Captain Shiv Banerjee, Justice of the Peace
This is Shiv Banerjee – the Captain at the wheel of his ship – on the long voyage that led from his birth in Kailish Ghosh Lane in Dhaka, East Bengal in 1945, to the Toynbee Hall in Commercial St, Spitalfields where he resides today. In fact, the accommodation block at the rear of Toynbee Hall has so many staircases opening onto galleries with lines of neat front doors stretching in every direction, that it does have a certain nautical aspect to it, and on the upper terrace where Shiv has his flat there is even a metal rail just like that on a ship – except, when you peer over, you discover Gunthorpe St below rather than the roaring ocean.
We met at the introduction of Muktha, waiter at Herb & Spice, from where it was a short hop down Commercial St to the Toynbee Hall, and as I walked through the courtyards with Shiv, other residents nodded and waved in respectful acknowledgement, enforcing my feeling that I was accompanying the Captain of the vessel. So when I entered his quarters, it was no surprise to discover a model ship in the living room of his modest yet comfortably furnished flat. We had arrived at the chosen location for Captain Banerjee to tell me about his extraordinary journey.
I was born in Kailash Ghosh Lane in Dhaka, and when I was two months old I was brought to New Delhi, where I lived in the government houses at Lake Square, designed by Edwin Lutyens. I’d never seen the sea when I applied to be a cadet, but I wanted to go to different places. I applied for the exam in 1962 and didn’t get selected for interview – about fifty-five thousand people applied for seventy-five places and they only interviewed one hundred and twenty. But I didn’t give up and I studied civil engineering for a year before I was accepted on the Dufferin, the British Navy’s cadet ship for Indians, Burmese, Ceylonese and Singaporeans. It was a lonely life but I learnt to like it because I had never known anything better. I was sixteen years old and earning beyond what anyone in my family had ever earned before and the uniform was very attractive to women too. I became an officer at twenty-one and when I went back to Lake Square and got out from the taxi, everyone would come and say, “Here is the hero!” Everyone was very proud of me and I was very proud of myself.
In 1966, I visited Liverpool. It was wonderful. I thought, “All the white people will be there and all the important people will be there too.” Going ashore was exciting, I had my first fish & chips and went out and saw the sights. At the Seaman’s Club, “Top of the Pops” was on the television and I saw The Beatles. Everything excited me, nothing was depressing or bad. I came from a poor background and everything was free on board ship and I had money to spend on shore. It was one of the most exciting times in my life.
Then, in 1972, I came to London to study for my Master’s Ticket, so I could captain a ship – because if you had it from London, you were “Made in England” and you could work anywhere in the world. At Heathrow, I was asked a lot of questions and the official wasn’t very polite. “Have you got enough money?” he asked me. “I’ve got five thousand pounds in cash.” I said. Then I took a taxi to Lancaster Gate and it was very expensive and I was pick-pocketed seventy-five pounds in the street on the first day. So I moved down to stay at the Queen Victoria’s Seamen’s Rest in the East India Dock Rd and went to study at the School of Navigation at Tower Hill.
A priest in New Zealand once told me the Toynbee Hall in Commercial St was the place to stay, so I went to find out more. They interviewed me and said I could stay for free for two nights and see how we got on. We all used to eat together then, it was very communal. I loved it. I said, “I’ll stay here.” And it was where I met my wife who was a teacher at Christ Church School. This woman asked, “Can you teach me Bengali?” and I fell in love with her and didn’t pass my exam. We moved in together to a flat in Sunley House, Toynbee Hall at £12.50 per week, including heating, maintenance and service charge. Finally, in 1977, I passed my Captain’s Exam and I told my wife, “I’ll take you to sea.” She said, “Either you stay here with me, or I change the locks on the door and get a new man.” So I gave up my sea career, but I said, “Let’s decide a few things. You are white and I am black. Our children will not know if they are black or white, so we will not have children.” Next day, I went and had a vasectomy done and then I took her to sea for a year before we settled here. I came on land but I had no job.
I became a volunteer for a year and a half working at the Attlee Adventure Playground off Brick Lane, and then Donald Chesworth, Warden of Toynbee Hall, said, “I’ll raise the money to pay you.” In those days, the staff was entirely white. I went off to sea for six months to earn some money and he sent a cable to say I was offered the job of “Volunteer Co-ordinator and Education Outreach Officer” and I became the first black worker to be employed by Toynbee Hall. I launched an out of hours project for old people – if something went wrong at night, we would come and see to it – and I also worked with mentally and physically handicapped children. Toynbee Hall became my home, I decided it was my job to keep it neat and clean, although no-one had given me that job. I was a proud person to keep this place clean.
Then I joined the Inner London Education Authority as a Social Worker, but as I still did not have any qualification on land, I did a research diploma at the City Lit on barriers to education for Bangladeshi children. Next I worked in the Homeless Families’ Team, there were so many children out of school because their families were being housed in hotels. I negotiated with teachers to get them places in schools and I set up a homeless families’ project in a church hall in Finsbury Park. Until then, the only entertainment for these people was making babies, sex and sex and sex, education was not in it.
But I was getting tired, and John Profumo CBE and Chairman of Toynbee Hall took me under his wing and took me to the Reform Club where I met the good and the great. And in 1984, he called me and said, “Do you want to be a magistrate?” I said, “I am not legally qualified, I only know about ship captain’s law.” but Lord Ponsonby, C.E.O. of British Home Stores and a retired Brigadier said, “Put me down as your referee.” They asked me to apply and I got it. I was the first Bengali speaking Justice of the Peace.
I consider language to be the basis of everything – knowledge of English language, both spoken and written. And I always felt that, for an individual, if they are to stay in this country, they had to know the language. In the past, people always said “Yes” to everything, because they were not able to express their needs. I started to teach English to blind people and encouraged the families in the Finsbury Park Homeless Families’ Project to learn English together, because I still feel strongly that lack of education is the main barrier to progress.
Shiv’s voyage was guided by an instinctive moral compass, granting him a natural authority today, even though he refrains from asserting his status. Somehow, he discovered a sympathetic crossover from his life on board ship with its respectfully structured society to the civilian world – equally employing his organisational skills and sense of humanity too.
With quiet courtesy and dressing in undemonstrative formal clothes, Shiv has devoted himself to a life of usefulness. It is rare to meet someone as open as Shiv, a shrewd man with a clear conscience, who can speak without subtext and use plain words to tell you exactly what he means. Never cynical nor flippant, Captain Shiv Banerjee, Justice of the Peace, has an open-hearted vocation to serve his people.
On the left is Shiv, aged seventeen years old, pictured here on board the Training Ship Dufferin with fellow marines Hardev Singh Boparai and Yashpal Das, in August 1963, after the oath ceremony.
Indian Mercantile Marine Training Ship, Dufferin - “There’ll always be a Dufferin upon the Indian Sea, Wherever flies the Merchant Flag there also we will be.”
Shiv’s Master’s Ticket that qualifies him to Captain a ship.
Captain Shiv Banerjee, Justice of the Peace, Toynbee Hall, Spitalfields