A True Gent: Lauriston Vernon Davis

Portrait of Lauriston smiling in his RAF dress.

Lauriston Vernon Davis © Zena Burland.

'...one day he is in the tropics and the next he in the cold...countryside of the North of England'.

In 1944 Lauriston Vernon Davis volunteered to join the Royal Air Force in his hometown of Westmoreland, Jamaica. Lauriston’s life saw international military service, personal struggle and Royal recognition. Known as Larry to his family, his daughter Zena tells us her father’s inspiring story.

“As a young boy Larry, the eldest of four children, ran barefoot in the hills of Westmoreland, helping his father farm sugarcane. At 18 he enlisted with the RAF and within a year quickly found himself in the North of England.

Imagine the contrast in climate, one day he is in the tropics and the next he in the cold, wet countryside of the North of England…having to wear heavy, military boots that rubbed his feet sore.

During his time in Britain he had to deal with people’s ignorance – name calling, slamming of doors, being barred from pubs and clubs – despite the fact that he was wearing the King’s uniform. Alongside others from the West Indies and other Commonwealth countries Larry experienced regular racism and so they found comfort in each other, relying on each other for a sense of security.”

Singer Mona Baptiste smiling and holding her saxophone in front of commonwealth soldiers at the SS Windrush welcoming party.

Mona Baptiste entertains on board Empire Windrush in 1948 (Lauriston is in the back row, seated, second from the right). Photograph: Mirrorpix/Alamy Stock Photo

Travelling to England in 1944 before the arrival of SS Windrush, Lauriston’s family had an amazing discovery whilst visiting the Windrush exhibition which took place in City Hall, London in 2019.

“…when my niece saw the SS Windrush exhibition poster…there was Larry amongst a troop of RAF airmen sitting behind the saxophone player, Mona Baptiste, at the arrival ceremony!”

Pictured whilst serving in England Larry had already met and married Jessie James in London. By 1950, Larry had been posted to Egypt due to civil unrest near the Suez Canal. This meant the newlyweds had to bring their new family up in unusual circumstances.

“I was born in 1950 and we were quickly posted to Egypt. I was christened with the water from the River Nile. Not long after that my sisters were born and then two brothers. In 1955 Larry was posted to RAF Chivenor in North Devon. It was here that things started to change and life seemed to be a lot easier. We lived off camp in rented accommodation, first in Braunton and then in Bear Street, Barnstaple.”

The three Davis girls stand in pin stripe dresses and straw hats in front of the Barnstaple fountain.

Zena and her sisters in front of the Barnstaple fountain. © Zena Burland.

'...[Larry's cousin] arrived from Jamaica, wearing a summer dress...and carrying a small suitcase – this was in the middle of January!'.

“Being one of the first black families in North Devon we received comments – some nasty – some said through pure ignorance. However, Larry had skills in communicating with people and he could turn a bad moment into a good one very quickly. The family moved to a large house in Bear Street, opposite the Thorne Memorial Church. Being West Indian, his Christian beliefs were important to my father so we regularly attended that church, often reading the lesson.

I always remember whilst living here in Barnstaple his cousin arrived from Jamaica, wearing a summer dress, with little white gloves, and carrying a small suitcase – this was in the middle of January!  She became the first black nurse in North Devon. Part of her duties included helping nurses from Jamaica who came to work in England. She ended her career as the top Midwife in London.”

Lauriston's British Empire Medal note from the Queen thanking him for his service.

Lauriston’s British Empire Medal note for his services to the Royal Air Force. © Zena Burland.

Lauriston went onto be posted to Germany for several years, where he took his family, before returning to Britain. In 1984 whilst stationed at RAF Shinfield Park he received the British Empire Medal for his services to the Royal Air Force. After retiring from the RAF in 1966 it was Lauriston’s wish to return home to Jamaica.

“He booked the family onto the SS Jamaican Planter sailing from Tilbury docks.  He took the whole family to his homeland but unfortunately it was not the success he had hoped for. My mother wanted to return to England so he agreed but said we would have to return to North Devon. In late 1966 we returned to North Devon with just £50! After help from friends we were able to re-start in Knowle before returning to Barnstaple.”

The Jamaica planter in Tillbury dock.

The Jamaica Planter in Tilbury docks, 1967. © Malcolm Cranfield.

‘locals could tell the time of day by Larry crossing the Long Bridge, tipping his hat to the ladies'.

“Well known in the town, locals could set their clock by Larry who would cross the Long Bridge the same time everyday, tipping his hat to the ladies. He was always smartly dressed and he would always tell us that ‘Clothes maketh man.”

After the RAF Lauriston worked for the Ministry of Overseas & Development in London and finally North Devon District Council in the housing department.

He lead a busy social life as a respected community member attending church, playing in the local cricket team and helping to set up the local sea cadets.

He died at the early age of forty-five in 1972. Buried in Barnstaple his headstone reads ‘A True Gent’. Known by a great many it’s testament to Lauriston’s standing in the town that a week after his funeral, where his coffin was led by the sea cadets, a letter arrived appointing him as a magistrate. Lauriston would have been North Devon’s first black Justice of the Peace.

Lauriston in uniform stands in front of a barracks with a fellow serviceman smoking.

Lauriston with fellow RAF serviceman © Zena Burland.

Written by Zena Burland
Editor Adam Murray

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