This summer I was part of a project called They Came Before Us. It was created by Collage Arts, a leading arts development, training and creative regeneration charity based in Wood Green. The purpose of this project was to profile five BAME women who were instrumental in British history from Tudor times to current day. The project culminated in an archive of materials and an exhibition displayed at two galleries in London. It was funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
I was in the Visual Arts group and together with the other selected visual artists, we researched the life of Lilian Bader. In this blog post, I’ll be sharing all I learned about this incredible woman, and showing the documentary style images I took depicting various parts of her life as an Acting Corporal in the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), and as a wife and mother.
Lilian Bader at 8 years old.
Lilian Bader (nee Bailey) was born in 1918 in Liverpool and was the youngest of three children. She was one of the first Black women to join the British Armed Forces during the second world war. Her father, Marcus Bailey was born in Barbados and was a merchant seaman during the first world war while her mother was Irish. By the time her father died when she was eight years old, her Irish mother had already walked out of their lives. Subsequently, she was separated from her brothers and sent to a convent where she lived until she was 20 years old and found work as a domestic cleaner.
When World War two broke out, she left her cleaning job to join the Navy, Army and Air Force Institute (NAAFI) in Yorkshire as a canteen staff. Unfortunately for Lilian, although she got on well at NAAFI, she was fired due to an ethnicity ban that existed at the start of the war when her father’s West Indian heritage was discovered. After her awful redundancy, she returned to domestic service.
Working in the canteen at NAAFI
A few years later, she learned that the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) was accepting Black women, so she applied and was accepted on 28 March 1941 to train as an Instrument Repairer. Two weeks before her final exam, she received word that one of her brother’s had died at sea. As we can imagine, this must have been a sad time for her. However, she did pass her exams and by December of the same year, was fully certified as an Instrument Repairer and was made Leading Aircraft Woman. This made her one of the first women in the air force to qualify in that trade. Lilian continued to climb the ranks quickly and was made Acting Corporal which made her responsible for checking the function of all planes before take off, thus ensuring the pilot’s safety.
During her service, she met her husband Ramsay Bader who was also of mixed race heritage and in the air force. In 1943, they got married in a quiet wedding in Hull and in February 1944, she was discharged from duty to have her first child.
Lilian had two sons named Aiden and Jeffrey; and when they were older, she enrolled at the University of London and later became a teacher which she did well into her eighties.
In 1989 Lilian’s memoir about her experiences titled Together- Lilian Bader: Wartime Memoirs Of a WAAF 1938 – 1944 was published.
Lilian Bader was very proud of the fact that by the end of the twentieth century, three generations of her family had served in the British Armed Forces. In an interview, she reflects:
“Father served in the First World War, his three children served in the Second World War. I married a coloured man who was in the Second World War, as was his brother who was decorated for bravery in Burma. Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland. So all in all, I think we’ve given back more to this country than we’ve received.”
Lilian Bader died on 14 March 2015.
Thanks For Reading! What Do You Think Of Her Story?
Check Out Some BTS With My Team
Younger Lilian Bader – Chloe Sinyinza
Older Lilian Bader – Yasmin Jamaal
Ramsay Bader – Shaun Flores
Two Sons – Elliot and Edwin Aning