Black History Month: What it was like for Sislin Fay Allen, Britain’s first black policewoman

The sight of a dark-skinned young woman dressed in a police uniform, with a solid Jamaican timbre, patrolling the streets of south London in 1968 was a shock to residents.

It was Sislin Fay Allen, Britain’s first black policewoman.

Fifty-two years after Mrs Allen overcame the odds in a profession where she was subjected to racism, she told Sky News Britain has “a long way to go” to tackle race inequality.

At her home in St Ann on the north coast of Jamaica, overlooking Ocho Rios, she showed me a letter written in 1972 by former prime minister Michael Manley congratulating her on her achievements.

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Mrs Allen wears many labels. She has been called a “pioneer” and “civil rights icon”.

But she prefers to describe herself as an ordinary mother and optimist.

“The journey for me has been memorable but I think we still have a very long way to go, but at the end of the day, I am glad that I was able to inspire so many people to take up the challenge,” she said.

Half a century later, her place in British history has come to be treated almost like an historical footnote, her status as the first black policewoman to take the oath since the Second World War a mere detail.

But it’s much more than that.

Graduation realisation

She is not a fan of fawning testimonies to her successes, but she is “buzzing” to know that she has rammed open doors that hundreds of black women have since walked through.

Mrs Allen, 82, can pinpoint the precise moment when she realised that the colour of her skin made her standout.

“When I was at my graduation – the paparazzi were there. They were trying to get pictures, trying to hassle me and I remember trying to run away and falling over and nearly breaking my leg,” she said.

For most black people who lived through the civil rights struggles in Britain, Mrs Allen is seen as a symbol of success, progress and change.

‘I specifically wrote that I was black’

It was while working as a nurse at Queens Hospital in Croydon that Mrs Allen applied to join the police.

“I was on my lunchbreak and during that time I was going through the paper. I saw this advert and they were recruiting police officers,” she said.

“So, I looked at it and thought, ‘why not?’ I cut the advert out and put it in my pocket and said, ‘when I have time, I’ll fill it out’. After I finished work around seven, I went home filled it out and posted it off. I thought nothing of it.”

She was stunned, because within weeks she was invited to a formal interview.

“They posted some forms for me to fill out and return. I did that and at the end, I penned at the bottom of it that I was a black woman. I didn’t want that if I had succeeded and when they saw me, they didn’t know I was black.

“So, I specifically wrote there, that I was black.”

‘I didn’t tell anyone’

Mrs Allen, who was 29, when she joined the force in 1968, kept her job application a secret from her family.

“I did not tell anyone about it until I was sure. They [family] would have wanted to maybe tell me not to do it, but I just went and did what I wanted to do and that was that.”

She was used to defying expectations. Reflecting on her childhood, how was her upbringing?

“I was raised by my aunt who was a judge. She didn’t think much of the police, but regardless that was always a job that I wanted to do.”

During her four years with the Met, Mrs Allen worked Croydon police station, the Missing Persons Bureau at Scotland Yard, before transferring to Norbury police station.

“People would come up to me, some congratulated me and thought it was pleasant to see a black person, but some thought it wasn’t.”

‘They didn’t want a black police officer’

It is worth recalling what Britain looked like at the time.

In 1958, London was the scene of race riots when violence broke out in the Notting Hill area between whites and West Indians.

Ten years later, Enoch Powell delivered his controversial rivers of blood speech which sparked a huge debate about Commonwealth immigration in British society.

Mrs Allen said discrimination from the public and within her own ranks was part of the daily routine.

“I know the prejudices were there, but it didn’t deter me. “I mean, they [the public] didn’t want a black police officer and they felt they needed to make this known.

“Some of them were livid. I got quite a lot of letters, as far as I know it came through Scotland Yard. There were some very nice letters but there were some horrible ones.

“I was told but I’ve never seen them because they were never given to me. When I asked, ‘why these letters were held back?’ I was told that they thought that if I saw the letters, I wouldn’t go on with the job and that I would leave.”

Leaving Britain; staying with the police

The retired officer said at times she felt the weight of expectations, the assumptions that her presence should have meant more.

But she is proud of the four years she served with the Met. She handed in her warrant card and resigned in 1972.

In the same year, she returned to Jamaica with her two daughters and husband, where she continued her career in policing.

“I found doing the job very difficult back here.

“There has always been a stigma attached to the police – people have their own ideas but all of that is not warranted. It’s a very worthwhile job that I would recommend at any time to anyone.”

Her daughter Paula Allen is inspired by her mother’s courage and determination.

“It took a lot of guts for her to join the force because the police were not seen by black people as a positive institution.

“I imagine that a lot of people might see my mum as a ‘sell out’ but I feel it is necessary for us to make changes and the only way you can do that is to be a part of institutions and change from within.

“I would say to anyone who comes from an underrepresented background who feel they can make a change – use my mother as inspiration and go into policing.

Sislin Fay Allen’s legacy lives on in the Met, where women now make up more than a quarter (27%) of the force.

Policing minister Kit Malthouse says the country owes Mrs Allen “a debt of gratitude for her service”, adding that she was “an inspiration and paved the way for the many female black officers who have come after her”.

“We have made great strides since Sislin first joined the force, it’s more diverse than ever before, but we are not complacent and continue to work hard with the police to improve equality and diversity,” he said.

A trailblazer who ‘paved the way for black females’

Commander Dr Alison Heydari, the highest-ranking black female officer in the UK, is proud to be standing on the shoulders of a trailblazer.

“Sislin’s achievements mean a great deal to me actually. She paved the way for black females – and today in the Met and in policing we have so many black females and it all started with Sislin.”

Dr Heydari, who began her career 20 years ago, is a frontline commander.

She said significant progress has been made to address the issue of race amid protests triggered by George Floyd‘s death, but admits that much more work is needed to regain trust.

“When I was out on patrol whilst in the lower ranks, I did come across racism from members of the public but the thing about that, is there’s support within policing to manage that and to deal with it,” said Commander Heydari.

She makes it clear, as a black woman of Guyanese decent, her dream is to see other women of colour follow her path.

“I think there’s a lot going on at the moment to encourage black, minority and ethnic members of the community to join the police.

“There’s lots of mentoring and coaching going on to support officers and I really do look forward to another black female taking my place,” she said smiling.

When Sislin Fay Allen looks across the Atlantic today, she sees progress, but still questions whether enough is being done to close the growing gap between law enforcement and young black men and women.

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