JOE CLOUGH – BEDFORD’S FIRST BLACK BUS AND TAXI-DRIVER
by Bob Ricketts
Joe Clough was an early immigrant from Jamaica, who became London’s first black motorbus driver, an ambulance driver in the First World War, a driver for the National Omnibus Company in Bedford and latterly a taxi driver in the town. He was a well-known and respected figure in Bedford, remembered with affection by many townspeople.
Before the late-1940s, immigration from the West Indies was uncommon and on a small-scale. That changed with the Empire Windrush in the summer of 1948, carrying 493 West Indians looking for work. Large-scale immigration from the 1950s was fuelled by the job opportunities arising from Britain’s severe post-war labour shortages, cheap fares, poor economic conditions in Jamaica resulting from the damaging hurricane of 1951 and more stringent US restrictions on immigration. In 1953, 3,000 Caribbean workers arrived in Britain, increasing to 10,000 in 1954; by the mid-1950s around 45,000 West Indians were arriving for work each year. (1) The history of post-war West Indian immigration to Bedford will be explored in the forthcoming Bedford History Timeline (1939-2000).
David Olusoga has estimated that even as late as 1948, there were probably fewer than 20,000 black people in Britain. (2) The eighteenth century saw the rise of several black communities in London, centred around Wapping, Limehouse and St. Paul’s, and in seaports such as Liverpool or Cardiff. Dickens, visiting Liverpool in 1861, remarked that the pubs in the poorer areas were full of black people. (3) There would, however, have been comparatively few black residents of provincial towns such as Bedford during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Joe Clough was a pioneer.
Joe was born in Jamaica in 1887. He was orphaned at an early age. Whilst a boy, he was employed by a Scottish doctor, Dr. R. C. White, to look after his polo ponies. In 1905 Dr. White asked Joe “How would you like to go to England?” “Well” he replied. Joe arrived with his employer in London in the winter of 1906, working for Dr. White, driving his coach. White acquired a motor car, which Joe learnt to drive, becoming the doctor’s chauffeur. (4)
After working as a roller skater fitter at Hackney Roller Skating Rink, in 1910, Joe applied to work at the London General Omnibus Company, the largest bus operator in London. He trained at Shepherd’s Bush garage, one of the first drivers to be trained to drive motor buses. He passed his bus driving test and became a relief driver, driving different routes as needed. He then became a regular driver on bus route 11, between Liverpool Street and Wormwood Scrubs. He was London’s first Black bus driver. Although he was generally accepted by his colleagues, Joe was wrongfully suspended for speeding by a racist company official. His excellent driving record and good character led to his rapid reinstatement. It was not the last time, however, that he encountered racism. ‘The only time I had trouble in London I had a boy used to call after me. He called me “Blackie”, and one night I stopped him and slapped him, and he said, “What you done that for?” I said, “Where I come from we don’t call after people, especially your elders. It is very rude.” And he didn’t do it again.’ (5)
Joe worked as a LGOC driver until just before the First World War, when he moved to Bedford after marrying Margaret Millicent in 1911. Joe was “almost the only Black inhabitant there”. He worked as a driver on routes between Bedford and St. Neots. After the outbreak of war, Joe enlisted in the Army Service Corps, joining at Kempston Barracks and drove a field ambulance from 1915 to 1919 on the Western Front, including Ypres. (6)
Joe Clough by his Eastern National bus, decorated for Remembrance Day, collecting for the Earl Haig Poppy Fund outside 3 The Embankment, undated, probably 1920s
Source: R. Wildman, Britain In Old Photographs Bedford, 1995, pp.22*
In 1919, after demobilisation, Joe worked as a driver for the National Omnibus Company, before buying and running his own taxi in 1949. (7) Joe remained proud of his military service and, remembering his old comrades, decorated his bus and collected for the Poppy Fund – see Figure 2.
Joe died in 1977 aged 91. In his eighties he had become a local celebrity due to a book, ‘The Un-melting Pot’, by John Brown, published in 1970. Brown devoted a chapter to Joe and Margaret Clough. (8) Joe was featured in many newspaper and magazine articles about the town. Joe was also interviewed for both BBC and Thames Television programmes. On the 11th October 2004, an event was held in Bedford Central Library with the London Transport Museum. This included a performance by the poet Abraham Gibson of a poem inspired by Joe’s life. (9) In 2021, Townsend Theatre Productions produced a play about Joe Clough, written by Neil Gore based on a poem by Abe Gibson. (10) Janet Born tweeted to The Clanger, “Remember Mr. Clough… he did my wedding taxi… we lived at 15 Dents Road in the 40s and he took my mum to Northampton Hospital where my brother died… when I got married in 1961 my mum insisted in having him do my wedding taxi as he had been so kind to her.” (11)
Frank Farmer wrote ”I knew Joe Clough when he was a taxi driver in Bedford. He was a friend of Frank and Mrs. Close who were stewards of the Electricity Works Social Club in Cauldwell Street. He often popped in for a pint and was very sociable, all the members got on well with him.” (12)
There is a plaque for him and his wife Margaret on the West Wall of Bedford Cemetery ref P 1 3.
For a full biography of Joe Clough visit the London Transport Museum’s blog: Joseph Clough: London’s first Black bus driver | London Transport Museum (ltmuseum.co.uk)
For further reading about British Imperialism, immigration and recent social history, I would strongly recommend ‘Empireland How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain’ by Sathnam Sanghera, a Times columnist and social commentator. He provides a refreshing and distinctive perspective on past and recent events, including Brexit.
*The caption under the photograph on pp.22 of Britain In Old Photographs Bedford states that “An ambulance driver in France in the First World War, he [Joe Clough] moved to Bedford in 1919 to drive buses…”. This is incorrect. Joe Clough moved to Bedford before the outbreak of war – see Joe Clough 1887-1977 – London’s first motorbus driver
(1). A. Marr, The Elizabethans How Modern Britain was forged, 2020, pp. 222
(2). A. Marr, 2020, op cit, pp. 222
(3). S. Sanghera, Empireland How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, 2021, pp. 79
(4).- ( 7). blackhistorymonth.org.uk and www.ltmuseum.co.uk
(8). – (9). Virtual-library.culturalservices.net
(10) E. Roffe, Bedford Clanger, 14/5/2021
(11).- (12) E. Roffe, Bedford Clanger, 14/5/2021, Twitter responses to article
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