strangely. He was sectioned in June 1953 and transferred to Menston Asylum, where he was held until May 1961. At Menston, David was medicated with the ‘liquid cosh’ of Largactil and probably also received electroconvulsive ‘therapy’ (ECT). He was released from Menston after spending eight years without receiving one visitor.
No records from David’s time at Menston exist as they were destroyed in a flood. However, his psychiatrist gave evidence to the inquiry into his death and Eric Dent, a charge nurse at Menston, gave evidence at the trial. Dent approached the police after the trial had started after reading about the case in the paper because he was concerned that too much sympathy was being shown to David. His evidence was significant because he painted David as a dangerous savage with superhuman powers.
On his release from Menston, David was able to find a job and a place to live – though not for long. Eight years in Menston had institutionalised him. He moved between London and Sheffield but always returned to Leeds – his only home. Without a job he was unable to find a place to live and ended up on the street, surviving on meagre benefits. David was charged with malicious wounding after he was caught attempting to enter a derelict house that he used to sleep in. While on remand in Armley – a psychiatrist from Menston found David ‘very paranoid about the police whom he accused of ill-treating him, stealing his money and persecuting him’. On 11 November 1965, David was sent back to Menston (now called High Royds hospital) where he was kept in a secure ward for another two years. On 27 April 1967 he left the hospital and returned to Leeds. David lived on the street and from time to time hostels in Leeds were persuaded to take him in. The police inquiry was told by a hostel in Leeds ‘our hostel does not take in coloured men and never have done [sic].’
Meeting ‘the bullies’ in uniform
In April 1968, David had his first recorded contact with Sergeant Ken Kitching and was charged with disorderly conduct, for which he received a conditional discharge. From then on he was, according to the evidence assembled in the book, persecuted by this officer and Inspector Geoff Ellerker who made it their mission to rid Leeds of the ‘lame darkie’.
Ellerker and Kitching made it known to their shift co-workers that anyone coming across David during their rounds was to inform them. After one particular incident in September 1968, during which Ellerker alleged David had bitten him, the Inspector promised to get revenge.
On 10 April 1969, David was released from prison for the last time. The night of 17 April was the last time anyone saw him alive. The inquiry into his death reconstructed his last hours as best it could. Ellerker left Millgarth police station after he was alerted that David had been found asleep in a doorway by Kitching. David was then beaten by the two police officers and ran off screaming. The officers were seen to go after him and a bus conductor told the inquiry that he had seen, from a distance, two police officers chasing someone towards the same river from which David’s body was pulled two weeks later.
The internal inquiry
The inquiry began eighteen months after David’s death, in November 1970, and was headed Detective Chief Superintendent John Perkins and Detective Sergeant Basil Haddrell from Scotland Yard and Leeds CID officers. The book reveals that the inquiry was started as a result of a young trainee police officer, who had heard station gossip about Ellerker and Kitching beating David, repeating the information in front of a senior officer, who then initiated the inquiry. (At the time Ellerker was on trial for falsifying evidence while trying to cover up a fatal car accident in which another police officer was involved. He was later found guilty and sentenced to nine months in prison and dismissed from Leeds City police.)
The inquiry and subsequent trial were unusual in that police officers broke ranks to speak out about the abuse meted out by Ellerker and Kitching to David, although some did so very reluctantly. Ellerker and Kitching were both senior police officers who took advantage of their seniority to persuade other officers to make false notebook entries to suggest they were elsewhere on the day of David’s disappearance.
A catalogue of abuse was revealed during the police inquiry and the trial. For example, in August 1968, three officers, including Ellerker and Kitching, took David in a police car and drove him seven miles out of Leeds on a forty minute drive and left him outside a pub in the early hours of the morning. In the same week, the same three police officers woke David as he was sleeping in a doorway, forced him into their car and drove him, who was by now crying, to Middleton Woods in Leeds, where he was again left after being pushed from the car. Kitching was later heard to comment: ‘he should feel at home in the jungle’. After another arrest, David was taken to the police station where another police officer described Ellerker kicking David between the legs ‘with such force that Oluwale was lifted bodily off the floor.’ In May 1968, another police officer saw Kitching urinating on David as he lay in a doorway while Ellerker helpfully held a torch to light his way. Ellerker and Kitching made David perform ‘penance’ whereby they would force David to kneel and then bow and they would then hit his head against the floor.
Kitching, in his first interview with police officers investigating the allegations, made comments such as: ‘I have put him out of doorways and kicked his behind’, ‘tickled him with my boot’, ‘never hit him really hard’, ‘kicked him gently’, ‘just a slap’, ‘booted his backside out of it’, and described David as ‘a wild animal, not a human being’. Ellerker refused to co-operate with the inquiry and conveniently lost his notebook covering the period under investigation.
At the trial in November 1971, Ellerker and Kitching were charged with manslaughter and various assaults. There was no effort to humanise David during the trial. Countless police officers were called by the defence team to speak against his character but the officers who had spoken positively of him at the inquiry were not called. One officer PC Stephen Clarkson had said of David: ‘He always moved on, he was never violent, he just picked his bag up and went away chuntering’. A Yorkshire Evening Post reporter, who had described David as a ‘very popular young bloke’ and an ‘extremely proud man. He was proud of where he came from’, was not called. Nor was Mrs Franks, the wife of the shop owner in whose doorway David had slept who had told the inquiry: ‘He impressed my husband as being essentially a very pathetic little man and quite inoffensive, that my husband always bade him goodnight. Had he been of the criminal tough aggressive type he would not have felt comfortable in mind about leaving him next door to his premises all night in a quite arcade.’
The manslaughter charges were dropped on the order of the judge. Ellerker and Kitching were found guilty of two assaults on David (in August and September 1968); Ellerker was also found guilty of an assault in February 1969; both were found not guilty of actual bodily harm in April 1969. Ellerker was eventually sentenced to three years and Kitching 27 months in prison. Kitching is now dead. And Ellerker, when approached by the author, refused to give an account of his actions.
You may wonder how a book about a death in 1969 could possibly have relevance today. On reading the book, I was struck by the numerous similarities with the countless other Black deaths in custody that have occurred since David Oluwale died.* There are also similarities between the way stowaway David was treated by society then and the way asylum seekers are treated now. Asylum seekers are marginalised, denied access to help, made destitute and condemned to the streets. Because of where they come from they are left to eke out an existence, just as David was. Reading the book also makes you wonder what will be revealed in another thirty years in the nation’s archive about the deaths and investigations into the deaths of Joy Gardner, Christopher Alder, Roger Sylvester, Shahid Aziz, Zahid Mubarek … the list goes on.
At the time, the case made newspaper headlines only when the two officers were sent down – and really as an example of police misconduct rather than an example of brutal racism. A Race Today article, ‘The death of one lame darkie’ tried to rectify that and a radio play by Jeremy Sandford Smiling David tried to humanise the victim. But until now, no one had access to all the documents. Kester Aspden’s brilliant book is extremely comprehensive, involving painstaking research which reconstructs for us what happened to David and how it was allowed to go on for so long. It deserves to be studied and ingested – not least by police cadets!
Injustice – a film by Migrant Media
* Deaths in police prison, and psychiatric detention. Nationality: Wog - The hounding of David Oluwale, London, Jonathan Cape, £12.99 will be available from June 2007, you can pre order the book from Amazon.
The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.