The Railway Children Return: White Terrorism and Race Riots in Wartime Britain
The Railway Children is one of my favourite stories ever — and this sequel continues it admirably. The arrival of 150,000 Black American troops to Britain meant there were more Black people here during The War, than in 1948 with the coming of postwar Caribbean migrants, otherwise known as the Windrush.
When I was a child visiting my grandparents in the mishmash urban-rural terrain of Lichfield City, Staffordshire, my grandmother gifted me with an audiobook rendition of Edith Nesbit’s 1906 text The Railway Children. In those days, it was on CD-ROM! I went on to read and love the novel, and the 1970 film adaptation starring the late Bernard Cribbins as Albert Perks is one of my favourite films ever made. He became one of my all-time great literary characters and a pointable example of healthy (mostly) masculinity in print way prior to us having the language for things like ‘toxic masculinity’.
Before I looked for ‘Black representation’ in literature, this white man was somebody (albeit fictional) I somewhat connected to. Representation to me was not about race until I was a teenager in the late noughties / early 2010s.
Yet, in today’s narrative of ‘looks like me politics’ (as useful as that is, though not without its critiques), lots of the characters I resonated with as a child, and still do, are white — from Albert Perks in The Railway Children to Carrie in Carrie Pilby by Caren Lissner and Charlie in Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower (adapted in 2012 with Logan Lerman). Though positioned as a wartime period drama, The Railway Children Return could be considered as YA, simply in a historical setting with the allure of pastoral country greens.
Seeing the trailer for this film I was as suspicious as I was excited. A sequel released over fifty years after the original film — please forgive me! The second film also challenges the UK Government’s “war on woke” AKA its anti-equality charade — in the film’s inclusion of actual Black British and Black American history. During the Second World War, there were more Black people in Britain than in 1948 with the arrival of the Windrush. So, while the Windrush Generation have become more dominant in ‘recent’ Black British historical discourse, the way we think about the Second World War in screen media still refuses to move beyond a story framed through whiteness.
Set in 1944, The Railway Children Return is the follow up to the 1970 adaptation of Edith Nesbit’s novel. Jenny Agutter (Sister Julienne in Call the Midwife) reprises her role of Roberta. She and her daughter Anna (Sheridan Smith) take-in three children from Salford (just outside of Manchester) as evacuee guests into their home. On their exploring the area, the children come across Abe, a young Black soldier from the United States who fled the US army due to the ongoing white terrorism against Black American GIs.
Morgan Matthews’ film takes inspiration from The Battle of Bamber Bridge (1943), of course using creative license and plotting that against a fictionalised context. Bamber Bridge is an example of a Black racial uprising against white terrorist violence in an English village. When the white US Military Police imposed Jim Crow-esque racism on its Black soldiers, they rebeled. Racial riots are not a new phenomenon that started from the arrival of the Windrush, but preceded it with different racially minoritised communities entirely, as early as 1919 with at least nine seaport riots.
Considering the history of race rioting in Britain, rarely have I seen this framed within the context of white terrorism.
bell hooks associates:
“whiteness with the terrible, the terrifying, the terrorizing. White people were regarded as terrorists, especially those who dared to enter the segregated space of blackness. As a child I did not know any white people. They were strangers, rarely seen in our neighborhoods. They were strangers, rarely seen in our neighborhoods. The “official” white men who came across the tracks were there to sell products, Bibles and insurance. They terrorized by economic exploitation.” (Black Looks, p170)
The Second World War is well-within the era of Jim Crow racism and the inclusion of Abraham ‘Abe’ McCarthy (KJ Aikens) responds to the whitewashing British period costume dramas in general have sought to maintain. Black American GIs that came to Britain were in all-Black units and the expectation from their white commanders was to segregate in all ways just as they would in the United States, including at social gatherings.
White terrorist violence against Black GIs from white American troops was not limited to Bamber Bridge. In Cosham (just outside of Portsmouth) in the summer of 1943, some Black GIs had congregated outside of a pub and were told to ‘move’ by the white American Military Police. The MP were soon surrounded by British civilians come to the Black GIs’ defence. In Black and British, historian David Olusoga speaks further quoting what was said by British locals and these Black soldiers:
“Why don’t you leave them alone?” — British Civilian
“We ain’t no slaves, this is England.” — Black GI
Graham Smith’s When Jim Crow Met John Bull and David Reynold’s Rich Relations: The American Occupation of Britain, 1942-1945 also act as further sources. Amid the British civilian population there were Caribbean servicemen, and they helped in defending Black Americans from white terrorist violence. Many of these white men took umbrage with Black Americans striking up friendships and romantic relationships with white British women in ‘an ours not yours’ mentality. Black-white friendships and romance provoked violent reactions just as they did in the 1919 Limehouse Riot Trial.
In British contexts, interracial relationships producing Mixed-Heritage children was scorned. White women who decided to engage in such relationships were seen as immoral or sexually deviant (Tabili, 1996; Bland, 2005)
However, we could argue this film could have gone further to depict the racial tension between white and Black Americans which was also gendered through the inclusion of white women. Further to, the rose-tinted depiction of the evacuee programme. What appears seamless for white children was not the same for Black and Brown children.
“It’s galling given that the evacuee programme itself was steeped in racism, with different rules applying to families of colour, and documents from the time revealing bigoted views held by some white families providing billets. In our current cultural context, suggesting that British people are above such behaviour is an anachronism too far. For if young people are capable of coping with war, it stands to reason that they can understand the complexities of their own identities and pasts. It’s a shame, then, that the film goes so hard on pushing the myth of a progressive England that it sells its primary audience short.”
In a Britain that fanned the flames of immigration to get people to vote for Brexit, racism is commonplace. This is further to the ongoing hostile environment and the Nationality and Borders Act — and in a nation that continues to show why we need Black Lives Matter — to say “we don’t do that here” is gaslighting our past and our present. Pertinently following the First World War, with successive racist immigration policies to keep so-called ‘aliens’ out — Aliens Restrictions Order, 1914; Aliens Restriction Act, 1919; Aliens Order 1920 — the Coloured Seamen and Aliens Order, 1925. Racism is as British as test match cricket and we most definitely do that here!
Roberta AKA Bobby would have lived through the 1920s and would remember the 1919 Race Riots which took place across many British town and cities. Much of it fuelled by racist media and racist policymaking.
Black soldiers, both American and Caribbean stationed in Britain, also experienced racist abuse. Such examples include people like Trinidadian RAF pilot Ulric Cross who went on to be an instrumental force in Ghanaian independence (1956). As many of us were taught the white history of the Second World War — I wasn’t taught how American Military Police used and abused their army’s own Black soldiers. It’s these sorts of stories that need to be produced in the films and television shows that get made about World War Two — not just more uncritical depictions of Winston Churchill!
Wartime anti-Blackness was not only a constant feature against Black American soldiers’ lives, but further, Caribbean people and Black soldiers from the African continent as well.
The racial violence that takes place in The Railway Children Return is not an anomaly, as after the First World War Black and Brown veterans were forced to defend themselves from white men in what became known as the 1919 Race Riots. The Watts children — Lily, Patty, and Ted — come from Salford, coincidentally part of the post-WWI uprisings with the Salford Race Riots. In 1919, at least nine seaport acts of white terrorism occurred against Black and Brown communities — including Cardiff, Glasgow and Liverpool. Other sites include South Shields, where this history of white terror in the twentieth century on British soil, has largely been erased from public consciousness.
Of course The Railway Children Return is fiction, but it opens the floodgates to depictions of Black life on screen before World War Two. It is fiction but there are historical accuracies. With Americans as an ‘added variable’, white American troops brought their Jim Crow racism with them practicing this form of segregationist racial violence in British communities. Some places didn’t take to it, like Bamber Bridge outside of Preston, Lancashire— which inspired one of the overarching plots of The Railway Children Return.
Pre-1948 histories of ‘multiculturalism’ — euphemistic for people not racialised as white British — show Black Edwardians across the breadth of Britain, as depicted in Jeffrey Green’s Black Edwardians. Furthermore, Black communities between the wars are vital to our analysis of British life of the 1920s and 1930s. E.g., Claude McKay’s collabration with suffragette-communitst Sylvia Pankhurst, becoming the first Black writer to write in an English periodical and the first Black journalist employed in Britain.
Morgan Matthews’ film has attracted unwelcome attention from the right-wing press, and this is reflected in the white supremacy that pervades period drama discourse.
Preceding the release of Netflix’s Persuasion I was witness to (un)veiled racism in period drama circles, as is common in the fandom. Write-ups by journalist Amanda-Rae Prescott and historical costuming expert Bianca Hernandez-Knight show this. PersuasionGate, followed #PineappleGate on racism in the Sanditon fandom, as well as racist backlash to the historically accurate inclusion of Kitty Despard in the final season of BBC’s Poldark on the grounds of ‘historical inaccuracy’. The Outlander fandom is also implicated, pertinently from season three showing Jocasta McKenzie owning enslaved people — as seemingly, portions of the fandom were pearl-clutching unable to deal with the fact their Scottish ancestors may have been plantation owners!
The Railway Children Return follows in this trajectory in criticisms pertaining to its ‘woke agenda’. Amid the ongoing ‘culture war’ continued by the UK political right, right-wing media peddle a narrative that seeks to keep period dramas white, much to the detriment of a British history that has always been multiracial.
Though, the narrative of the Second World War we all learned at school was one of white British men in Europe, and white British children in Britain sent to the safety and comfort of the countryside — there is a Black history that is not taught, as it interrupts the gentle whiteness of the violent ‘fortress Europe’ war mythology. If we thought about how over 100,000 Black American troops were stationed across this country including in Wales and Scotland as well, it ultimately could change how we think about the white war narrative.
It would be easy to say Bamber Bridge was an anomaly, but it wasn’t. In Launceston, Cornwall, a similar scene occurred in September 1943. Historian Kate Werran writes about this further in An American Uprising. US troops imported US racism, and its segregationist ideologies with it — inspiring a comradery between white British villagers and Black GIs, somewhat a throwback to the Lancashire Cotton Famine and how the millworkers of Rochdale stood in solidarity with enslaved Black people in America.
As much as I feel awkward about contemplating this, there is room for world-building through potential future sequels. The arrival of the Black American GIs to Britain has an enduring legacy.
Films such as Kathryn Bigelow’s Detroit give precedent on how to successfully create the visual claustrophobia needed on screen for a project like that.
Contextualised within government policies and pervading racist attitudes, Lucy Bland’s Britain’s Brown Babies discusses fifty stories of the estimated two thousand Mixed-Heritage children. Yet, the discussion around these interracial relationships continued long after 1945 where many British women travelled to the United States under the War Brides Act. Though, they soon saw the violence of Jim Crow laws in America, where interracial marriage was banned in around twenty states (also see Loving v. Virginia 1967 as legal precedent which went all the way to the Supreme Court).