This is the congregation of the Church of God in the basement of a house in Effra Road in Brixton, taken in 1963.
While certain rock stars with surnames that rhyme with “dagger” were making pained efforts to be seen to be hip on the 60s scene in London, Val Wilmer was living in the calypso, jazz and highlife alternative. She worked for London’s main black magazines like Tropic and Flamingo before becoming a regular contributor to Melody Maker. As well as taking amazing photos she was a staunch campaigner for civil and women’s rights—notably starting Format, the first women’s photo agency. Val is keeping it pretty real at the moment and doesn’t have a computer or a website, so we had to track her down in order to wring some original, never-before-seen prints out of her for this look at young, black Britain.
Vice: Did you realise you were documenting an epoch when you took these photos?
Val Wilmer: When you take photographs like these you aren’t thinking about documenting anything—you are thinking about taking a picture. Later on you assess their value in terms of the history. I threw away a lot of my negatives, I could kick myself a thousand times over, but I never thought they would amount to anything. There’s a lot of crap talk about people saying they were consciously capturing a time and a scene but they weren’t—maybe today they do, but I doubt their pictures are better for it.
How did you get involved in the black social scene?
My mother had a couple of lodgers who were into Jazz. Then I met a boy at a church fete who played the trumpet. He was my boyfriend when I was about 12, he was into jazz too. I knew it was a music created by people of African descent. So when I was on the jazz scene I was interested in every black person I met. I had a couple of Nigerian boyfriends. I met everyone: Caribbeans, Nigerians. I even knew northern Nigerians who were totally different—they were Muslims from the ruling elite. Being a girl had its advantages when it came to meeting people.
I guess racism was a big issue?
There was a tremendous amount of racism around—always revolving around interracial relationships. When I walked down the street with a black man then there was a lot of hostility. Even your friends would be sarcastic about it, at the least. But on the other hand there were a lot of people who defended it, ranging from religious people and politicians to the socially aware. The idea that it was all doom and gloom is wrong. It wasn’t hard for everybody.
Was fashion an important part of the scene you captured in these photos? Everyone looks pretty sharp.
To any poor people it is important to look good. I have met very few people of African descent who would ever walk out of doors looking scruffy. It didn’t matter how poor you were—you would always look presentable. Let’s face it, you would be an ambassador for everyone else of your race. Some people would say, “I don’t want to be no fucking ambassador”, but most people did. People of all generations have told me that. From people who wore their three-piece suits with silver-top walking sticks to those dressing in African clothes down to the rude boys and wide boys—they always looked impeccable. No one I knew ever looked scruffy.
What do you think the period of history pictured here has done for the UK?
There is no doubt that the waves of immigration by people of African descent have changed this country forever. It has changed the way people listen to music, the way they play it, our dress, cooking, and diet, the way we speak and think. We are no longer the place I knew as a child—to some people that is quite painful, but to most people whether they are aware of it or not, it has made us a better country.
It’s made it a more lively and open place. I was fortunate that I met so many people. It changed the way I saw things. I found myself out of step with many of my contemporaries because my eyes had been opened. I became a campaigner through my work and I was always told, “Oh it’s not like that”. People think race issues are exaggerated, but it’s just that they haven’t seen it like you have seen it. Sadly things have gone backwards a bit today. At the moment we are in a period of restriction.
This is Pastor F.S. Wallen and his wife outside the Church of God in Effra Road, just off Brixton Town Hall. This church held services on the street corner every Sunday. It was a small congregation that met in the basement of one of these houses, which are now very grand but back then they were, as you can see, rather run down. It was a hand-clapping tambourine sort of thing. I went to the services to cover them for a story. It wasn’t what I had imagined it would be from what I had seen in films or heard on records—it was a very small Caribbean church, it was a culture shock for me. There were quite a few of those informal basement churches. They had nowhere else to meet.
This is Speedy Acquaye on Gerrard Street in Soho. He was a Ghanian drummer. He had been in London since the 50s. Everyone on the jazz scene knew him. He was a Soho character—he knew every nook and cranny of the area. He worked with Georgie Fame at the Flamingo. I did a story on him; in those days no one did stories on people like him. The music press vaguely referred to them sometimes but it was as if they had horns—no one went near them. Some local musicians liked to hang out with them because they knew they were hip but they never spoke to them to find out who they really were.
This is on the annual “March for Life”. It became associated with labour and the workers’ movement. This was just after Martin Luther King had been assassinated so the march was held as a celebration of his life. At the end of the march a group of musicians gathered on the steps of St. Paul’s to play. This is Philly Joe Jones, one of the most important drummers in all of jazz. He was Miles Davis’ drummer. There were a lot of problems for American musicians working here because of the unions. He couldn’t perform officially— he had to eke out a living playing to students and doing clandestine gigs. I never saw the picture he took of me, but I doubt he has either, knowing Philly. He was a very laid-back character.
This was a Nigerian student party: people all crammed into a small room around the radiogram. This was around ’65. I think it was a christening party. When African people had a christening it was a big deal. People would come from all over—not necessarily blood relatives but people from the same clan or village. It’s interesting to see an Otis Redding record there—soul must have just been coming into the consciousness of Africans in this country. We usually all danced to highlife music, but at one of these parties someone played James Brown’s “Say it Loud––I’m Black and I’m Proud” and I can remember the atmosphere changing. It was extraordinary. It was a statement of nationalist consciousness. To me, it seemed nothing was ever the same again after that record.
This is me on the left in 1968—I think it was in Islington. It is typical of the way people used to live, with their cases piled on top of the wardrobe. That tells a story of deprivation and restriction more than anything else. People didn’t live in squalor—but they did live in rooms where they had to have their suitcases on top of the wardrobe and and used old-fashioned paraffin heaters. The smell of those heaters mixed with African food, anyone of a certain age will tell you, that’s the smell of deprivation. But you see, everyone is dressed impeccably––including me.