Storytime: Lilian Bader

Lilian Bader 18 February 1918 – 13 March 2015

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Lilian Bailey was one of the first black women to join the British armed forces.

Originally born in Liverpool, her father was Barbadian who served in the Royal Navy and her mother was Irish.

Unfortunately, Lilian was orphaned at nine years old and separated from her brothers Frank and James.

Resilience is the word that comes to mind when I think of Lilian, whenever life gave her lemons she turned them into lemonade. Lilian stayed at the convent until she was twenty as nobody wanted to employ her. 

Eventually employed by the Navy, Army, and Air Force Institutes in 1939 but let go because her father was Barbadian.

Determined, Lilian wanted to support the war effort. So she volunteered to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force in 1941 to become an Instrument Repairer.

During her training, she received the news that her beloved brother Jim had died.

He was in The Merchant Navy. ‘Nevertheless, she persisted’ when I think of that phrase, I will now associate that Lilian.

Her recent loss didn’t stop her and qualified as “First Class” becoming one of the first women in the air force in that trade. Lilian was quickly promoted as she was excellent at her job. 

The definition of Black Excellence.

Lilian met Ramsay Bader, he was a black tank driver who served the 147th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. They married on 11th March 1943, and was discharged from the WAAF when she fell pregnant in 1944.

They went on to complete their family by having another son. Their names were Adrian and Geoffrey.

In her spare time Lilian volunteered with the St. John’s Brigade in the 60’s. Lilian then went back to study by completing her G.C.S.E’s and A Levels. Which then led to university to become a teacher.

It just goes to show that it’s never too late, don’t ever let your age stop you from holding you back. I would like to thank Stephen Bourne for helping me with the research on this article.

Imagine my joy on opening my email from him and reading this:

“Lilian was wonderful. She was very down to earth & friendly. 

I first met her in 1991 at the launch of the book West Indian Women at War which took place at the Imperial War Museum in London. Lilian is interviewed in the book. 

She reminded me of my adopted Aunt Esther, also mixed-race & British-born. 

They were feisty, plain-speaking, proud women. Aunt Esther was born in London in 1912 & Lilian in Liverpool in 1918. They both had black fathers & white mothers. Though similar, they never met. Aunt Esther passed in 1994.

When I collaborated with Aunt Esther on her life story, also published in 1991, I sent Lilian a copy which pleased her greatly. We kept in touch by letter & phone & we met again in 2008 at the Imperial War Museum at the launch of the exhibition From War to Windrush. I worked on this as one of the historical consultants. Both Aunt Esther & Lilian were featured in the exhibition.

Lilian was proud of her service in World War Two as a WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). She served from 1941 to 1944.”

Does anyone have family who also served in world wars one and two from The Windrush Generation? I would love to know and share this too so we can give them their flowers.

Many thanks to Stephen Bourne for this touching tribute to your friend Lilian and your beloved Aunt Esther.

Looking forward to reading “Under Fire” by Stephen Bourne, which has now been released! Watch this space for a book review.

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