A blue plaque has been unveiled at King’s Cross station in celebration of Wilston Samuel (Bill) Jackson, the UK’s first black train driver, who drove his first passenger train in 1962. Apart from being a racial trailblazer, he was also to go on to drive famous trains and locomotives such as the Flying Scotsman and The Elizabethan.

Born in the Jamaican parish of Portland in 1927, Wilston moved to London in 1952, and quickly took a job as a cleaner on the railway, learning how to look after steam trains by keeping the pipes clean and free from soot, and keeping them running by tending the fire to power the steam engines.

Having worked his way up to be a ‘passed cleaner’ – a fireman in all but name – Wilston would shovel 10 to 12 tonnes of coal a day in hot and filthy conditions. After long shifts, he would return home to study for his locomotive driver exams. He was not the first black man or woman to aspire to be a train driver, but racism was rife at the time, and there were many accounts of applications and promotions being blocked because of an individual’s skin colour or background.

A decade after he moved to Britain, Wilston passed his exams to become the country’s first black train driver.

A moment of pride, but on his first day some of his white colleagues were furious at news of his promotion from fireman to driver, and agreed to forbid any white man to work under him. When the allotted fireman told Wilston he would not work for him, Wilston’s line manager intervened and told the fireman to go home as he no longer had a job. Faced with the sack, the fireman changed his mind and asked if he could stay, to which Wilston replied: “I don’t have a problem with you, it is you who has a problem with me. If you do your job well, we’ll get along fine.”

After that start, Wilston had a long and successful career on the railway, and also provided tuition to others – including his own brother – to help them pass their driving exams. In 1964, he broke both legs when his train crashed into the back of a stationary goods train near Finsbury Park, after a signalman mistakenly gave a green light. Wilston shouted to his fireman to ‘jump’ – saving him – but there was not enough time for Wilston to escape and he had to be cut out of the wreckage. After a long recovery, he returned to the railway in 1966. He later emigrated with his family to Zambia where he taught the locals how to drive trains.

Sadly, Wilston passed away on 15th September 2018, aged 91.

Unveiled during Black History Month, it is hoped that the plaque commemorating Wilston’s career will encourage more people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds to follow in his footsteps and consider joining the railway.

There is a similar plaque at Euston station to honour Asquith Xavier, the first Black train guard at the station.

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One comment
  1. Peter Wright says:

    Where I live there were a driver [steam] who had only one leg following an accident at work and a driver with only one arm [diesel] after a motor cycle accident going to/from work. They are most unusual. Would they qualify for blue plaques?

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