Born on the 18th February 1918, in Toxteth Park, Liverpool, Lilian Bader lived a remarkable life. Whilst three generations of her family served their country across the turmoil of the Twentieth Century, she was the only woman to do so. At the forefront of the seismic shift in gender roles accelerated by the Second World War, her history also sheds a fascinating insight into the complexities of British racism and national identity during this period.
Lilian’s father, Marcus Bailey, was a merchant seaman from Barbados, whilst her mother, Lilian McGowan, was of Irish descent. Moving from Liverpool to Hull when Lilian was seven years old, her family life was cut tragically short when she became orphaned two years later. She lived under the care of a convent until she turned twenty years old, struggling to gain employment because of her father's Barbadian heritage.
Eventually, Lilian found work as a canteen assistant at the Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes' (NAAFI) Catterick Camp. Yet, just seven weeks after her posting she was fired because her father was not born in Britain, despite the fact he had served in the First World War. Perplexed by the racism that had cut her first sense of freedom short, she struggled to understand how she could tell her friends 'that a coloured Briton was not acceptable, even in the humble NAAFI.’
Determined, intelligent, yet unqualified, Lilian could only find menial jobs on an ad-hoc basis. The closest she could get to war work was feeding soldiers who ventured off base on a farm near RAF Topcliffe. By 1941 Lilian had become frustrated by the apparent impotence she suffered because of her race. After hearing on the radio they were more likely to accept workers of West Indian descent, she applied to the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) and was finally successful. Yet, although she was happy to have a purpose, she quickly found herself 'the only coloured person in a sea of white faces.' Despite the tragic news of the loss of her brother at sea during her posting, however, Lilian was determined to keep up her war work. She completed her training with the RAF and was among one of the first women to qualify as an instrument repairer. Permitted access to check leaks in vital pipes of twin-engined light bombers, she was at the forefront of a new wave of women qualified in the previously male-dominated sectors of engineering and technology. As a black woman in Britain at this time, the fact she had been promoted to Acting Corporal by the war's end further cements her contribution to British history as remarkable.
Lilian went on to marry British born Ramsay Bader, a black tank driver and D-Day veteran. Together they had two children, the youngest of whom became a helicopter pilot for the Royal Navy. However, Lilian refused to be seduced by the post-war attempts to resurrect the gendered pre-war demarcations of British society. Instead, she studied at the University of London and qualified as a high school teacher.
Lilian’s story provides a fascinating case study of the paradoxical effect of World War Two on British society. On one hand, the necessities of war broke down social barriers to progress, permitting a new sense of cohesion and inclusivity; for example, Lilian was part of the first group of WAAF workers to be issued with overalls rather than the traditional uniformed skirt. Although seemingly trivial, such progress highlights how the necessities of war had the ability to cause the upheaval of social norms.
However, such progress should not be mistaken for an idealised, universal social cohesion that eradicated discrimination on the basis of race and gender. Paradoxically, Lilian's story also reflects how the war only heightened racial prejudice in Britain during this time. Recognising the disparity between her family's contribution to British history and their lived experience of injustice, Lilian believed that 'all in all, I think we’ve given back more to this country than we’ve ever received.’
Similarly, she expressed frustration at a lack of understanding from younger generations about the reasons why Black Britons joined the war effort. In a BBC 2 programme focussing on Black servicemen and women, she poignantly explained her own rationale for joining as driven by her perception of the alternative, that 'we [black Britons] would've ended up in the ovens.' It is naive to whitewash the contribution of black men and women to British history in the Twentieth Century as simply the result of a misguided nationalism, and Lilian spent much of her life advocating for the recognition of Black and Asian Britons contribution to the war effort. She wrote letters to the media and politicians and featured in events, interviews and television programmes discussing her own significance as a black woman in service of her country. In 1989 she published her memoir, Lilian Bader: Wartime Memoirs of a WAAF 1939-44.
The fascinating story of Liverpool's Lilian Bader highlights the importance of recognising the Histories of our marginalised communities. They give us a vastly deeper, richer and more valuable insight into our past, forcing us to readdress British national identity in the present.
Lilian died on the 13th of March 2015, aged 97.
Guest Blogger for Blackburne House