Page last updated Sunday 27th April 2014 at 1425hrs
David Oluwale’s story is an utterly compelling one with many twists, turns and surprising links to other people and places on this website. But it is best known as one of the biggest stains on the history of the grand old city of Leeds and a significant, indelible black mark on the police service in Yorkshire – and beyond. Oluwale’s death in 1969 was the first known incident of racist policing allegedly leading to the death of a black person. It is also the only time in contemporary British history that police officers involved in brutality that directly, or indirectly, led to the death of a suspect have received criminal sentences.
Oluwale, whose nickname locally was “Uggie” cut a familiar figure in the city centre in the 1960s, a short (5′ 5″) black man shuffling around Kirkgate Market, close to where the ‘new’ Millgarth Police Station now stands. Drinkers at nearby The Market Tavern – a legendary pub known locally as The Madhouse – knew him as a solitary person, lost in his daydreams and his usual pint of popular local brew, Tetley’s mild. At night he buried himself in shop doorways, steering clear of the places favoured by most other street dwellers. When his bruised and beaten body was pulled from the River Aire by frogman PC Ian Hastie and two Gipton police station officers, PC’s Albert Sedman and Steve Hall, on 4th May 1969, nobody came forward to ask questions. The only mourners at his mass pauper’s grave, in which nine others were buried, were the undertakers who had stuffed his coffin with discarded telephone directories and the gravediggers who were to also assist in exhumation of his body two years later.
Oluwale, a Yoruban by origin and educated at a Christian grammar school, was almost 20 years old when he came from Nigeria in August 1949, stowing away on a cargo ship, The Temple Star. That same vessel carrying groundnuts from Lagos to Hull also brought, amongst it’s official passengers, the first ever visit of the Nigerian national football team. He left behind a work-scarce, poverty-stricken British colony in the hope of a better future in the ‘Mother Country’. Instead, half of his 29 years in England were spent on the secure ward of a mental hospital and he also came to know the inside of Armley Prison well. Starting with his capture upon docking at Hull, following which he was sentenced to 28 days in the notorious Leeds jail. The magistrate at Hull police court told Oluwale “that he would have been better off staying home (in Nigeria) digging groundnuts“.
Upon release from Armley gaol he started a new life in the city hoping, eventually, to study engineering he got a job at West Yorkshire Foundries in Clarence Road, Hunslet, just south of the river in which he was to later perish. At work, he was noted for reading “educated” newspapers and after a short time he married a local woman, Gladys, and they had two children.
In 1953, Oluwale was charged with disorderly conduct and assault following a police raid on a nightclub. He subsequently served a 28-day sentence. In prison it was reported he suffered from hallucinations, possibly because of damage sustained from a police truncheon blow during the arrest. He was then labelled schizophrenic and transferred to the Pauper Lunatic Asylum at Menston near Otley (now called High Royds Hospital), where he spent the next eight years. He was treated with a variety of medical techniques including the ‘liquid cosh’ Largactil and electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). Hospital records were destroyed in a flood, but staff working at the institution have said that ECT left Oluwale confused and disorientated for much of the time, and he was often found asleep under radiators.
Upon his release Oluwale was unable to hold down a job and a permanent residence, and quickly became homeless. The relationship with Gladys had broken down and friends reported that he was a shadow of his former self, and had lost all confidence. As a black man in a still overtly-racist Britain, his choices of lodging and employment were also limited. During this time he regularly moved between London, Sheffield and Leeds but always gravitated back to his adopted home city. He found himself in trouble with the Leeds police again, several times, and accused the police of harassing him. In late 1965 he was returned to High Royds Hospital, where he spent another two years. Following release, he was once again homeless and lived on the street. He was the only homeless black man in the entire city and it raises the wider context of Oluwale’s story, and that of the city of Leeds, in that virtually all immigrants at the time faced a slammed door when searching for accommodation or hostel sanctuary, and a “colour bar” in various pubs around Leeds.
Another Nigerian stowaway, John Otse, knew Oluwale in good times and bad. He was very fond of the man they called ‘Yankee’, a nickname given because of his passion for Westerns and his swaggering walk. Otse remembers him as a sharp dresser who frequented the Mecca Locarno ballroom, managed by none other than Jimmy Savile. Who, quite apart from his infamy as a rapist and child abuser, was known to tie up clubbers in the Mecca boilerhouse and subject ‘miscreants’ to punishment beatings. There are no records, or verbal accounts, of Oluwale being such a victim.
Oluwale was frustrated with his life in Leeds, his menial jobs and shabby lodgings. “He talked of going to night school to improve his writing, but he was more interested in partying.” He just didn’t submit to the subservient role then expected of black people. He hated being pushed around and over-reacted to situations where others might have walked away. His friend, Otse, lost touch with Oluwale when he was sent to High Royds. By all accounts, that was a brutalising experience. He did not receive a visitor there in ten years of incarceration. When Otse next saw Oluwale he was in a sorry way. “He’d started to disintegrate. Even his English had deteriorated. He tried hard to look decent but struggled to keep himself clean.” Otse tried but failed to get Oluwale back on his feet. Most of his other friends disowned him. “The blame should rest squarely on us as well, because we didn’t do what we should have done for him, all living in a foreign country,” Otse says of the city’s small Nigerian community. “If we had only got ourselves together we could have been able to save Oluwale’s life.”
In 1968, while living on the streets, Oluwale became the target of a sustained and cruel campaign of physical and mental violence. His principal tormenters were two senior officers at the old Millgarth police station, headquarters of the ‘punch first ask questions later’ Leeds City Police. Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and ruthless ‘hardman’ Sergeant Kenneth Kitching took perverse pleasure in making Oluwale’s life a misery. Once Leeds had shut down for the night they went looking for him, subjecting him to a range of humiliations. After one particular incident in September 1968, during which Ellerker alleged David had bitten him, the Inspector promised to get revenge. The two out of control police officers forced him to bow down in front of them and then banged his head on the pavement. They called this his ‘penance’. Kitching was also seen urinating on Oluwale in the doorway of a Headrow shop called the Bridal House, as Ellerker shone his torch on him. The witness was another Millgarth police officer, PC Cyril Batty. The police persecutors even once assaulted him by kicking him repeatedly in the genitals and then drove him to the city limits and dumped him at Middleton Woods at 3.30am, joking afterwards that he would ‘feel at home in the jungle’. At the subsequent criminal trial of Ellerker and Kitching, PC Batty said he didn’t report what he had seen on The Headrow ‘in order to protect his career’. Another experienced officer, radio operator PC Ken Bennett, with almost 20 years service, and Sgt Dougie Carter were other Millgarth men who knew of the abusive treatment of Oluwale and chose to remain silent.
A few weeks before his death, Oluwale had told his probation officer that he wanted to return to Nigeria. He was almost broken. In the early hours of 18 April 1969, just a week after the very last time he was released from a prison, he was beaten with truncheons in the doorway of John Peters Furniture store in Lands Lane, Leeds (now a Miss Selfridge outlet). The store was just off The Headrow, then Leeds’ main shopping thoroughfare. Oluwale fled down Lands Lane towards Leeds Bridge screaming and holding the back of his head. A local petty criminal later came forward to say that he had been on the parapet of the green painted Leeds Bridge and saw two uniformed police officers “silver buttons and cap and helmet badges clearly visible” inflict a terrible beating on a smaller, dark man and then kick him into the river after they had smashed him unconscious. The witness added: “I recall saying to myself ‘jump in and swim for it’, as the blows rained down on him, but he just took it all before going down.” Another witness, a Leeds City Transport bus conductor, told the police inquiry that he had seen, from a distance, two police officers chasing someone towards the same section of the River Aire from which David’s body was pulled two weeks later. George Merrion, a local postman, had seen a police vehicle parked on an alleyway off Call Lane facing the river at the material time.
In 1970 a young Leeds City Police cadet Gavin Galvin, reported first to SOCO officer DC Jock McLeod and then a senior officer believed to be Inspector Puddefoot (a former British Colonial Police officer in Rhodesia) that he’d heard police station gossip from colleagues about the severe way Kitching and Ellerker had treated Oluwale. This report may have been prompted by perverting the course of justice charges that were ongoing against Ellerker. This concerned the death of an elderly woman being struck by the drunk driver of an unmarked police car on a pedestrian crossing near the Skyrack pub in Headingley (Ellerker was later found guilty, sentenced to nine months in prison and dismissed from Leeds City Police). An enquiry was launched following the Oluwale intelligence provided by Galvin and McLeod, carried out by the Metropolitan Police, and sufficient evidence was gathered to prompt manslaughter, perjury and grevious bodily harm (GBH) charges being brought against Kitching and Ellerker.
During the Scotland Yard enquiry, led by DCI John Perkins and his ‘bagman’ D/Sgt Basil Haddrell, and subsequent trial in November 1971, a catalogue of sustained physical abuse came to light, mostly carried out by Kitching and Ellerker. DCI Perkins was obsessive in his pursuit for justice and was the first man, even though he never knew David Oluwale, who related to him as a person, rather than a problem in the city. It was Perkins’ investigations that revealed Kitching and Ellerker had taken special interest in Oluwale and asked colleagues to let them personally handle incidents relating to him. They specifically targeted him in the early hours of the morning, when there was nobody about and he could usually be found sleeping in shop doorways. Kitching, in his first interview with the Scotland Yard detectives, 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 Oluwale 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. Additionally, it was found that racist terms were used on paperwork relating to Oluwale, such as scribbling “wog” in the space reserved for nationality on charge sheets. However, despite this, the trial made no mention of racism and was centred around police brutality. Several trial witnesses described Oluwale as a dangerous man, and the trial judge said: “I would have thought that had been established a thousand times. It is accepted on all hands that he was dirty, filthy, violent vagrant“. However, this extraordinary and partial pronouncement is contrary to the statements of witnesses collected during the earlier enquiry, who described Oluwale as unassuming – and even cheerful. One of these witnesses was Yorkshire Evening Post reporter Tony Harney. However, their statements were not featured in the trial. It was later alleged that Judge Hinchliffe was a member of the same Masonic Lodge as Ellerker and that the judge, a short stocky septuganarian, had also been seen as a passenger alighting from the car that had killed the old lady. Hinchliffe was swiftly removed from the scene by another police car and continued his journey to Castle Grove Masonic Hall at Far Headingley.
Kitching and Ellerker were jailed for a series of assaults on Oluwale at the old Leeds Assizes, but found not guilty of manslaughter at the direction of Judge Hinchcliffe, who concluded that there was no evidence to place them at the alleged scene of the crime, by the river at Warehouse Hill. Ellerker was sentenced to three years in prison, and Kitching received 27 months. Throughout the trial, Judge Hinchliffe, the most powerful judge on the North-Eastern circuit at the time, could neither conceal his distate for the victim or his disappointment that two serving police officers were up before him. Those two officers, the heavy-drinking Ellerker and Kitching, maintained an arrogant attitude throughout Court proceedings on the premise that Oluwale was a vagrant and they were entitled to move him on using whatever force they deemed necessary. One of the prosecuting counsel, Donald Herrod, (later to became a highly respected QC and judge) wrote afterwards that the other police witnesses gave a sorry impression, that the full truth was not being told and that there was a scarcely-concealed conspiracy to protect the two officers on trial. He singled out Sgt Frank Atkinson as ‘a thoroughly unimpressive witness’ and PC Keith Seager as ‘reluctant throughout’. Seager was the third officer often seen with the other two assaulting Oluwale and the driver on the ‘trips’ when Oluwale was deliberately dumped far from Leeds city centre.
Beyond that appalling disposition before and at Court, neither Ellerker nor Kitchen admitted to making the racist alterations to the charge sheets and, at a subsequent internal police inquiry, no other officer admitted any knowledge of the those deeply offensive amendments . Kitching, who worked in a cloth warehouse in Leeds after his release from prison, is now dead and Ellerker has consistently refused to comment to any publication on his role in the hounding of David Oluwale.
At the time of the Oluwale tragedy, there were several other scandals involving Leeds City Police which almost led to the Home Office taking over the running of the Force. It merged three years later with Bradford Police and West Yorkshire Constabulary (which had come into being after the four ‘Borough’ forces had merged with Wakefield City and West Riding in 1968) to become West Yorkshire Metropolitan Police. The word Metropolitan was dropped from the force’s title in 1986. Apart from Oluwale’s savage death, the committing of at least two armed robberies by firearms crackshot DCI Roy Caisley was, probably, the worst of the other crimes committed by what came to be regarded as a ‘Bandit’ police force. Caisley was arrested by a subordinate and close colleague DC John Stockwell whose brother, Dave, was a star rugby league player of that era and played for Bradford Northern RLFC.
A highly visible nobody in life, Oluwale soon entered popular culture in the city. His name was chanted at Leeds United’s football ground at Elland Road during that team’s heyday. To the tune of Michael Row The Boat Ashore, the Kop sang: ‘The River Aire is chilly and deep, Ol-u-wale. Never trust the Leeds police. Ol-u-wale‘ The darling of that same Kop for a decade before had been the black South African, skilful and fleet-footed winger, Albert Johannesen. The first black player to play at the highest level of English football. The Johanneson adulation and the antipathy towards the hated local police were probably equal in the motivation of the overt support of Oluwale. There was also a widely held sense amongst the ordinary people of Leeds of deep embarrassment that such indignities, and violence, could have been inflicted on a vulnerable man by two of their policemen, on the most well known of their own city streets. They knew the police had gone too far, that they had acted illegitimately and targeted a small, helpless, unwell man with no means of defending himself .
Yet there was little soul-searching amongst the Leeds police in the aftermath of the Oluwale case. It was easy to blame Oluwale’s fate entirely on ‘two rotten apples’ within the police. But social services also failed Oluwale, shunting him from one department to another. After his long incarceration, High Royds mental hospital released him into the community with scant thought as to how he might cope (a few months after being discharged he bit a park-keeper’s finger, but instead of being returned to hospital was jailed for malicious wounding). High Royds is a further obtuse link to Savile as there is, of course, now evidence of at least one patient being abused there by the sex monster.
An interesting footnote to the sense of outrage surrounding Judge Hinchliffe’s partiality at the trial of Ellerker and Kitching was the role his son-in-law, Judge David Savill QC, played many years later in the fate of the homeless in Leeds. He spent much of his retirement as a successful fundraiser for The Friends of Leeds and, as twice a former Recorder of Leeds, gave the charity welcome gravitas. He was also a passionate champion for those who often could not speak up for themselves and went on to become a patron of the Church Housing Trust, another charity dedicated to the rehabilitation and resettlement of homeless people. These activities were an incredible contribution by Judge Savill to the city of Leeds and seen by some as atonement for the Oluwale affair. Interestingly, both Donald Herrod (see above) and David Savill were members of the same barrister’s chambers in Leeds. Judge Savill latterly as Head of Chambers.
Although Oluwale’s story caused a national scandal at the time (thanks in part to the radio play Smiling David written by Jeremy Sandford, it had been all but forgotten until police paperwork detailing the case was declassified under the Thirty Year Rule. This was used by Kester Aspden to write the book Nationality:Wog, The Hounding of David Oluwale, published in 2007, which returned the story to the public eye. It won the crime writer’s Golden Dagger award the following year.
Attempts are being made to construct a Memorial Garden in Leeds on the likely site of David Olulwale’s death near Leeds Bridge. The David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) is working on the land on Water Lane, in the city centre, kindly leased to them by ASDA plc.
Among those of a younger generation to become fascinated by the case is Mahalia France. She was born in 1976, years after Oluwale’s bloated body was dragged from the river near the sewerage works at Knostrop after being spotted by a group of boys which included Wayne Batley and Martin Thorpe, but as a young girl growing up in the Chapeltown area of Leeds remembers the name being in the background. “Remember Oluwale,” was one bit of graffiti scrawled near the Hayfield Hotel. Ms France is now involved in the memorial campaign as a fundraiser and her hope for a life-affirming urban garden is on the cusp of being realised. “He didn’t ask for much, only a place to live. And who doesn’t deserve that as a human being?” she says. John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who has also pledged his support to the campaign, wants to secure that memory as a warning of where racial hatred leads. “It’s important to show how sorry we are that this happened within our own culture,” he said.
Author and former Leeds University crime lecturer Kester Aspden’s book was adapted by Oladipo Agboluaje into a stage play. It was first performed in Leeds at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in February 2009 and starred Daniel Francis (pictured above centre), and theatre critics described it as ‘a richly emotional play which proves its point without coming across like it has a point to prove’. Agboluaje, whose work is known for its anarchic spirit and subversive humour, said at the time of the play’s first production: “The aim of this adaptation is to discover the man buried beneath the pile of official records. My intention is to paint a human story putting David at its centre. To say that David was an angel whose name has been sullied is incorrect. He was a person, which makes it easy to empathise with his story.”
A link to the DOMA website can be found by clicking here. Their logo is in the picture on the top left of the page. It is a cause well worth supporting as homelessness is still an issue in Leeds, as in most other major cities in the UK, and a high police priority, according to the Leeds City NPT website, is to deal with vagrancy. A recent Yorkshire Evening Post story helped raised the profile of the fundraising and memorial project. read more here.
Another David Oluwale tragedy must never be allowed to happen.