DUO: Lord Morris with Beverly Lindsay, chair of the Rotary Club of Birmingham
FROM BOMBAY to Birmingham – this is the story of the journey of Lord Bill Morris of Handsworth, one of the UK’s most popular life peers who told the tale of leaving his beloved Jamaica for a cold and sometimes hostile Britain in the 1950s.
His Bombay was not the city in India, but a tiny village in the parish of Manchester in Jamaica where the former general secretary of the Transport & General Workers’ Union was born.
The 74-year-old crusader for workers’ rights shared with members of Birmingham Rotary Club some of his proudest moments. They included receiving a knighthood in 2003 and being conferred with the Order of Jamaica – the island’s fourth highest national honour - for services to international trade unionism.
There was much laughter when he recalled how he first arrived in the UK on a foggy November night. As would be expected, he found himself lost in Birmingham, so he wound down the window of the mini bus he was travelling in and said: “How do you get to Handsworth? The man looked at me and said: ‘My brother takes me.’ I knew then that I was going to be happy here!”
Morris, who rose through the ranks of the T&G to be elected the first black general secretary of a trade union in the UK in 1991 before being re-elected in 1995, said he was confronted with race issues when he arrived in Birmingham.
He said: “I was aware that whenever I went into a particular newsagent’s shop in Handsworth, the lady working in the shop would disappear into the back room.
“Eventually I realised she wouldn’t serve a black person. Word soon got around among black schoolchildren who were regular visitors to the shop!”
He added: “But how things have changed. Or have they? I recall not so long ago standing in a Birmingham hotel lobby in my evening suit when I was handed a set of keys and told to park the car of a fellow guest.
“In response I offered him my keys for parking my car and pointed out that mine was the Jag.”
During his illustrious T&G career, Morris tackled many issues with racial undertones which affected workers, among them being the Ford Motor Company attempting to replace black faces with white ones in one of their adverts.
At all times his message was simple – workers’ dignity was to be preserved however challenging the circumstances.
He added: “As I graze in the long grass retirement I look back on my journey from Bombay to Birmingham with pride and gratitude. I am proud to say that in many ways, Birmingham was the start and not the end of my journey.”