“He was lodged between two rocks,” Martin Thorpe recalled, thinking back to the spring morning more than fifty years ago when he discovered a dead body in the River Aire. He’d been a keen angler, even as an 11-year-old, and his eye was always drawn to the water. “Where the rocks were, it was only eighteen inches deep. Very shallow.”
We were two miles downstream from Leeds city centre and the stretch of the Aire below us was clear, unlike in those days. “Now there’s salmon and even eels,” Thorpe said. “Back then, all sorts of stuff got pumped in. I’ve seen it orange; I’ve seen it blue. I’ve seen soap suds as big as buses coming down the river. Mostly it was just black.”
On 4 May 1969, Thorpe and his friends had been roaming the fields around Knostrop when they’d spotted a figure face-down in the water. Their first thought was that it was a tailor’s dummy; it was only when they got closer, and the figure rolled with the current, that they could see that it was the body of a black man, who by then had been in the water for two weeks. “He was well swollen,” Thorpe remembered. “He had on these yellow builder’s boots and a boiler suit.”
Thorpe ran to a nearby rifle range for help where he was told he’d get his “arse smacked” if he was making things up. When the police arrived, the boys gave their details and were sent home. “I couldn’t eat me Sunday dinner,” Thorpe recalled.
A search of the sodden contents of the man’s pockets gave police a name. Documents lodged inside his prayer book showed that 38-year-old David Oluwale, of “No Fixed Abode”, had recently been up in court on charges of disorderly conduct. The pathologist found a nasty bruise on the right of Oluwale’s forehead which he thought had been caused a day or two before his death, or a similar period afterwards, possibly as the body bumped over weirs. But with no major injuries, he concluded that the man had drowned. Oluwale was given a pauper’s funeral paid for by the city and laid in a common grave. There were no mourners, only gravediggers.
Martin Thorpe heard no more of his discovery until eighteen months later when allegations surfaced that two Leeds police officers had murdered Oluwale. Just before dawn on an icy December morning in 1970, the grave was reopened, and his body exhumed.
Oluwale’s English journey, begun in hope, had turned into a nightmare
At the time of his death, Oluwale had been deemed so unimportant that Scene of Crimes forgot to photograph his corpse. Fifty years later, a memorial association posted his image around Leeds to mark the anniversary of his death, including at Warehouse Hill where it was thought he entered the river. A case from the time of Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, the story of David Oluwale has gained new resonance in the age of Black Lives Matter. It was the most egregious case of police racism our country has known – yet one that is perhaps not as deeply inscribed into our public history as it should be. In Leeds, at least, Oluwale is now being remembered.
“If the river had been like this, he would have been carried away,” Thorpe pointed out, as we peered into the high, fast-flowing Aire. Downstream, the river joins the Ouse which then flows into the Trent and the Humber estuary and back to where Oluwale’s English journey had begun: he had arrived at Hull as a teenage stowaway from Lagos in September 1949.
“About 500 yards down the river were big overhanging trees and bushes. Nobody ever went down there,” Thorpe told me. “If Oluwale got trapped under one of them, I don’t think he’d have ever got found.”
In the early hours of 26 January 1969, Sergeant Kenneth Kitching spotted David Oluwale tucked behind a display unit in the entrance of John Peters furniture shop in central Leeds. Oluwale was back living on the streets after serving a short prison term for assaulting Kitching during a violent encounter a few months before. The sergeant had been counting the days to his release.
“Fighting mad” was how Kitching described Oluwale later in his duty book. He had taken his revenge, assisted by a divisional van driver known to his colleagues as “Chopper”. The police violence continued back at Millgarth station where Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker kicked the prisoner between the legs with such force that he was “lifted bodily off the floor”, according to a female police constable. “You won’t bite me again,” another officer heard Ellerker say, as Oluwale lay on the floor in tears.
After the police had done beating him, they charged Oluwale with disorderly conduct and he was given two weeks in Armley prison. The grim gothic institution with high fortress walls and corner turrets was where his life in Leeds had begun twenty years earlier, sent there for a month from Hull police court for stowing away on the ship that had carried him to England.
Oluwale’s English journey, begun in hope, had turned into a nightmare. Half of his two decades in this country had been spent on the secure ward of a mental hospital. When complaints from other residents lost him his last hostel place in July 1968, he ended up on the streets of Leeds and it was there that he first crossed paths with Ellerker and Kitching.
The two officers had come together a few months earlier when Ellerker was promoted to the rank of inspector and transferred to Millgarth, headquarters for Leeds City Police’s Central Division. Ellerker, in his mid-30s and the younger by a decade, was a smarter, more ambitious policeman than Kitching, a dour old-school bobby known as a stickler for the more mundane aspects of the job.
Kitching was also a drinker who would indulge himself when working nights. He knew which pub landlords could be relied on for a beer once last orders had been called and Ellerker was soon sucked into his world. That Christmas Eve, fellow officers found Kitching crashed out asleep on a Kirkgate market stall, whilst Ellerker, also the worse for wear, had to be driven home.
It was usually in the hours between 2 a.m. and 6 a.m., the “long hours” when the city centre was dead and the effects of the drink had worn off, that Ellerker and Kitching went hunting for Oluwale. Kitching was known for his hatred of vagrants, but the Nigerian – then the only black rough sleeper in the city – came in for special treatment. Constables were instructed to radio through to Millgarth if they spotted him; the station would then inform Ellerker and Kitching so that they could deal with him personally. Officers on Group 3 knew Oluwale as “Uggy” or “Playmate”.
The two men invented multiple ways to humiliate Oluwale. Kitching would force him to kneel in front of the inspector and bang his head on the pavement, calling it his “penance” for sleeping out. One officer on his beat spotted Ellerker shining a torch on Oluwale’s motionless body whilst Kitching urinated on him. None of these abuses were reported at the time.
Once, the policemen drove Oluwale five miles out of town to Middleton Woods and dumped him there. “He should feel at home in the jungle,” was Kitching’s comment later, back at Millgarth. A constable who had been in the car with them remembered Kitching asking Oluwale what his mother would think of him: always getting himself nicked, never working, sleeping out. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” Oluwale replied, in tears.
The investigation into his death turned up two charge sheets dating from the last months of his life. There was a space on the form for the prisoner’s nationality. On the first charge sheet, the word “BRIT” had been typed. This was then crossed out by an unknown hand and “WOG” scrawled in its place. The second charge sheet was typed, no changes. It simply read NAT: WOG.
“A very short fellow, 5’4” perhaps,” was how John Otse remembers his friend. Now 84, he is one of the last living links to David Oluwale and saw first-hand how a once lively young man was gradually broken.
As the racism seemed to worsen, Otse took up boxing to protect himself on the streets
Otse was just 12 years old when he made the perilous two-week journey from Lagos on the Duke of Sparta, which was carrying groundnuts to Liverpool. The Liverpool Echo reported his arrival in April 1948 under the headline SIX STOWAWAYS POPPED OUT OF HATCH. Those who made it ashore, even if they arrived by illegal means, could not be sent back: under the British Nationality Act of 1948, Nigerians as British subjects were also citizens entitled to the same rights and privileges as someone born in this country. But racial tension was running high in the city then, and employment prospects were poor. So Otse headed for Leeds where the black population numbered in the dozens rather than the thousands and found digs with other Africans and a job at a brickyard.
Though the city was less hostile than Liverpool, Otse suffered his own moments of shame and humiliation: the public baths that refused him a towel; the pub landlord who smashed Otse’s glass after he’d drunk from it. Some years later, as the racism seemed to worsen, Otse took up boxing to protect himself on the streets. A middleweight, he fought under the name “Battlin’ Slim”. “A black man never got the points decision. The only chances of winning a fight was a knockout,” he laughed, showing me a photograph of his younger self. To this day he trains with a punch bag hung in the bedroom of his Birmingham flat.
It was in Leeds that Otse met fellow stowaway David Oluwale, just over a year after his own arrival. He recalls a quiet man, unhappy with the dirty jobs he was doing, one of which was at a slaughterhouse. Oluwale seemed to come alive jiving in the dance halls, a brief escape from grim lodgings and dreary jobs. “Anywhere where there was a party, you must find Oluwale,” Otse told me. His older friend was nicknamed “Yankee” for his love of Westerns and he walked with a bit of a swing. “Say man, do you dig it?” he’d say as he’d strut around with his thumbs tucked into the back of well-tailored trousers. Otse remembered him talking of going to night school to improve his writing and his prospects.
It was a fraught task for a Scotland Yard outsider on the patch of a proud, tight-knit city force
In those early years, Oluwale moved around Yorkshire for work and it was in Sheffield in March 1951, where he’d found a job at a steelworks, that he first ran into trouble with the law. WEST AFRICAN BIT P.C. IN BLACK MARIA was how the incident was reported in the Sheffield Star. Just over two years later, following an altercation with a police officer in Leeds during which he received a blow to the head, he was committed to a mental hospital after reporting sick to the prison doctor. He complained of hearing voices and seeing “lions with fishes’ heads” who he feared were going to devour him. Diagnosed as schizophrenic, Oluwale then remained on a secure ward at Menston hospital for eight years. According to hospital records, he didn’t receive a single visitor in all that time.
When Oluwale finally emerged from Menston, the exuberant “Yankee” was gone. Otse was shocked by the change. Years of electroconvulsive therapy and Largactil had made him slow and twitchy and he walked with a shuffle rather than a swing. Even his English had deteriorated.
“When you come out from a place like that you want people to start building your confidence again,” Otse told me. He did his best, taking his friend around with him as he sold African foodstuff door-to-door. But violent episodes damaged Oluwale’s prospects of rehabilitation. In late 1961, he was jailed for malicious wounding after lashing out a park keeper. In 1965, he was again sectioned after a fight with police officers and remained in a mental hospital for almost two years.
His old friends would see him around Leeds from time to time. “You go your way and I’ll go mine,” he said to one who saw him at a betting shop. He stuck to the rough-and-ready parts of the city centre, enjoying a few halves of mild at the Market Tavern, where he would sit alone, listening to the jukebox. At the end of the working day, he would often root around the market for waste food. Shop cleaners who saw him early in the morning remembered him gathering up his belongings, nodding an acknowledgement, before heading off up the road. He would sometimes drop in at the Catholic cathedral: amongst the few items found on his body was a set of rosary beads.
Though Oluwale tried to protest against the police harassment and violence, and report it, he was never taken seriously. “Strong persecutory feelings of anti-authoritarian,” a prison welfare officer noted. “Insists police frequently take him outside Leeds and leave him in the ‘Forest’,” the medical officer at Armley recorded.
At his flat, Otse dug out a document he had kept from a meeting of the Institute for Nigerian Welfare that was held after the trial of Ellerker and Kitching. Moved by the plight of their friend, and a sense of guilt, the group pledged to set up a hostel for destitute Nigerians, to provide legal advice to those in trouble and fight against racial discrimination.
“We didn’t do what we should have done for him, all living in a foreign country,” Otse berates himself, now. “If we had only got ourselves together, we could have been able to save Oluwale’s life.”
It was an entirely separate criminal case that led to the uncovering of Oluwale’s plight. In November 1970, eighteen months after the Nigerian’s death, Geoffrey Ellerker was put on trial for misconduct as an officer of justice.
Ellerker’s toxic partnership with Kitching had ended in the autumn of 1969 when he was transferred away from Millgarth. On Christmas Eve that year, on Ellerker’s new patch, a senior police officer driving home from a function struck an elderly pedestrian who died from her injuries. On arriving at the scene, Ellerker prevented traffic police from breathalysing the officer. He later pressured them into reporting the accident site some distance away from the pedestrian crossing where the old woman was actually hit.
The trial prompted one police constable at Millgarth to unburden himself to a fellow officer. Gary Briggs confided that he had been on duty one night when Ellerker and Kitching had assaulted a black man in the entrance to John Peters. Briggs had not witnessed the assault itself, but he had handed Ellerker his truncheon and knew what it would be used for. The man’s body was recovered from the river soon after, but as the weeks and months passed and no one mentioned him, Briggs had tried to put the incident out of his mind.
The story may have gone no further had his colleague not related it to Gary Galvin, the 18-year-old police cadet he was lodging with at the time. Galvin reported the information immediately and officers from Scotland Yard were called in to Leeds to investigate a possible murder. The team was headed by Detective Chief Superintendent John Perkins. In the Millgarth canteen they called it the “Kitching Sink Drama”.
It was a fraught task for a Scotland Yard outsider on the patch of a proud, tight-knit city force. Perkins had to contend with the unwritten rule that “you don’t shop your own”. It helped that he had a small team of trusted Leeds detectives on his team. It also helped that Ellerker was convicted of misconduct and jailed for nine months, putting paid to his police career. Gradually, the truth of David Oluwale’s brutal persecution was wrung from often very reluctant witnesses, a group of officers now dubbed “Ken Kitching’s Deep River Boys” after the famous American gospel group.
Under interrogation, Perkins found Kitching to be the tougher opponent. He admitted that he had occasionally resorted to some rough stuff to clear his patch of a recalcitrant vagrant – a “wild animal, not a human being,” as he once described Oluwale. He admitted that he had “kicked his behind” and “tickled him with my boot” when verbal persuasion had failed. As for the drive to Middleton Woods, Kitching claimed it was a “fine August night” and a nice spot to sit out.
By contrast, Perkins found Ellerker a rather broken man, bitter that he’d been hung out to dry by Leeds City Police. He claimed to have no recall of any nocturnal drives or specific assaults – his duty book which may have helped investigators had been “lost” – and insisted that in all his dealings with Oluwale he’d used no more force than was absolutely necessary.
It was thought that a jury was more likely to return a guilty verdict on a manslaughter charge
Perkins described the two men as “despicable bullies” but proving that they were also killers was no easy task. The narrative he constructed of Oluwale’s last hours began on the nightshift of 17/18 April 1969 at around 3 a.m. when Kitching and PC Keith Seager found Oluwale sleeping in the entrance of John Peters. A call was put through to Ellerker, who was driven to the scene by PC Gary Briggs. On the way, Ellerker asked Briggs to lend him his truncheon. They pulled up at the store where Kitching and Seager were waiting and Briggs drove off assuming that Oluwale was going to get a hiding. At the end of the shift, Ellerker returned the truncheon to Briggs and remarked that he wouldn’t be needing it again.
Seager insisted that he remained outside the shop entrance and didn’t witness the assault, though he heard blows and Oluwale’s cries of protest. Oluwale emerged onto the street holding his head and ran off. Seager saw his fellow officers get into a car and assumed they were going to pursue Oluwale.
But the details of the remaining hours of that night shift were sketchy, not helped by the passage of time, missing duty books and false entries. Kitching’s duty book placed him near the university searching for a missing child at the time when a police constable saw him almost two miles away near the river.
Perkins believed he had his breakthrough when a postman came forward to say that he had been on a bus early one morning and seen police vehicles down by the river at Warehouse Hill. He recalled a brief conversation with the bus conductor who had just seen two policemen chasing someone down there. The bus conductor was traced and Perkins’s team scrutinised work rotas and bus routes, struggling to iron out inconsistencies in the fragmentary accounts.
Perkins concluded that the riverside chase must have occurred at around 5 a.m. on 18 April 1969. Of all the police officers working in the city, only Kitching and Ellerker were unable to account for their movements at that hour.
“The compelling facts drive one irresistibly to the conclusions that Ellerker and Kitching were responsible for Oluwale’s death,” Perkins concluded, after what had been a gruelling investigation. His final report was passionate, with the odd literary flourish, and had the feel of a man on a mission.
But the prosecution legal team did not share Perkins’s conviction. Assessing the report, considering which criminal charges to pursue, they described the detective’s evidence as “extremely poor”, concluding that acquittal was “almost inevitable” if the men were tried for murder. The two officers chasing a man down by the river had not been positively identified; furthermore, the witness on the bus had not been able to determine the ethnicity of the man being pursued. The case rested almost entirely on the testimony of police officers and the credibility of PC Keith Seager in particular was suspect, as he was thought to have taken “a more active part than he will admit” in previous abuse of Oluwale.
To Perkins’s great disappointment, the Director of Public Prosecutions, whilst recognising that the public good demanded that police misconduct should not be concealed, decided that the officers should face the lesser charge of manslaughter: that they had unlawfully caused Oluwale’s death by causing him to jump or fall into the river. The perceived weaknesses in the case remained, but it was thought that a jury was more likely to return a guilty verdict on a manslaughter charge. Ellerker and Kitching were also charged with a number of assaults.
Over the last ten years or so, the sense of shame has lifted in the city
Investigating fellow officers in such a high-profile case, one which for him could have no good outcome, took a heavy toll on Perkins’s mental and physical well-being. “I always got the feeling from Mum that pressure bore down on him not to do a good job on it,” his son John Victor Perkins, a retired police officer, told me. There was indignation within the force that the good name of the police was on the line for a man like Oluwale. In a case which revealed the worst of policing, Perkins’ commitment to securing justice for the victim was striking, as was his empathy. His report did not spare the social workers, either, who to his mind had dismissed Oluwale as “a hopeless case, unemployable, homeless, unambitious, of low mentality, coloured, un-cooperative and anti-authoritarian”.
Sympathy for Oluwale was little in evidence during the trial which began in November 1971. “What right have we to call him a citizen?” Basil Wigoder QC, representing Ellerker, asked the jury in his opening speech at Leeds Assizes. “His only claim to being a citizen was that every now and then he was lodged in the local prison.”
The pessimism of the prosecution side wasn’t only grounded in its assessment of the evidence. It knew the defence would present this as a squalid story pitting two policemen doing society’s dirty work against a violent vagrant. English juries – overwhelmingly white, male and middle class at this time because you needed to be a property owner – believed English police officers to be the finest in the world.
The defence did not hold back. Gilbert Gray QC, representing Kitching, described Oluwale as “a miniature Mr Universe as lithe as a panther”. Plucking a figure from Victorian urban history, Gray likened such old-school bobbies as Kitching to “night-soil men”, those assigned with the vile task of clearing the cesspits and drains of human excrement whilst ordinary citizens slept. The trial judge himself, Mr Justice Hinchliffe, could not conceal his distaste for the victim, describing Oluwale as “a dirty, filthy, violent vagrant”, a “menace to society” and “a frightening apparition to come across at night”.
On the most serious charge, that of manslaughter, Hinchliffe directed the jury to return a “not guilty” verdict. “I am driven to the conclusion that there is no evidence that Oluwale was at the scene,” he said. Of the accused, he said all that could be established was that “two unidentified men” were with an “unidentified male person”.
The jury did find the officers guilty of a number of assaults. For these, Ellerker was jailed for a total of three years and Kitching for twenty-seven months. But it came as another bitter blow to Perkins when the jury returned a “not guilty” verdict on the assault at John Peters, just hours before he believed Oluwale had died. Perkins’s narrative of the victim’s last hours had somehow failed to convince the jury.
To him, it would have felt like failure. But there has been a long rollcall of deaths in custody in the fifty years since, and no police officer has been successfully prosecuted. Harmit Athwal, author of the 2015 Institution of Race Relations report Dying for Justice, told me of her struggle over the last two decades to interest people in such cases – even after the Macpherson report into institutional police racism. The victims often have difficult histories – problems with drink or drugs and criminal records – and the police “think they can do what they want,” she said.
At least in Oluwale’s case, at a particularly harsh time for black people in Britain, police officers were put on trial for manslaughter and convicted of assault. “It’s unheard of,” Athwal said, reflecting on the fact that a policeman had spoken up. “You don’t get that now. A copper took an interest and did something.”
In the winter of 1971, the Leeds United Kop goaded police officers lined up in front of the terraces. “They’re the boys from Millgarth and they don’t care, they threw Oluwale in the River Aire,” was one of the chants. For the young whistle-blower Gary Galvin, who lived within earshot of Elland Road, it was a torrid time. But without him, the name of Oluwale would have been forgotten.
When I started researching the case for a book in 2004, the first historian to make use of the evidence Perkins had gathered, it was a shameful episode somewhat on the margins of the city’s consciousness. Graffiti on a Chapeltown wall urging people to “Remember Oluwale” had disappeared at some point in the 1980s. By then, it was possible to grow up in Leeds and not be aware of the case. When I met Galvin’s son Carl on an overcast June day in 2006 at the Queen’s Hotel, Leeds, – terrible coffee and “chilly service”, as I noted in a diary – it was a somewhat awkward encounter. Gary Galvin had died of cancer a few years before at the age of 50, and there I was asking his son, a young detective constable in West Yorkshire Police, about the time when his father had been a pariah.
When I caught up with Carl again recently, the mood was more relaxed. Over the last ten years or so, the sense of shame has lifted in the city. An important moment was the staging of The Hounding of David Oluwale at West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2009. For several weeks, a large image of Oluwale faced out from the theatre towards Millgarth police station across the road. Many heard Oluwale’s story then for the first time. But the spirit in which the case is now remembered in Leeds isn’t recriminatory. On the fiftieth anniversary of Oluwale’s death, West Yorkshire Police itself was represented at a graveside memorial event and Carl was invited to say a few words about his father. Now a detective superintendent, he appears far more at ease with this part of his family’s past.
Without the young whistle-blower, the name of Oluwale would have been forgotten
He doesn’t recall the case ever being talked about in his earlier childhood. It was only when he was older, and thinking of joining the police himself, that his father pulled a scrapbook from the loft. As well as all the newspaper cuttings on the Oluwale case, Gary had kept a number of letters from members of the public. “My husband and I … were very happy to know there are still people of integrity in the country,” wrote one Bournemouth pensioner. “You will I guess perhaps receive written and verbal abuse,” another wrote. Gary Galvin received more than that: Carl now revealed that his father once found excrement in his locker at the station where he was based. It was a story that he hadn’t felt able to share when we first met.
I’d often wondered whether Galvin’s courageous action was down to his youth: had he been in the job longer, his sympathies perhaps hardened, he might have blocked his ears or looked away. But Carl believed that his father always had a “moral compass” and a strength of character. Despite the traumatic start to his career, he completed thirty-two years’ service in the police, which was all his adult life.
For Carl, his involvement with the David Oluwale Memorial Association is one way of honouring his late father. “He passed the baton to me when he gave me that scrapbook as if to say, this was wrong, you need to make sure it isn’t forgotten about.” Recalling the memorial event by the graveside, Carl said, “There was a real carnival feel to it. Songs. There was poetry. There was no sadness. It was an uplifting thing to be involved with. I can’t remember what I said, it just all came out. It was really moving.”
Recently, he took his two daughters to the River Aire at Knostrop to show them something of the history of “Grandad Gary”, a man they never knew, and he pointed out the spot where David Oluwale was found. “There were two swans in that very position. That part of the river isn’t normally where you see swans knocking about. Two really nice swans. It was just nice.”
Kester Aspden is the author of The Hounding of David Oluwale.
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