Work has begun on creating a permanent point of remembrance in Leeds city centre for the life of David Oluwale. The harrowing tale of the Nigerian-born former Leeds citizen has gone full circle and a fitting legacy – in the shape of a new bridge spanning the River Aire – is being created to recognise the man with the respect he has always deserved.
David Oluwale arrived in Leeds from Lagos in Nigeria in 1949, and for four years contributed richly to Leeds society through his employment, was a friendly and affable member of the community and was often seen as a popular figure in and around the city. However, in 1953 he began to suffer from mental illness and upon losing his employment began to drift around different areas of the UK, slowly descending into destitution and homelessness.
In the years leading up to 1969, Oluwale was shunned by organisations and authority figures in Leeds who should have been protecting him, and eventually he became the direct victim of a targeted and prolonged programme of abuse and harassment, in particular from two senior police officers in Leeds.
High profile manslaughter trial
On the night of 17th April 1969, David Oluwale was chased once again through the streets of Leeds city centre by police officers until he was forced to jump into the River Aire to escape them, close to the Call Lane area. His dead body was found two weeks later downstream near Knostrop Weir. Although the systematic racial abuse and violence Oluwale had been subjected to was already a stain on the city of Leeds, his death and its circumstances were covered up, until a whistleblower revealed the sorry tale a year later, leading to a high profile investigation and court case in 1971.
Two senior police officers, Geoffrey Elleker and Ken Kitching, were charged with manslaughter, perjury and grievous bodily harm, but were cleared of those charges and found guilty only of assault.
Oluwale’s transition from a regular Leeds citizen frequenting everyday Leeds establishments and institutions to a homeless man sleeping rough and being subjected to brutal harassment and racial abuse, has long been recognised as a shameful episode for the city, but Leeds has confronted the trauma of its past and has used Oluwale’s death and subsequent trial as a landmark event in recognising social inclusion and triggering cultural change. Given the Oluwale case was a uniquely combined demonstration of how authorities failed a citizen on grounds of race, mental health and homelessness, it has also become a turning point in how equality and diversity is managed by civic bodies.
Ison Harrison’s Ruth Bundey is a nationally-renowned lawyer and has practiced as a solicitor in Leeds since 1980, previously working for the Race Relations Board. Ruth has also been a patron of the David Oluwale Memorial Association (DOMA) for some years. The Harrison Bundey Carnival Troupe played a part in a commemorative video in 2019, when the city of Leeds paid tribute to the life of David Oluwale with a series of events on the 50th anniversary of his death. However, now work has begun on a lasting and even more appropriate celebration of his life.
Remembering Oluwale 53 years after his death
A bridge spanning the River Aire from Sovereign Street to Water Lane – close to the point where Oluwale was chased into the river prior to his drowning in 1969 – has been commissioned by Leeds City Council in partnership with DOMA, and work has already begun on what will become a central feature of the South Bank regeneration scheme in Leeds, a vital connection between the city centre and the Hunslet and Holbeck areas of Leeds and will provide a safer and more accessible conduit to the city centre for pedestrians and cyclists. In addition, the Yinka Shonibare Sculpture in the Memory Garden, Aire Park, will also commemorate David and is to be launched in 2023 as part of the Leeds 2023 Cultural Festival.
The bridge itself will be named after Oluwale as a permanent commitment to equality and inclusion in Leeds, and in welcoming the development, Ruth Bundey commented:
“David Oluwale’s story is as relevant today as it ever was, evoking issues of migration, racism, mental ill health, and homelessness. Commitment to the Bridge and Sculpture Garden show that Leeds is determined to portray itself as a just, inclusive, hospitable city, equal for all. Whilst it is tragic that David’s life didn’t warrant even a tiny percentage of this respect over 50 years ago, his legacy is overwhelmingly positive.”