Interview with playwright of Farewell Leicester Square

The story of Joe Clough – Britain’s first black bus driver

The Socialist spoke to playwright and Socialist Party member Neil Gore about Townsend Production’s latest play, Farewell Leicester Square. It’s touring in Bedford, Watford and London from 1-11 July.

Farewell Leicester Square

Farewell Leicester Square   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

The Socialist: Tell us about Farewell Leicester Square

Neil Gore: It’s the story of Joe Clough. He was the first black bus driver in Britain, and that is his claim to fame.

He was born in 1885 in Jamaica, and arrived in England, in London, in 1903, when he was 18.

A local surgeon in Jamaica, Dr White, got Joe to work his stables, his carriages. When Dr White came to England, Joe came with him.

Motorised buses weren’t a thing until 1909-10. By 1912 they had completely taken over.

Dr White decided he needed to update himself. He bought a motorcar.

Joe had to learn to drive. When Dr White went back to Jamaica, Joe was left here. He found a job driving buses.

World War One

He drove the No. 11, which still exists from Liverpool Street to Wormwood Scrubs across north London. Before World War One, he married, and moved to St Neot’s in Cambridgeshire, joining the army service corps in Bedford.

For five years he drove ambulances in the most miserable conditions on the Western Front, in the worst possible place you could be on earth – places like Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele.

He wasn’t allowed to be an active serviceman, because of the colour of his skin. Black people weren’t allowed to serve in that sense or be officers.

He considered himself quite lucky to come out of that four-five year experience relatively unscathed. So much lust for life, that’s what got him through.

He would say he had a smile for everybody. It’s his positive outlook that people really responded to.

In Bedford, he became a local celebrity. They absolutely adored him. When he was a taxi driver in the 1950s, the people of Bedford would actively seek him out.

He’s a trailblazer for the people that came in the late 1940s and 1950s with the Windrush migration. Joe had paved the way for them, and to find work in similar circumstances – running the transport system in particular.

That’s why we’re doing the show, we want to celebrate the pioneering spirit of Joe Clough. It’s an ordinary life, but an extraordinary life. And of course race comes into it.

He was a black man. Not necessarily that unusual in 1905. But he was still the victim of a certain amount of abuse.

He reckons he faced direct racial abuse maybe five times in his life. I imagine he was subjected to a lot of lazy racial slurs throughout his life.

There were a couple of American GIs stationed in Bedford – to see a black man on the streets of Bedford being treated as an equal was too much for them, and they gave him a heck of an amount of abuse. It ended up in a fight between GIs and British soldiers: “Don’t talk to him like that”.

A supporter of fascist Oswald Mosley drove a taxi, and gave Joe terrible abuse. But all the taxi drivers backed Joe.

Other drivers

The community would defend him when he faced abuse. When he worked in London as a bus driver, he was fired for speeding. But it turned out the guy who accused him was being racist.

All the other drivers backed him. And he got reinstated.

When he’d just come out of the army, he went to a celebratory dinner at the barracks in Bedford.

He got thrown out by a captain, who said: “We don’t want any black people here, get out.”

Letters were written, and he got a regimental apology and freedom of the barracks for life.

The community was very supportive, and protective, of Joe. He’s very well respected.

They want a statue of him in Bedford. Who knows, the play might kickstart a campaign for him to be properly remembered.

We’re associated with Bedford, and the theatre there. So we wanted to do a play that had a local interest for those audiences.

It goes beyond Joe, it’s the social history of that area – Bucks, Herts and Beds – especially connected to wartime. Working-class history for the people who live there.