|London's first black police officer, PC Norwell Roberts, on point duty near Charing Cross Station, 1968.|
Norwell Roberts (aka Norwell Gumbs) was born in Anguilla in 1946. Roberts’ father died when he was three years old. Neverthless, he had a strict upbringing and was often publicly reprimanded by his grandmother, who was a Methodist deaconess. After his mother obtained employment as a housemaid in the UK, Norwell Roberts left the West Indies and moved to England when he was 9 years old.
In his new British home Roberts experienced prejudice at an early age; after passing his 11 plus exam he was refused entry into a grammar school because it was deemed that he was not sufficiently ‘aware’ of English ways. Nevertheless, Roberts continued his education at a secondary modern school in Bromley, Kent. At that school he became familiar with more incidents of discrimination – from which he still bears a scar – such as when some older pupils at the school, sixth formers, dropped him to ‘see what colour’ his blood was. Life at home was also discordant when Roberts’ mother remarried, because he did not have a close enduring relationship with his step-father who kicked Roberts out of the family home when he was just 15 years old.
Sometime afterwards he began work as a Laboratory Technician in the Botany Department of London University. During his employment at the University Roberts completed an application form to join the police force. His subsequent selection challenged the White identity of the police force within London. Many previous applicants had been discouraged from advancing their applications beyond the form submission stage. Roberts career as a police officer was the start of an attempt to change the ‘face’ of the capital’s police force. Previous to his employment within the Metropolitan Police, the force was entirely made up of members of the indigenous community who, inevitably, shared personal prejudices and racial attitudes in their working practices; this was a source of constant problems for the post-war migrants – some of who disliked Roberts’ choice to enlist as a policeman.
In March 1967, when Roberts was 21 he officially joined the Metropolitan Police (Met) and achieved media and public attention because he was the first Black police officer in London. At that time there were very few Black people in uniform: it was the previous year, 1966, that saw the introduction of the first Black Traffic Wardens in the country. When Roberts joined the Metropolitan Police in 1967 there were only 5 other black police officers in the whole of the UK, and they were all located outside of the capital. After six years the number of Black policemen within the Met had risen to 8 out of 21,500. Despite this slow start within the nation’s capital the first recorded Black police officer in the country has been identified as John Kent, aka ‘Black Kent’. Kent was a police constable in Carlisle in 1837.
Under the scrutiny of the popular press of the time, Roberts completed his initial training at Hendon Police College. Roberts’ selection and training was a test for community relationships within all sections of the multi-cultural British society of the 1960s. He remained in the police force for 30 years and rose to the rank of Detective Sergeant. His initial placement was at Bow Street Police Station, in Covent Garden, London. Despite the early public interest in his career, whilst doing his work Roberts was subjected to regular discrimination from both his colleagues and the general public. Roberts recalls that on the first day of his Bow Street probation placement, the duty sergeant told him that he would ensure that Roberts never completed the training period there. In spite of being ostracised by his fellow police officers, Roberts remained in the police force and was often used for ‘positive discrimination’ photographic opportunities by the Metropolitan Police. Before joining the Met, Roberts worked at London University. It was whilst there that he met, and became engaged to Carolyn Rooke, also a Laboratory Technician, who worked in the Zoology Department: their engagement news, in April 1968, was reported in detail in newspapers.
Roberts served at several police stations across the metropolitan area including: West Hampstead, West End Central, Wembley, Kentish Town, Vine Street, Ealing, Albany Street, Barnet and Acton. Roberts had several successes in his career, one of which occurred in 1985 when he was in CID and he won a commendation for outstanding work on the cases on five contract killers. It is also reported that Roberts achieved substantial success as the first Black undercover officer.
In 1996 Roberts was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal (QPM) for distinguished service – one of the highest awards given to members of the British constabulary. Roberts retired from the Metropolitan Police in 1997. He lives in Harrow. Since retiring from the Met, Roberts has focused on work within the field of human resources and anti-discriminatory practices.