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Pioneer and Icon Alford Gardner Honoured by City of Leeds

Alford Gardner. Photo: Joanne Crawford

Jamaica Society Leeds is delighted by the news that Alford Gardner, one of only two surviving passengers of HMT Empire Windrush which arrived in the UK in 1948, has received the prestigious Leeds Award, which recognises those who have made a special and lasting contribution to the city.

Alford, 97, is Leeds’s only remaining Caribbean Second World War serviceman and a well-known and much loved member of the West Indian community in the city.

Dorothy Stewart, chair of Jamaica Society Leeds, led the congratulations. “I cannot think of a more fitting recipient of this award than Alford who has served his country and community across the years with dignity and great distinction.

“He has supported so many of the Society’s projects over the decades and the fact that he is being recognised and honoured in this way is a source of immense pride to all of us.”

The award, which was unanimously approved at a Leeds City Council meeting on November 15th, will see Alford’s name inscribed on the wall of Leeds Civic Hall in honour of all that he has done for the city.

The Lord Mayor of Leeds, Councillor Al Garthwaite, said: “Alford Gardner is a true inspiration and a pioneer who has made a lasting impact on his adopted home while blazing a trail for so many members of the city’s Caribbean community.

“We are proud to honour him for the contribution he has made to Leeds and to ensure that his remarkable story continues to be told for many generations to come.”

Commenting on his award, Alford said it was a great honour and a big surprise. “Leeds has been my home for the last 75 years. I came back to the city for love and opportunity and it has been a huge part of my life. So for the people of Leeds to feel that I deserve such a prestigious award makes me feel happy and also very humble.”

Over the years, Alford has delivered countless talks for children, students, community groups and national organisations, and he played a key role in the recent For King, Country and Home exhibition  exploring the lives of the city’s Caribbean WW2 veterans and a part of the Society’s Out of Many Festival.

He was one of the recipients of the 2023 Pride of Britain Outstanding Contribution Award, receiving a surprise visit from Prince William. To commemorate the 75th anniversary of Empire Windrush’s arrival, King Charles III also commissioned ten portraits of Windrush Generation pioneers, including Alford, which were unveiled at a special reception at Buckingham Palace.

Alford’s story is both remarkable and inspiring. He was born in Jamaica’s capital, Kingston, on January 26, 1926. At the age of just 17 he volunteered to

help Britain’s war effort – following in the footsteps of his father, Egbert, who fought in the Battle of the Somme during WW1.

Nineteen-year-old Alford Gardner (right) c. 1945 with childhood friend Dennis Reed who also volunteered for WW2 RAF service. Photo from Alford’s collection.

He joined the RAF, arriving in the UK in 1944. He served as an engineer and mechanic during WW2, one of thousands of Caribbean RAF ground crew who were based at RAF Hunmanby Moor, near Filey.

Once the conflict came to an end, while taking a pre-mob engineering course in Leeds, Alford met his future wife, Norma McKenna, before he sailed back to Jamaica in 1947 along with his brother Gladstone who was also in the RAF.

However, with limited job opportunities in Jamaica, Alford returned along with his brother aboard the Empire Windrush, landing at Tilbury Docks in June 1948 before making his way back to Leeds.

Initially met with discrimination when searching for a place to live, Alford persevered, settling in Hyde Park and finding work in engineering until his retirement. Alford and Norma also married and had nine children together.

His legacy in the city was cemented when, in 1948, he became one of the founding members of the city’s famed Caribbean Cricket Club, a focal point for the city’s West Indian community in the 1950s and 60s.

Today, the club is the longest running black led organisation in Leeds and the oldest of its type in the UK.

Alford continues to be a widely respected figurehead in the community of which he has been such an important part for three quarters of a century – only last year he was a specially requested guest for King Charles’ visit to the Jamaica Society Leeds’s Rebellion to Romance exhibition at Leeds Central Library.

Out of Many Festival artistic director Susan Pitter nominated Alford for the Leeds Award backed by the Jamaica Society, historian Joe Williams and barrister Glenn Parsons who has been leading a campaign for a permanent memorial in Filey, to commemorate the 4000 Caribbean volunteers including Alford who were stationed nearby at RAF Hunmanby Moor.

Glenn commented, “I regard Alford as a true Caribbean ambassador and an elder stateman who has not only raised the profile of Leeds but also, by his contribution to this country, of the people of the Caribbean”.

Reflecting on Alford’s lasting legacy, Joe added: “Alford is a Leeds icon for a generation and an inspiration to future generations – a unifying symbol of resilience, love and service.”