Obituary: Ivor Cummings

Ivor Gustavus Cummings, civil servant, born West Hartlepool 10 December 1913, OBE 1947, died London 17 October 1992.

WHEN the Empire Windrush docked at Tilbury in June 1948, Ivor Cummings was one of the first waiting to greet the initial shipload of Jamaicans arriving to help rebuild war-torn Britain at the government's behest. As a civil servant in the Colonial Office with special responsibilities for Commonwealth citizens, he was there in an official capacity. But the diligence and sensitivity with which he pursued his lifetime's work in the service of people of African descent were rooted in his own difficult background and personal experience.

Cummings was born in West Hartlepool in 1913; his mother was an English nurse, his father a doctor from Sierra Leone. They met at Newcastle's Royal Victoria Infirmary where she was a young junior matron and he, one of several African professionals on Tyneside, a senior house officer. Discouraged from studying medicine by her father, 'an awfully silly man', Joanna Archer had followed women's traditional route, but she broke convention when she had a child out of wedlock with Ishmael Cummings. He, the son of a wealthy African merchant, had two siblings who married Taylors, thereby establishing the prominent Freetown family of Taylor-Cummings and making his own child a relative of the black British composer Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

Growing up with his mother in Addiscombe, Surrey, where they were befriended by Coleridge- Taylor's widow, Ivor got to know his cousins Avril and Hiawatha who followed in their father's musical footsteps. Coleridge-Taylor had confronted prejudice in Croydon; a decade after his death, Cummings suffered similar treatment when other boys at Whitgift School set light to his curly hair.

His father, who had gone back to Freetown, thought Ivor might fare better in Africa, and arranged for him to continue his education there. But he found himself an outsider in a society already split by the historical differences between its indigenes and the Krios, descendants of repatriate slaves and recaptives - returned to Freetown from slave ships intercepted by the British Navy - from other parts of the coast. He returned to England and showed academic brilliance at Dulwich College but, unlike his half-brothers and sisters in Sierra Leone, was prevented by his mother's poverty from becoming a doctor.

After a brief spell as a clerk with the United Africa Company in Freetown, Cummings came back again to England, medicine still his ambition, but with few scholarships available he was forced to abandon his plans. In 1935 he found employment as Warden of Aggrey House, a centre for colonial students set up by the government in Doughty Street, in Bloomsbury, central London. There he was skilful and popular, overseeing meetings and lectures and arranging dances and social events to which he invited the small contingent of black British women in an attempt to make life more pleasant for his almost exclusively male charges.

Diligently espousing racial uplift, he was a prolific press correspondent; the merest hint of a slur against people of African descent caused him to lift his pen. He even had an indirect hotline to the monarchy through the good offices of Edwina Mountbatten, a supporter of the 'coloured cause', who would report back the King's displeasure at incidents of discrimination.

A dedicated bon viveur and night-club habitue, Cummings sought out his constituents wherever they might be. But he saw himself as one of 'the group', an exclusive coterie of black academics and intellectuals with a responsibility to uphold the integrity and good standing of the African. They included entertainers and artists who made their mark in 1930s Britain, such as the American singer John Payne and the British composer Reginald Foresythe, to whose Nigerian family Cummings's father was doctor in Lagos. Like these two and many others in the social and diplomatic circles in which he moved, Cummings was gay at a time when openness about homosexuality was impossible.

With the onset of war, he joined the Colonial Office and rapidly earned the reputation of someone who would help any person of colour, whatever their social standing. He narrowly missed the 1941 bombing of the Cafe de Paris that killed his good friend the Guyanese dancer and bandleader Ken 'Snakehips' Johnson, but was on hand to organise the funeral and obtain exemption from munitions work for band members injured in the bombing.

With the arrival of the first Caribbean RAF volunteers, his responsibilities grew, and he travelled widely to combat difficulties arising from racial prejudice. Initially minimal, these increased when the segregated US forces appeared.

After the war, when extra nurses were needed, he recruited these via his family in Sierra Leone. He continued in the Colonial Office and was on close terms with many future political leaders. He was appointed OBE and spent time in the United States on a fellowship, co-authoring a survey of colonial students there. Invited to become Colonial Secretary in Trinidad, he opted to join Kwame Nkrumah, training diplomats in the newly independent Ghana. He was widely tipped to be the country's first black governor, but was posted instead to the Ghana High Commission in London to recruit West Indian professionals including the present Trinidad High Commissioner, the distinguished war veteran Ulric Cross.

Another Sierra Leone period followed, as training officer at Yengema Diamond Mines, then he joined the London-based distillers Duncan, Gilbey and Matheson as public-relations adviser. He was planning to visit West Africa when poor health intervened. Throughout a long battle with cancer, his sense of irony remained intact. I met him towards the end of his life, but he never ceased to make me laugh, despite his obvious pain.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Ashdown Group: Human Resources Manager

£28000 - £35000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: A successful organisation...

Recruitment Genius: Internal Recruiter - Manufacturing

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Internal Recruiter (manufact...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager (CIPD) - Barking / East Ham - £50-55K

£50000 - £55000 per annum + 25 days holidays & benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Man...

Recruitment Genius: Operations / Project Manager

£40000 - £48000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This software company specialis...

Day In a Page

Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

The Arab Spring reversed

Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

Who is Oliver Bonas?

It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

60 years of Scalextric

Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

Why are we addicted to theme parks?

Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

Iran is opening up again to tourists

After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
10 best PS4 games

10 best PS4 games

Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

‘Can we really just turn away?’

Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

... and not just because of Isis vandalism
Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

Girl on a Plane

An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent