David Oluwale: what happened to man who drowned after police assaults - why was Leeds Bridge plaque stolen?

David Oluwale.David Oluwale.
David Oluwale.
A plaque commemorating the man who died after suffering abuse at the hands of two police officers in 1969 has been stolen

West Yorkshire Police have launched an investigation after a plaque commemorating David Oluwale was stolen just hours after being unveiled.

Police believe the theft was premeditated, as it took place so soon after the ceremony at which it was unveiled took place.

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The Leeds Civic Trust described the crime as “abhorrent and cowardly”, adding that those responsible “bring shame on our city”, but said that they “will not be deterred from commemorating David’s life and legacy”.

David Oluwale was found dead in the River Aire in 1969, having last been seen being pursued by two police officers who had been harassing him over a prolonged period.

Photo: Leeds Civic Trust

Who was David Oluwale?

David Oluwale arrived in the UK as a citizen of the British Empire, travelling as a stowaway on a ship from Lagos, Nigeria, which arrived in Hull in 1949.

According to extensive research carried out by the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA), Mr Oluwale had acquired a travel certificate, but didn’t buy a ticket to travel because he was too poor.

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Years later, Gabriel Adams, a friend of Mr Oluwale’s, described how the pair had left a home where they had no good prospects to travel to England, and were full of hope that they would build better lives here.

Though he was allowed to enter the country after arriving at Hull docks in September 1949 because of his travel certificate, he was still arrested and sent to Armley jail, because he hadn’t bought a ticket on the ship he’d boarded.

Over the next few decades he spent time in Hull, Bradford and Sheffield among other places, but his home in England was Leeds, where he had many friends and was well-known in the city centre.

Due to his love of American culture his friends nicknamed him Yankee, describing him in his first few years in Leeds as “always happy and smiling” and “a good conversationalist” who was “always making jokes and could be the life of the party”.

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In April 1953 he had an encounter with police reportedly over the price of a cup of tea in the King Edward hotel, which saw him struck in the head with a truncheon according to witnesses, and arrested.

He served two months in prison as a result of the incident, but began suffering with hallucinations once there and was then transferred to a mental hospital, where he spent the next eight years.

In the years that followed Mr Oluwale suffered with severe mental health issues, spent more time in a mental institution and was frequently homeless, with friends attributing his rapid decline to the truncheon blow.

What happened to David Oluwale?

As a black man in Leeds in the 1960s, Mr Oluwale suffered from racist abuse and discriminatory policies which prevented him from accessing the kind of support that could perhaps have helped him.

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Troubles with police would continue to be a theme of his time in Leeds, as he was arrested a number of times and later, when he was homeless, was often moved on violently by officers from the doorways and alleys he slept in.

Records show that two officers were particularly abusive toward Mr Oluwale over a prolonged period - at one point in 1968 driving him miles from the city centre to a woods where they left him with no means of getting back.

Evidence which would later come to light showed that the pair had beaten him extensively, then driven him out to Middleton Woods because they said he’d feel at home, “in the jungle”.

In April 1969, Mr Oluwale was again attacked by police and beaten in a busy area of Leeds city centre.

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Two witnesses separately saw two police officers chasing a man toward the River Aire, with one of them reporting seeing two police officers beat the man viciously before pushing his body into the river.

The following month Mr Oluwale’s body was recovered from the River Aire.

These officers, Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching, would eventually be found guilty of a number of assaults on Mr Oluwale in a 1971 trial which came about as a result of concerns raised by other officers.

However, a judge who was reported to have links with one of the officers in question, found them not guilty of manslaughter.

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As details of the case emerged at the time, the community was deeply disturbed by what they learned.

What is the David Oluwale Memorial Association?

Yesterday (26 April), around 200 people came out to see the unveiling of the blue plaque honouring Mr Oluwale, commissioned by Leeds Civic Trust and DOMA.

The plaque had been placed next to Leeds Bridge, and near to the still-under-construction David Oluwale bridge, which connects Sovereign Street and Water Lane across the River Aire.

Caryl Phillips, the famous writer who was brought up in Leeds and whose words are quoted on the plaque, is a founding patron of DOMA.

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The inscription on the plaque reads: “David Oluwale. A British citizen, he came to Leeds from Nigeria in 1949 in search of a better life.”

“Hounded to his death near Leeds Bridge, two policemen were imprisoned for their crimes.

“‘The river tried to carry you away, but you remain with us in Leeds’ Caryl Philips.”

Both the bridge and plaque honouring Mr Oluwale came about through years of persistent campaigning by DOMA and others who were determined not to allow the city to ignore a dark episode in its past.

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Those who were there described the ceremony as a moving event, with speeches, poetry and music, which brought the people of the city together.

The David Oluwale Choir sang a tune which would have been familiar to football fans who spent any time at Elland Road during the early 70s.

Composed by fans on the terraces after the convictions of Ellerker and Kitching, it goes:

“The River Aire is chilly and deep, Ol-u-wale; Never trust the Leeds police, Ol-u-wale.”

You can read more about David Oluwale’s story on DOMA’s website, or through two books on the subject: Caryl Philips’ “Foreigners” and Kester Aspden’s “The Hounding of David Oluwale”.