We may know the first Black US president and the first Black British MP, but other firsts make huge impacts too, even just at a community level.
Albert Gordon was the first Black pub landlord in Cambridge, running the Midland Tavern in Devonshire Road in the ’70s.
He was a driving force of West Indian culture for the city, often featured in our own newspaper, then called the Cambridge Evening News. He charmed everyone from the local magistrates’ court who gave him a dancing license despite it being a pub, the police, the Irish, the ‘teddy boys’, the ‘down and outs’, students and teachers from Cambridge as well as the ‘rock and roll boys.’
His pub, now the Devonshire Arms off Mill Road, Cambridgeshire broke every conceivable social barrier and though Albert now lives in Jamaica, he was interviewed four years ago by Councillor Lucy Walker for the Mill Road History Project so we can still hear him speak of those golden days.
He took over the pub with his wife Lorna Gordon in February 1971. Albert speaks on the recording with his soft Jamaican accent: “Someone asked me about colour- if white people come in [the pub]. I said all you have to do is come down here and experience it yourself.”
The ‘mixed and cosmopolitan’ scene Albert described was created because of his family being exceptionally wonderful hosts. For the Queen’s Silver Jubilee in 1977, they had all the kids of Devonshire Road in their back yard, Albert playing DJ. He hosted the meetings for the ‘formidable’ West Indian cricket team who started in the late ‘60s.
His adoptive daughter, Lucy Anne Gordon said: “My parents also organised a Charity Pram Race starting at the Midland Tavern, going along Mill Road to several pubs including the Kingston, Locomotive, White Swan and Man in the Moon. A group of men from the different pubs pushed their mates to each pub having a pint in each pub along the way.”
Albert and Lorna brought up their five children above the pub. Albert said: “When you walked in the front door you had to fight your way to get to the bar because it was so packed.”
When he opened there was a demand for reggae, so Albert sorted it: “Because of the West Indian vibes [the customers] wanted to have music. It was never heard of to get a dancing license in a pub.”
He approached the police, the fire service, the council and even the magistrates’ courts to have his disco pub. He was eventually granted a license and invested in his own sound system for “blaring reggae music.”
He was notably indiscriminate, welcoming the Irish who were often discriminated against at the time: “The Irish guys who worked on digging sites, as soon as the doors opened they’d be straight in for pints of Guinness. In the space of two hours, those guys would spend so much money it was unbelievable,” Albert said. “They were coming in with their muddy boots, full of mud and leave the mud on the floor but I didn’t mind.”
More worlds intersected as Albert befriended a gay couple who ran the Kingston Arms on Kingston Street. He said: “They were hilarious, especially one of them, Lee. He was such a nice guy to be around. His customers used to come down for the Midland Tavern. I would bring some of my customers to his pub.
“They used to all interact together and have a wicked time. Some said straight people can’t interact with gay [people], it’s a load of rubbish. We were so together. It was a lovely time.”
Albert would even give the odd pint away to those without much to spend: “The down and outs, [a term referring to someone without much money or a job], they used to come here. I used to welcome them and give them a pint once a fortnight.”
Then there were the teddy boys, “with their suits and greased back hair,” Albert described. “We used to get the rock and roll boys too come for the reggae and northern soul. We used to get the students coming here. They were saying we were corrupting the students with the music.” At this point in the recording, Albert breaks into laughter.
He explained: “They used to come to drink and dance. Even police might come in and have a good time. It was a beautiful atmosphere and a beautiful time. People loved us because of that.”
The Cambridge residents still remember Albert and his pub
Albert and Lorna closed shop in the late ‘70s, and the Midland Tavern was taken over by Derek Harvey, a Cambridge Evening News reporter who had interviewed them years earlier.
Despite the end of the Midland Arms as Cambridge knew it, Cambridge folk still remember this ‘legendary’ community hub from the ‘70s, calling it their ‘second home.’
Cathay Dunbar said: “I worked behind the bar in the late ’70s and always had a row of Snowballs (the drink) lined up behind the bar, my drink of choice at the time! Loved dancing in the back room, where I met the father of my beautiful daughter Syrita.”
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Sasha Perryman said: “It was my regular haunt. It was the best ‘sleazy dive’ in town, full of local characters, with the older men slamming down their domino’s in the front bar. Albert’s wife Lorna was one hell of a woman and Albert so good-natured.”
Pat Mackenzie said: “So many memories, including the crash of dominos on the tables as you walked past the tables on the way through to the music. 1972 was a re-beginning for me, and the Midland was the start of it.”
To find Capturing Cambridge’s full list of events for Black History Month go to their website here.