October 1, 2014, by Kathryn Steenson

Ruling with an Iron Fist

You wouldn’t expect to receive threatening letters from the Ku Klux Klan or to be hounded by the press in the street for doing voluntary work, but that was the experience of Eric Irons, the first black magistrate in England.

His is one of several biographies featured in the pamphlet “Sitting on the Bench: experiences of lay magistrates in Nottingham over 50 years” (Ref: EMC Pamphlet Not 3.H24 DAV). Many local history societies partnered with other organisations in projects celebrating their community history to mark the Millennium. The Nottinghamshire Living History Archive worked with the local magistrates as part of a ‘Memories for the Millennium’ project.

Sitting on the Bench front coverMagistrates are unpaid volunteers, usually without prior legal training, who hear cases in their local courts. In areas with a diverse population, the Lord Chancellor recommended that the pool of magistrates should reflect the make-up of the community. Large numbers of migrants came to Britain after WWII to help the country with reconstruction of the economy, and most settled in cities. Immigration from the West Indies was encouraged by the British Nationality Act of 1948, which gave all Commonwealth citizens free entry into Britain. Nottingham was no exception, and in fact its black population grew rapidly.

Born in Jamaica, Eric Irons served in the RAF during WWII and afterwards settled in Nottingham with his wife Nellie, nee Kelham, and their children.

Black and white photo of Eric Irons, taken from the pamphlet 'Sitting on the Bench'

During the 1950s, he was an important figure in the local community, campaigning for better employment opportunities for black workers and working with the community and council after the racial disturbances in 1958. He became a Justice of the Peace (magistrate) in 1962 and sat for 29 years until retiring in 1991.

His appointment generated a huge amount of media interest. Reporters chased him down the street hoping for an interview, and even went to his home. In this archive film clip from ATV’s local news programme, broadcast in May 1962, held by the Media Archive of Central England, reporter Reg Harcourt interviews Eric Irons and Alderman Cameron, and talks to several local people in Nottingham, most of whom were supportive of the decision to appoint him. Unfortunately he did receive some rather threatening letters, including from the US-based racist group, the KKK, but the negative attention never caused him to reconsider sitting as a Magistrate.

Eric Irons was awarded an OBE in 1977 in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours list for his commitment to justice and racial equality, and in 1999, The University of Nottingham awarded him an honorary Master of Arts degree for improving race relations in the City. He died in Nottingham in August 2007 at the age of 86.

October is Black History Month, and to see the latest news, staff profiles and other related events from across the University, please see the Black History Month blog. For more information about Manuscripts & Special Collections, including what documents we hold and how you can see them, visit our website or follow us @mssUniNott.

Posted in From the collections