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How Chatham resident Asquith Xavier changed racist rules at Euston Station

When Asquith Xavier arrived in this country in 1958, the young dad could little have imagined how his future protest would help change the law.

Born on July 18, 1920 on the Caribbean island of Dominica, he was part of the Windrush generation of West Indians who moved to Britain in the years after the Second World War.

KMTV report on Asquith Xavier

Now, to mark the centenary of his birth, calls are being made to install a blue plaque at Chatham railway station in his honour.

The father-of-seven rose to prominence in 1966 when he applied for promotion at London's Euston station for a job as a guard.

But he was turned down because British Railways (BR) was only taking on white people.

Such was the level of institutionalised racism, unions and management had informally agreed in the 1950s to ban non-whites from jobs involving contact with the public.

They could be cleaners and labourers but not guards or ticket collectors.

Dame Barbara Castle was Transport Secretary at the time
Dame Barbara Castle was Transport Secretary at the time

Mr Xavier, who lived for six years in Grove Road, Chatham, with wife Agnes, refused to accept the discrimination and demanded change.

A union official wrote a letter of protest to the head of the National Union of Railwaymen on his behalf and two MPs wrote to then Transport Secretary Barbara Castle, asking her to intervene.

Then on July 15, 1966, BR announced such policies at London stations had been abandoned and Mr Asquith was offered the job with his pay backdated to May – the month he had been originally rejected.

He started work on August 15, but not before he was forced to ask for police protection after receiving hate mail and death threats.

A previously healthy man, his grandson Jerome Xavier believes the vile abuse he suffered was a contributory factor to his untimely death at the age of 59.

Asquith Xavier was the first black train guard at London Euston. Picture: National Railway Museum
Asquith Xavier was the first black train guard at London Euston. Picture: National Railway Museum

Mr Xavier also feels it was a reason he left London for Medway in 1972 to bring up his family in a safer environment.

Speaking this week, Jerome – a Chatham secondary school teacher – said: "I'm immensely proud of my grandfather but it's bitter-sweet because sadly I never got to know him because he died three years before I was born.

"Growing up I heard things about him, but it was word of mouth because nothing was referenced.

"It wasn't until one day my grandmother called and said there was a two-page spread on him in a national paper that I realised and I was surprised.

"I've heard from my family what sort of person he was. He was a man of integrity, well-principled and hard working. He knew wrong from right and was a stickler for rules."

Asquith Xavier and wife Agnes at a family wedding
Asquith Xavier and wife Agnes at a family wedding

The 37-year-old, who lives with fiancee Amelia and his three daughters aged nine, seven and 18 months, added his grandfather arrived in England leaving Agnes and their young family in the Caribbean.

After finding work and somewhere for them to live in north west London, two years later his wife and his children joined him.

He added: "He was very fit, walked everywhere, but then he had a stroke. I don't think he went out much in Chatham because he was working so hard and then because of his ill health. Also it was the 1970s and there weren't many coloured people here and he would get a few strange looks."

Mr Xavier and his younger sister Camealia Xavier-Chihota are pressing for black British history to be included in the school curriculum.

He said: "We study the Tudors, Stuarts and Henry VIII and in black history Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks but not many know about my grandfather.

Asquith's son Robertson with his family (from left) Camealia Xavier-Chihota, Jerome Xavier, Isabella Whale, Athena Xavier, Kayleigh Xavier and Marcia Byford
Asquith's son Robertson with his family (from left) Camealia Xavier-Chihota, Jerome Xavier, Isabella Whale, Athena Xavier, Kayleigh Xavier and Marcia Byford

Mrs Xavier-Chihota, 34, who lives in Rochester, added that until recently the family did not know how much of a significant role her grandfather had on changing the Race Relations Act.

The mother-of-two – spurred on by her grandfather's pioneering example – now wants to "carry on the baton".

She said: "It's still the case that a person's ethnic origin can determine their destiny."

Mrs Xavier-Chihota, who works in the fashion industry, said: "He would not have talked about the death threats to protect his family. It was only in 2006 to mark the 50th anniversary that it came to light. He paved the way for us.

"His approach to racial injustice managed to bring about a change in the Race Relations Act that made it illegal to racially discriminate within employment, housing and financial facilities.

Euston railway station in central London
Euston railway station in central London

"Subsequently, the Commission of Racial Equality was founded – a significant step in the right direction towards equal opportunities for the Windrush generation who faced overt racism and prejudice on a daily basis.

"It allowed my granny and grandad the opportunity to move out of London and they bought their first family home in Chatham."

With the centenary of Mr Xavier's birth and the growing prominence of the Black Lives Matter movement, there are calls for a plaque in his home town at the station from where he used to commute up to London.

A plaque was erected in his memory at Euston in 2016 to mark the 50th anniversary of the change of policy.

Medway Labour leader Cllr Vince Maple has written to Network Rail and Southeastern asking them to follow suit.

Cllr Vince Maple
Cllr Vince Maple

He said: "It would be brilliant to have similar recognition at the other end of the line here at Chatham in the community he called home."

Fellow Chatham councillor Siju Adeoye is backing the call, likening Mr Xavier Snr to legendary civil rights campaigner Rosa Parks.

In December 1955, the African American rejected an order to give up her seat in the "colored section" of a bus to a white passenger.

Cllr Adeoye said: "What Mr Xavier did is no different to what Rosa Parks did when it comes to the issue of whether black or people of colour can sit on parts of the bus."

Her comments come days after a fiery Medway Council meeting discussing the possible renaming of the Sir John Hawkins Car Park in Chatham, which was named after a slave trader.

Cllr Siju Adeoye
Cllr Siju Adeoye

Also adding her voice to the plaque campaign is Strood pharmacist Vanessa Roach, who is leading a Twitter campaign.

She said: "It's the very least we can do. We should not be going round in circles arguing what's good or bad about keeping or taking down statues.

"We should be highlighting something that is positive."

Mr Xavier Snr died in Chatham in 1980 and is buried in the cemetery in Maidstone Road. His wife Agnes passed away in 2004 at the age of 81.

His family paid their respects at his graveside before enjoying a picnic and game of cricket on Luton Rec near his old home.

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