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Trailblazing black Metropolitan Police officer Robert Branford remembered, 200 years on

01 September 2017


Honoured: Prebendary Jonathan Osborne and the Revd Judith Sweetman, with others who came to pay tribute to Robert Branford, beside his grave

Honoured: Prebendary Jonathan Osborne and the Revd Judith Sweetman, with others who came to pay tribute to Robert Branford, beside his grave

THE life of the first black Metro­politan Police officer on record was celebrated in the small Suffolk vil­lage of Little Waldingfield last month, 200 years after his birth.

Robert Branford, who was re­­cruited into the ranks of the South­wark division in 1838, was born in Stoke-by-Nayland, Suffolk, in 1817, and rose to the rank of Superintend­ent before his retirement to Little Waldingfield, in 1866. He is buried in the churchyard of St Lawrence’s, Little Waldingfield, where the me­­morial service was held on 15 August.

It was organised by PC Gamal Turawa of the Metropolitan Police, and taken by the force’s Senior Chaplain, Prebendary Jon­athan Os­­­borne (Features, 16 June). Chief Superintendent Dr Victor Olisa, head of inclusion and divers­ity at the Met, gave the introduction.

This week, the Priest-in-Charge of the Box River Benefice, the Revd Judith Sweetman, said that it had been “very touching” to learn about the man whose grave she had walked past at every burial at which she had presided.

“He must have been quite an out­standing officer to have got up to Superintendent,” she said. It had been a “fantastic service”, and she had welcomed the opportunity to thank the Metropolitan Police, rep­resented by several officers.

The memorial followed the dis­covery of Mr Branford’s position by Stephen Bourne, a historian who specialises in black history and serves as an independent adviser to the Met. This week, he described the “detective work” he had undertaken after finding a brief reference to Mr Branford in The Great British Bobby, by Clive Emsley. 

He dis­covered that Mr Branford was born to an 18-year-old unmar­ried mother, Hannah, and that he gave the police force the name of his grandfather, Daniel, as his father. It is possible, he thinks, that his father was a mer­chant sailor or dock worker near by in Ipswich. STEPHEN BOURNERemembered: Stephen Bourne at the grave of Robert Branford

He also found the memoir of a former chief inspector, Timothy Cavanagh — who served under Mr Branford — published in 1893. Mr Cavanagh described Mr Branford as “half caste” and praised his “thorough knowledge of police matters in general”. Records show that Mr Branford was also commended for his performance during trials by Mr Burcham, a magistrate at Southwark Court.

Most people were unaware that there were black Victorians, Mr Bourne said, despite the fact that black people had been living in Britain for centuries at this point. The racism of the Victorian era was “mainly in the colonies”, he said. “That’s not to say that they [black Victorians] would not have faced racist attitudes, but because they were in such small numbers, it wouldn’t have been im­­possible for someone like Robert to join the Metropolitan police.”

A theme of Mr Bourne’s work is that racism is “not the whole the story. . . Not all white people were racist and though racism existed and we have to acknowledge that, we shouldn’t define black people from history through racism. There is a much wider experience.” He traces the lack of awareness of this wider story to the “dreadful” exclusion of it from the school curriculum. “We need to get better at drawing attention to positive stories, as well as the negative. This is a very positive story and shows that the history isn’t quite what we think it is.”

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