Skip to content ↓

Revisionist History - Remembering our Black British Heroes

NewVIc students and staff help discover and commemorate Black British World War II & Spanish Civil War veteran Charlie Hutchison with his family at Marx Memorial Library.

Charlie Hutchison was born in Oxfordshire 1918 and died in 1993. His father was from the Gold Coast (Ghana) in West Africa and his mother was an English woman. He was the fourth of five children of this marriage. In 1936 when he was 17 Charlie travelled to Spain to join the International Brigade (IB) which fought on the side of the Republic against General Franco’s Fascist Army. Shortly after he returned to England WWII broke out and he joined the British Army in 1940 and served until 1946.

Until recently little has been known about Charlie for, apart from a small file held within the Comintern archives (communist international) in Moscow, few details of his time in Spain remained in the public domain.

In March 2019 a group of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) students visited the Marx Memorial Library to hear a talk by David Bryant of Kings College University of London about the Spanish Civil and the role played in that war by the International Brigade. During the talk an image of some black International Brigade members was shown and we were told that they were American. Marx Memorial Library knew the name of a black British International Brigade member but added ‘we don’t know a lot about him’ and that the library would like to work with a school or college to develop a history project around him. Thanks to research undertaken by History students at NewVIc in collaboration with the Marx Memorial Library in London, we are now finding out more about Hutchison. First a photo of him was discovered, and then contact was made with his family.

As part of Black History Month the Marx Memorial Library hosted an event with NewVIc students and staff to present and discuss the research they’ve worked on as part of the project with the library. The event was a packed gathering with seventeen of Charlie Hutchison’s family who attended and made a presentation of a framed family photo collection. The event celebrated Charlie’s extraordinary life and those of his siblings. Until this project he was known only as the only black British volunteer in the International Brigade that fought against Fascism in the Spanish Civil War 1936-1939.

The event celebrated the life of an individual and family of undoubted historical significance and it was wonderful to be able to celebrate the life of someone who spent nearly ten years actively opposing Fascism as a member of the International Brigade and the British Army. The NewVIc History group was able to present its own research into Charlie and his sibling’s lives and ancestry and this was added to be by recollections of family members. The family are extremely proud of the discoveries they have made about their heritage and were very complimentary about the research and the pieces that NewVIc students produced for the event. It is hoped that this event and planned publications and projects will help to bring the lives and experiences of Charlie, his siblings and parents to the attention of a much wider public. 

Alan Kunna, Programme Team Manager and Teacher of History at NewVIc:

“In April I met with Merian in this room and she showed the questionnaire that Charlie had completed in the 1980s, and an article written by Richard Baxall. When I looked at the birth date and the words; I grew up in a National Children’s home and I am half black. I thought Charlie was possibly an illegitimate child; the outcome of a war time romance between a white mother and a black father and placed in an orphanage. How wrong I was.

I took these two documents to Carina Ancell and we thought about what we could do in terms of research and further details. Our main worry was there anything more we could find or add to these existing pieces of information. Carina has access to a build your family tree web site. At first she had no luck, but we tried a different combination of names and places and struck gold, in the form of Susan Small’s family tree. Susan, is of course, Charlie’s daughter and torch bearer. Through research she has uncovered a mass of family details, and like a true historian, made connections between people and places that for others are seemingly unconnected.

Much of what we consider to be black history in Britain - The history of the African diaspora in Britain and the Americas is undergoing a radical genesis. No longer are people content to study the black America as if it were the only black history. Today’s historians are looking into the experience of people in Great Britain and its Empire. What they are uncovering is a rich and diverse history that turns on its head old assumptions and beliefs. It also shows that much of the contemporary white, black and minority ethnic experience is rooted in the development and history of Empire and Post Imperial developments.

Walter Tull is a case in point from a few lines in football books in the 1980’s to biographies, documentary’s, plays and stamps. Like Charlie he had a black father (in his case from Barbados) and a white English mother.

Charlie Hutchison and his family are products of this shared experience. With roots stretching from West Africa to Oxfordshire, their background and experience has been shaped by empire. But for these imperial connections, how else would Charles Francis of Cape Coast of Africa have met Lilly Rose  of Eynsham Oxfordshire and had five children together. Empire has helped to shape many aspects of British history and contemporary society from law to foreign policy and population diversity. The struggle for racial equality has been a defining feature of the development of the black identity in Britain and changing social attitudes.

Today we are celebrating the life of Charlie Hutchison and his siblings. He and they are no longer hidden from public history but take their place amongst those whose experience will deepen our understanding of the history of the people of these Islands and beyond. People of colour have been in the British Isles since the Romans, and they have played a part in shaping the nation from Cable Street, to Spain, to the Battle grounds of WWII and beyond”.

 

 I would like to take this opportunity to thank Alan Kunna and Carina Ancell, for their excellent detective work finding me on my family history website. Also for organising and presenting the event in such a sensitive and interesting way. To the students for their excellent work including their art and poems. The family members present were moved to tears.  The ages of the family ranged from to 15 to 75 and they all enjoyed the Celebration at the MML. My father Charlie Hutchison a modest man, if he were alive today, he would be most humbled to be honoured in this way. As a young teenager growing up mixed race in Christchurch in Dorset, it was sometimes difficult. I always felt the odd one out as I didn’t know anyone else of mixed race at my school. It is so liberating to feel as an adult that I can talk about my amazing heritage with pride.

Susan Small
Charlie Hutchison’s daughter

 

I was honoured to be part of this project, Charlie Hutchison’s story would not have been told if we had not carried out this research into him, and discovering all that he has done throughout his life. I am so glad that we were able to do this, I feel inspired in terms of how Charlie carried himself in what he did and achieved in times of stigma in Britain, he used his experiences of oppression to motivate himself to fight against that in the Spanish Civil War. His story is small yet it has a huge impact because it highlights that there were others fighting besides him whose stories have not been told. This story highlights that there were people of other races in big movements but not as represented to us when we study history in the national curriculum pre-university. I really enjoyed telling his story to his family and reminding them of how great he was and to share this with the wider public.   

Noah Enahoro
Honours and A Level Year 2 student

 

Further information:

Charlie Hutchison was awarded the:

  • Dunkirk Medal for operation Dynamo and rear-guard action 1940
  • Africa Star (Campaign Medal) for all those serving in North Africa 1939 – 1943
  • Italy Star serving in Italy from 1943
  • France Germany Star serving in France and Germany 1944-- 1945
  • War Medal awarded to British & Commonwealth military personnel who served in WWII 1939 – 1945
  • Defence Medal 1939 to 1945 awarded to both civilian and military services.

Charlie Hutchison was present at the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in April 1945. Belsen has become synonymous with the full horrors of Nazism and its crimes. Richard Dimbleby who attended the liberation whilst reporting for the BBC said ‘This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life’.  It should be remembered that Charlie began fighting fascism in 1936 and ended in 1946. At Bergen-Belsen he bore witness to one of the great crimes against humanity and the logical conclusion of fascism. Charlie’s children Susan and John have both said that he was essentially a quiet and modest man who politely refused any request to speak about his military service and experience of war.  However, we can conclude from his military record that he was someone who recognised the dangers of fascism and was willing to fight for what he believed in.