Black LGBTQ histories, the Caribbean and Britain: the life of Patrick Nelson

Patrick Nelson who first migrated to Britain in the 1930s and who was one of the many Caribbean people who served in the Second World War in the British forces.

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CH2920726; Private Collection; Photo © Christie's Images; out of copyright

I am a historian of Black Britain and the Caribbean, focusing on the histories and experiences of Black lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and queer communities and individuals in British history. I am passionate about exploring and documenting histories which broaden our understanding of both what we consider Black British history and what we consider LGBTQ history. My recent research working in partnership with Dr Caroline Bressey at UCL has mainly focused on African, African-Caribbean and African-American people living in Britain before the ‘Windrush’. The life stories and experiences of these early twentieth century individuals need to be remembered, commemorated and contextualised within our understanding of modern British history.

I have recently written the biography of a queer Black Jamaican man called Patrick Nelson who first migrated to Britain in the 1930s and who was one of the many Caribbean people who served in the Second World War in the British forces. His life experiences are both fascinating and important. His history also provides an example of a Caribbean person who migrated to Britain both before and after the Second World War. Leopold St. Patrick Nelson, known as Patrick, was born in Kingston in 1916 and grew up in Allman Town. As a young man he worked in Kingston’s growing tourist industry, which was one of the industries focused on in trade union protests against economic exploitation in the late 1930s Caribbean. In 1937 Patrick migrated to Britain. He first moved to North Wales and then after a short return to Jamaica he travelled back to Britain in 1938 and settled in London. He worked as an artist model and began private law studies in anticipation of starting a law degree. In London he met his boyfriend and subsequent life-long friend the Bloomsbury Group artist Duncan Grant. He also socialised with others within queer artistic London circles such as Edward Le Bas. In early 1940 Patrick Nelson joined the Auxiliary Military Pioneer Corps and after his training in Caister was posted to France to serve with the British Expeditionary Force in the Second World War. He was injured and captured by German forces during May 1940 and was imprisoned as a POW in a number of different Nazi Stalags and Frontstalags.

Patrick was eventually released in September 1944, repatriated due to his health which had worsened during his captivity. After a period of recuperation, he returned to Jamaica in 1945 and worked again in the hotel industry on various short-term contracts. In these post-war years he reflected on many subjects in his letters to Duncan – including colonial rule, exploitation and poverty in Jamaica; Jamaican politics and the demands for independence; U.S. land leases in Jamaica; the importance of his Catholic faith; his sexual identity, love and romance; his love of art, film, and historical research. He returned to Britain for a short while in 1947 and then eventually re-migrated to London in 1960. During this time (and perhaps before) he was friends with another queer Black Jamaican man named Richie Riley, the co-founder of Les Ballet Nègres (1946) who provided him with support and friendship towards the end of his life. Patrick Nelson died in London in 1963.

Written by Gemma Romain

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