Pauline Henriques: A pioneering and inspirational woman

Pauline Enriques and Sam Sevlon in 1952
Pauline Enriques and Sam Sevlon in 1952

The Hove resident was the first black actress to appear on British TV.

Unlike the last three women I’ve written about, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting the subject of this week’s column. I first crossed paths with one time Hove resident, Pauline Henriques (sometimes known as Pauline Crabbe or Benjamin) in a writing group in the mid 1990s.

Pauline, then in her eighties, was quietly spoken and patient, managing somehow to be ruthlessly honest without hurting anyone’s feelings - one of those people who it always feels good to be around.

It wasn’t until years later, after her death in 1998 and while researching my women’s history walks around Brighton, that I learnt about Pauline’s incredible past. Born in Jamaica, Pauline moved to England with her family aged five in 1919. Her first career was as an actor and she took part in several landmark productions, including, in 1943, the influential BBC Caribbean Voices radio series which explored the work of emerging Caribbean writers.

In 1946, she became the first black actress to appear on British TV in the televised Eugene O’Neill play, All God’s Chillun’ Got Wings.

These were early days for television and in her obituary in The Independent Pauline is quoted explaining the challenges she faced “Everything was transmitted live. Videotape didn’t exist so nothing was pre-recorded. “Also we only had one camera and it was static. It was fixed to the studio floor and didn’t move. So the actors had to remember to keep in shot all the time.” In 1956 she appeared in another groundbreaking production, the docu-drama, ‘A Man from the Sun’, British TV’s first attempt to explore the experiences of newly arrived Caribbean settlers. Despite her success, however, meaty roles for black women actors weren’t plentiful.

Pauline said: “Although I was keen to continue playing strong dramatic parts, I finished up with comic black maids and one line - “Yessum. I’sa coming!” - which I learned to express about 18 different ways.”

In need of a more full-time career, Pauline turned to social work. She found her interests lay in young, unmarried women who had become pregnant.

At a time when, for women, having a child ‘out of wedlock’ could mean alienation from your family, and not much assistance or support from anywhere else, Pauline worked for The National Council for the Unmarried Mother and Her Child, a charity which campaigned for the rights of single parents as well as providing advice and assistance.

She went on to work for the Brook Advisory Centres, becoming Secretary of the London Centre in 1971. By this time abortion had been legal for two years but was still being considered mainly a medical matter. When Pauline pioneered bringing counselling into these situations, it was a new approach.

A medical officer who had worked with Pauline remembers the impact this had: “Pauline insisted that any expectant mother under the age of 16 should be counselled to find out, for instance, if they were being abused. So Pauline was instrumental in developing the use of counselling at Brook and since this time counselling has become an integral part. She always insisted that the medical profession treat young people with respect.”

Pauline also worked as a conciliation officer for the Race Relations Board and in 1966 became Britain’s first black woman magistrate. In 1969 she was awarded the OBE.

I had no idea when I visited this softly spoken woman in her flat near Western Road of the great strides she’d made not only in one career, but two. Apparently at the same time she was also running a playwriting group for the University of the Third Age while volunteering for the Women’s Centre.

Truly a local hero.

Louise Peskett writes a fortnightly women’s history column for the Brighton and Hove Independent.