Engineering Leeds: How African Caribbean men and women helped to shape engineering in post-war Leeds – now available to watch online

Smeaton300, Leeds 2023 and Jamaica Society Leeds present the film of our in-conversation event with Susan Pitter and panellists Derrick Armstrong, Hughbon Condor and Des Walters

The event took place at Central Library with a live audience in October 2023 where our panellists and host Susan Pitter explored the experiences of African Caribbean men and women who worked in engineering in Leeds from the 1940s onwards. The panel shared their own personal experiences – why they chose engineering and their time with companies like Doncasters Monkbridge and ‘Copperworks’. From daily apprenticeship life to life-long jobs, navigating a new culture and climate, pride in their work and surviving prejudice, to feeding families and forging friendships. The panel, special guest audience contributors and event Q&A offered a valuable insight into their real life highs and lows of working in engineering in Leeds.

Watch the film Engineering Leeds: How African Caribbean Men and Women Helped to Shape Engineering in Post-War Leeds.

Susan Pitter, Des Walters, Derrick Armstrong and Hughbon Condor

City archives tell the story of Leeds, its people and history. Together they should tell us how and why we have the Leeds of today. A significant and important part of the city’s post war history is engineering – the workers, the foundries, iron and steel works, the manufacturers and more. When men and women from the Caribbean answered the call to fill the employment gaps that Britain couldn’t fill after WW2, engineering was one of the sectors that needed them to help rebuild and recover. And yet the contributions of African Caribbean men and women who worked in engineering in Leeds are scarcely acknowledged in our city’s public archives. Their photos, in particular, are a rarity. This event opened a door to begin to making this part of Leeds engineering history better known and seen. Our audience were incredibly generous in sharing their own experiences of engineering in Leeds and contributed many additional insights and reflections in the Q&A session.

Engineering Leeds audience Q&A

Event Panellists
In 1976, 16-year-old Derrick Armstrong was one of a number of Black teenagers on engineering apprenticeships in Leeds. He started his four-year stint at Hunslet Engine Company straight from Primrose Hill High School. During an era defined by socio-political turmoil for young Black British, second-generation West Indians, career opportunities were limited and many Black teenage boys were advised to follow in first-generation footsteps to the engineering sector.  Derrick’s late father, Keith who came to Leeds from Jamaica in the early 60s, also worked in engineering at West Yorkshire Foundry and Yorkshire Imperial Metals (aka Copperworks). After his apprenticeship, Derrick studied accountancy before taking up roles in youth, community and probation services. After time in the charitable supported housing sector for vulnerable people, more recently Derrick has practiced as an arts project management and evaluation consultant.

St Kitts & Nevis born Hughbon Condor is an internationally respected carnival costume designer with over 50 years’ experience. He came to the UK in 1967 aged 14. In 1970, the 17-year-old started a four year craft apprenticeship on the shop floor at a Cleckheaton engineering company. After 2 years he was promoted to a technical apprentice setting him on the path to a career which saw him take on management roles in production, process and production engineering for companies including Yorkshire Switchgear and Yorkshire Imperial Metals in Leeds. Hughbon then went on to work for PATH Yorkshire, providers of employment and training opportunities for young people Black and other under-represented groups. On retirement he set up High Esteem Designs with his son and grandson to continue a life long passion for Caribbean arts. His creations have been seen by millions at Leeds West Indian Carnival, across the UK, Caribbean, Asia and Africa. Many of Hughbon’s most memorable costume designs have incorporated movement and mechanics –  reflecting his engineering training and background.

Des Walters was born in St Kitts and came to Britain in 1961 aged 10. On leaving school he joined an engineering apprenticeship programme at Epco on Skinner Lane, Leeds before joining Doncasters Monk Bridge Iron & Steel Works – which manufactured gas turbine blades and precision components – in 1973. Des started as a tool fitter  for the company setting up presses that made the blades then progressed to a lab technician and manufacturing engineer. He also studied for a degree in manufacturing whist working. Des retired in 2008 almost four decades in engineering having worked his way up from the shop floor to distinguished career in management.

This event was part of Smeaton300, a creative events programme by Foxglove running throughout 2023 and 2024 celebrating John Smeaton, the Leeds-born trailblazer of civil engineering.

Images by Laurelle Kamara
Videographer Richee Mathwin