Nicknamed ‘Columbus’, Oswald Denniston was the first African Caribbean trader in Brixton Market who became a pillar of the community in more ways than one


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Oswald Manoah Denniston left school at 14 to work on a sugar plantation but later trained as a sign-writer and decorator. By 1948 he had established his own business, but his spirit of adventure saw him travelling from Jamaica to England on board the MV Empire Windrush.

“It was jolly on the ship,” he said, recalling the voyage. “We had two or three bands – calypso– and one stowaway woman. She was a washer-women who did laundry in the port and came on board. But she couldn’t stay hidden for long and we all helped to pay her fare. I would like to know what happened to that woman. I haven’t seen or heard from her since.”

Oswald was among the 236 men who spent their first night at Clapham South Deep Shelter in south London. It was here that he displayed his leadership qualities by moving a vote of thanks to officials who’d organised the accommodation. As a result, he was offered work the following day as a sign writer in Balham. It did not take him very long to find romance, either. During his first weeks in London, he met his future wife Margaret at a church tea party and the couple settled in south London, going on to have two children.

Very much the entrepreneur, Oswald opened a jukebox coffee bar, in Brixton’s Coldharbour Lane – the Sugar Cane – and in the 1960s he began selling fabrics, dresses and remnants at a shop in Granville Arcade, Brixton Market, becoming the first African-Caribbean trader there. Gregarious and always ready to lend a helping hand, Oswald quickly became a key figure in the community. The shop became a meeting point for activists like Herman Ouseley, Darcus Howe and Linton Kwesi Johnson, who regarded themselves as his friends as well as his customers. Blessed with the ‘gift of the gab’, a talent he used to entertain his customers, he would often be called on to speak at community events.

Outside of work he was a keen cyclist, becoming the first black person to join the Herne Hill Cycling Club in the early 1950s. In a remarkable life, he was also a founding member of the Association of Jamaicans and the Lambeth Community Relations Council.

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