Sam King, a postal worker of the Windrush generation

To mark Windrush Day on 22 June, Archivist Meg details Sam King’s career at the General Post Office, the racism he faced and some of his many achievements, through Archive records.

Sam King MBE at the Imperial War Museum on June 12, 2008 © Cate Gillon/Getty Images

Sam King MBE was 22 years old when the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury on 21 June 1948. One of 1,027 passengers, King was a carpenter from Jamaica who aimed to reside in Nottingham. Before setting sail, King had already served in the Royal Air Force during the Second World War.

Passenger list for HMT Empire Windrush June 1948 with the entry of Samuel King.
Image via The National Archives © Crown Copyright

Sam King is celebrated for his many achievements and contributions to British society: the first black Mayor of Southwark (at the time, the only black mayor in London); his distinguished military career; his work as co-founder of the first Caribbean-style carnival – a precursor to today’s Notting Hill Carnival – and the Windrush Foundation; and his tireless activism for and within the African-Caribbean community, including his work to establish a programme to allow migrants to buy homes in the UK and contributions to the first newspaper for West Indians, The West Indian Gazette.

In addition to all of this, King was also a postal worker: working in the Post Office for over 30 years, first as a postman in Waterloo, London in 1955, and ending his career as Postal Executive for the South Eastern district.

After two years in Waterloo (where he received an additional ten shillings per week in his wage packet, owing to the lack of canteen facilities), he moved on to a position as sorter at the South Western District Office in Victoria, which included at least one week on mail duty at Buckingham Palace. He then was posted to the Eastern District office at Whitechapel and later the South Eastern District Office.

11 years after his initial appointment, in 1966, King registered as a British citizen under the British Nationality Act 1948. Given his role within the General Post Office (as it was then known), a nationalised industry, in his application he noted that he worked as an employee of the Crown:

HO 334/1136/74043 – registration of British citizenship of Samuel Beaver King, 1966. Image via The National Archives © Crown Copyright

HO 334/1136/74043 – registration of British citizenship of Samuel Beaver King, 1966. Image via The National Archives © Crown Copyright

Throughout his career, King repeatedly experienced racism, reflecting in his autobiography Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain on his experiences at the South Eastern District Office:

“I was not welcomed by some; not a smile crossed the faces of those who were too busy guarding the overtime. I spoke only when necessary. One week into the post, I asked for overtime on the Irish section sorting letters beyond Dublin to Limerick. There, my colleagues saw that I was not as green and naive as they thought. One fellow in particular was most obnoxious whenever I put in for overtime work. He made hurtful remarks and was not co-operative. Others joined in, but I was there to do a job and nothing was going to make me flounder or even show resentment. My performance was far above these petty non-entities. I held fast to my integrity’.

 

In another incident, he “recalled being greeted with a heckle from a resentful white worker who yelled: “Send ‘em back!” King’s quick-witted riposte was: “I’m all in favour of sending them back, as long as you start with the Mayflower.” [Marc Wadsworth ‘Sam King Obituary’ The Guardian 30 June 2016]

Listen to an extract from the Museum of London Oral History:

 

Sam King was politically engaged throughout his life: an active member of the then Union of Postal Workers (now Communication Workers Union) and the Labour Party, first serving as a councillor and later Mayor. On Warmington Avenue, London, you can find his blue plaque, part of a scheme to honour and celebrate the ‘most evocative people’ that have shaped the borough of Southwark into what it is today.

Sam King plaque, Warmington Avenue, London

Further Resources

Both the Museum of London (ref: 92.181) and Southwark Archives (ref: LHLTAPE49) hold oral history recordings of Sam King, where he recounts his journey on the Empire Windrush, his military and postal career and his years of political activism. You can listen to excerpts from the Museum of London oral history interview here.

Sam King published his autobiography Climbing Up the Rough Side of the Mountain in 1998, the same year he was made a Member of the British Empire.

Published to mark the 70th anniversary of the arrival of Empire Windrush in 2018, the British Library’s Windrush Stories invites readers ‘to consider a longer, more complicated and ongoing relationship between Britain and the Caribbean’.

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files is a film by historian David Olusoga, available on BBC iPlayer, which uses documents from The National Archives to present the history of successive government’s hostility towards non-white settlers in the UK. In this documentary, there is a reference to Winston Churchill’s enquiries into the “considerable” number of “coloured workers” employed by the General Post Office.

The Black Cultural Archives is hosting Windrush Waves from 22 June 2020, dedicated to educate and entertain audiences about this period of British history.

– Meg Venter, Archivist


Sam King was one of many from the Windrush Generation employed by what was then the General Post Office (GPO). Although we have some records of King’s employment and life we know that further research needs to be carried out into the GPO as an employer of the Windrush Generation. This is one of the areas of Black British history that we commit to research further, in order to present the wide variety of experiences and careers the Windrush Generation experienced as postal workers.

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