The project’s first recruit is Lionel Turpin ( 1896-1929)
Mentioned in Stephen Bourne’s book, Black Poppies: Britain’s Black Community and the Great War, (2014), quoting from Jackie Turpin’s book while talking about his father, Lionel Turpin, Jack says:
He felt British. He was descended from slaves taken from West Africa but English was his first language. His schoolbooks were written by British people; he lived under British law; he was brought up to admire British poets and British musicians and British scientists and British politicians and British nobility. His allegiance was to King George V. to his Mother Country and to British people all over the world. When Britain declared war on Germany he felt included.
Lionel Turpin born in British Guiana in 1896 found his way to Britain as a merchant seaman. There is no exact date of entry but according to his army service records, Rifleman Turpin A202638 was 19 years old when he enlisted in August 1915. He gave his address as Collingwood, North Shields. This mere fact links Lionel to the North East. By the time of his enlisting he has left the sea behind and was working as a labourer. Where was he working? In the North Shields area?
Lionel joined the army at the York Depot of the York and Lancaster Regiment for the duration of the war. But why this regiment if he was living in North Shields?
During this time there was discrimination and prejudice towards black men who travelled to the ‘Mother Country’ from the Caribbean to take part in the fight against the Germans. Within the armed services, there were certain rules and regulations around the recruitment of black men and whether they could be accepted for officer training. Things were not clear cut regarding these formal rules and what happened was decisions was left to individual recruiters and officers. Maybe the York Depot were more prepared to turn a blind eye to colour while other recruitment offices were not.
Lionel was sent out with the No. 32 British Expeditionary Force to the Western Front in Europe. He was in the battles of the Somme and his army service ended in 1919 with two medals, two gas-burnt lungs and a shell wound in his back.
He did marry and went on to have 5 children. But after suffering ten years due to his war-injuries, Lionel died in 1929. Jackie said:
I think they should put my dad’s name, and million of others like him, on the Roll of Honour with those as lost their lives on the battlefields. All over the world, people died slow unofficial deaths in peacetime beds but it was that’d killed them.