The tragic tale of Oluwale

David Oluwale's story is one of the unhappiest chapters in Leeds's history. Kester Aspden, who has written the story of Oluwale's life and death, tells of the continuing impact of the case almost 40 years later.

David Oluwale was a familiar figure in Leeds in the 1960s, a short black man shuffling around Kirkgate Market. Drinkers at the Market Tavern – known as The Madhouse – knew him as a solitary person, lost in his daydreams and his pint of mild. At night he buried himself in shop doorways, steering clear of the places favoured by most rough sleepers.

When his bruised body was pulled from the River Aire on 4 May 1969, nobody came forward to ask questions. The only mourners at his graveside were undertakers and grave diggers.

But now a committee has been established to campaign for a memorial and a play about his life is to be staged at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. It will soon be hard to ignore the name.

Oluwale was 19 when he came from Nigeria in 1949, stowing away on a cargo ship to Hull. He left behind a work-scarce British colony in the hope of a better future in the 'Mother Country'.

Instead, half of his 29 years here were spent on the secure ward of a mental hospital. He also came to know the inside of Armley Prison well.

In 1968, while living on the streets, Oluwale became the target of a campaign of physical and mental violence. His tormenters were two senior officers at Millgarth police station.

Inspector Geoffrey Ellerker and Sergeant Kenneth Kitching took pleasure in making Oluwale's life a misery. Once Leeds had shut down for the night they went looking for him, subjecting him to a range of humiliations. They forced him to bow down in front of them and banged his head on the pavement. They called this a 'penance'. They were seen urinating on Oluwale as he slept.

They once drove him out of the city and dumped him at Middleton Woods, joking afterwards that he would feel at home in the jungle.

A few weeks before his death, Oluwale told his probation officer that he wanted to return to Nigeria. He was almost broken.

In the early hours of 18 April 1969, he was beaten in the doorway of John Peters (now a Miss Selfridge). The last positive sighting of him was as he fled up Lands Lane holding the back of his head.

Kitching and Ellerker were jailed for a series of assaults on Oluwale at Leeds Assizes, but found not guilty of manslaughter at the direction of the judge. Mr Justice Hinchcliffe concluded that there was no evidence to place them at the alleged scene of the crime, by the river at Warehouse Hill. The judge made no secret of his distaste for the victim, referring to him as a "filthy, violent vagrant".

A highly visible nobody in life, Oluwale soon entered popular culture. His name was chanted at Elland Road. To the tune of Michael Row The Boat Ashore, the Kop sang: 'The River Aire is chilly and deep, Oluwale. Never trust the Leeds police.'

Yet there was little soul-searching in the aftermath of the case. It was easy to blame Oluwale's fate entirely on 'two rotten apples' within the police. But social services also failed Oluwale, shunting him from one department to another. After his long incarceration, High Royds mental hospital released him into the community with scant thought as to how he might cope (a few months after being discharged he bit a park-keeper's finger, but instead of being returned to hospital was jailed for malicious wounding).

Organisations for the welfare of immigrants only learned of his plight when he was in the grave.

For many years the name Oluwale was lodged in the recess of the city's memory, barely acknowledged.

But the lingering sense of shame surrounding Oluwale's death is one reason why some are now calling for a memorial.

Campaign organiser Dr Max Farrar, of Leeds Metropolitan University, said: "Forty years is long enough for the city to work through the trauma."

John Packer, Bishop of Ripon and Leeds, who has pledged his support to the campaign, wants to secure that memory as a warning of where racial hatred leads.

"It's important to show how sorry we are that this happened within our own culture," he said.

Mgr Peter Rosser, the representative of the Roman Catholic Bishop of Leeds on the committee, said: "A memorial would not only speak of the gifts of Oluwale, it would encourage people to reflect positively on the migrant experience."

The Oluwale committee insist they do not want to dwell on past crimes in a recriminatory fashion.

Bill Kilgallon, chief executive of St Gemma's Hospice, said: "The whole ethos of the police service has changed. A memorial should not only recognise where we as a society failed an individual, but mark the distance we have travelled."

Oluwale is fast becoming an icon of racial and social injustice, but he remains an elusive character.

Soon after the publication of the hardback version of my book, I was contacted by John Otse, another Nigerian who stowed away to Britain.

Otse knew Oluwale in good times and bad. He was very fond of the man they called 'Yankee', a nickname given because of his passion for Westerns and his swaggering walk. Otse remembers him as a sharp dresser who frequented the Mecca ballroom.

But Otse thinks Oluwale was frustrated with his life in Leeds, his menial jobs and shabby lodgings. "He talked of going to night school to improve his writing, but he was more interested in partying."

Oluwale didn't submit to the subservient role then expected of black people. He hated being pushed around, Otse told me, and over-reacted to situations where others might have walked away.

Otse lost touch with Oluwale when he was sent to High Royds. By all accounts that was a brutalizing experience. He did not receive a visitor there in ten years.

When Otse next saw Oluwale he was in a sorry way. "He'd started to disintegrate. Even his English had deteriorated. He tried hard to look decent but struggled to keep himself clean."

Otse tried but failed to get Oluwale back on his feet. Most of his other friends disowned him.

"The blame should rest squarely on us as well, because we didn't do what we should have done for him, all living in a foreign country," Otse says of the city's small Nigerian community.

"If we had only got ourselves together we could have been able to save Oluwale's life."

Many of the places in Leeds that Oluwale knew so well have long gone. But in spring 2009, the Mecca, The Madhouse and the old Millgarth will be brought to life at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in an adaptation of The Hounding of David Oluwale.

Oladipo Agboluaje has been commissioned to write the adaptation, a man whose work is known for its anarchic spirit and subversive humour, and he certainly does not want to serve up a dry history lesson.

"The aim of this adaptation is to discover the man buried beneath the pile of official records. My intention is to paint a human story putting David at its centre. To say that David was an angel whose name has been sullied is incorrect. He was a person, which makes it easy to empathise with his story."

Agboluaje's play looks set to be one of the region's cultural highlights of 2009. A three-week run is planned, then it will then go on to other prestigious venues around the country.

Among those of a younger generation to become fascinated by the case is Mahalia France. She was born in 1976, years after Oluwale's body was dragged from the river, but as a young girl growing up in Chapeltown remembers the name being in the background.

"Remember Oluwale," was one bit of graffiti scrawled near the Hayfield Hotel.

France is now involved in the memorial campaign as a fundraiser and hopes the result will be something life-affirming, possibly a garden or urban playground.

"He didn't ask for much, only a place to live. And who doesn't deserve that as a human being?" she says.

Kester Aspden will be speaking at an Oluwale memorial event at Wheeler Hall, St Anne's Roman Catholic Cathedral, on Thursday May 15 at 7pm (entry free) and at Waterstone's, Leeds, on Monday May 19 at 7pm (tickets are free but should be reserved at the store or by calling 01132 444588).

Kester Aspden's The Hounding of David Oluwale (Vintage paperback) is out now, priced 7.99.