We are taking a deep dive into the work of Una Marson. Marson was one of Jamaica’s most influential poets, broadcasters, and activists. She was a feminist pioneer and the first Black woman employed by the BBC. She was also the first Black woman to have her play performed in the West End and the first Black woman to attend the League of Nations. One blog post cannot do justice to her incredible career, but we hope to use The Archive and the recent publication of The Keys to highlight her work and talent. Recently she was featured as a Google doodle. Her poetry, broadcasts, and lectures highlighted the needs of the impoverished in Jamaica and called out discriminatory behaviour in England.
Una Maud Marson was born near Santa Cruz in Jamaica. On our sister site Findmypast, we can find her birth record and see her father was a Baptist minister. Growing up in Jamaica she was exposed to colonial life and taught the history of Britain, the motherland.
Marson started her journalist career at the Critic in Kingston and then later started her own magazine, Cosmopolitan. The magazine was filled with feminism, radical politics, fashion, housekeeping, and poetry. It was the first Jamaican magazine owned and edited by a woman. The magazine only lasted a few years, but Una had gained significant experience. After the closure of the magazine, Una continued to publish poetry including a collection of poems in Tropic Reveries in 1930.
Arrival in London
Una Marson moved to London from Jamaica in 1932. When she first arrived, she stayed with Dr Harold Moody. Dr Moody’s house was filled with students and recent migrants from the West Indies and Africa. Dr Moody was the founder of the League of Coloured Peoples, a significant organisation advancing the needs of Black Britons and those who have moved to
England from the West Indies and Africa. Una quickly became involved in the League as its secretary and we can see in this article from 1934 that she helped to organise social events such as this concert at the Indian Students’ hostel.
She also contributed to The Keys, the official organ of the League of Coloured Peoples, particularly with her poetic works. In one poem, titled using a derogatory term used for Black people, Una challenged the racism she experienced in England. Seeing the word so boldly printed is jarring and that is the intended effect. To make it almost as jarring as having that word used against a person.
Contributor to The Keys – Her poem, titled with the derogatory word used toward Black people, forcefully addressed racism in England.
In 1935, Una Marson became the editor of The Keys and focused on championing the works of female authors. The objective of The Keys was to
To promote and protect the Social, Educational, Economic and Political Interests of its members.
To interest members in the Welfare of Coloured Peoples in all parts of the World.
To improve relations between the Races.
To co-operate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to the Coloured People.
Discover more about The Keys in Unlocking Black British History – An Introduction to ‘The Keys’ Journal or you can watch our interview with historian S I Martin on the significance of ‘The Keys’. You can read The Keys in The Archive completely for free. It is available through our Free to View pages.
An advocate for Jamaica
In 1936, Marson attended the 12th Congress of the International Alliance for Women for Suffrage and Legal Citizenship in Istanbul as a delegate and spoke to a gathering about the pressing need to support the impoverished families of Jamaica.
The International Woman Suffrage News reported Marson’s presence at the event as a ‘well-deserved success’ and Marson had good news to share:
‘some money will be available from a private source for social work in the villages on rural institute lines and Miss Marson has been asked to help with the organisation. She hopes that she may start this work in January and we wish her the fullest possible measure of success, as all who have heard her speak about conditions in Jamaica know a great need.’
Una Marson returned to Jamaica that year. The International Women Suffrage News helps us to continue tracing Marson’s activity in Jamaica. In 1938, Marson’s play ‘Pocomania’ was performed. It was a brilliant success in Kingston. It is an important dramatic work which explores themes of identity. She also continued journalism by working for The Jamaica Standard. We discover more about her activities in Jamaica through the International Woman Suffrage News:
Return to Britain
In 1938, Una returned to Britain as the organising secretary for the ‘Save the Jamaican children Fund’.
‘It is popularly believed here that Jamaica is a paradise island with beautiful sea
breezes and stately palm trees. That is true in a way, but it hides the true picture of the life of the islanders. The slums of Kingston are something to be seen to be believed. Shack fits only for cattle to live in, made of old bits of tin and palm leaves, are the homes of thousands of negro families. Even potatoes are a luxury eat on only on feast days. The children are mere skeletons with sucken eyes and honey hands. Their parents can scarcely give them even one meal a day and that meal hardly contains any nutrition.’
That same year she was a delegate at the British Commonwealth League conference at Grosvenor Place, London and spoke of the deplorable malnutrition of the people of Jamaica.
Marson’s reports of Jamaica were in stark opposite to the images of the elite and immensely wealthy British families living in Jamaica. The Sphere describes life in the West Indies where Lady Nugent breakfasted ‘in the Creole style – Cassada cakes, chocolate, coffee, tea, fruits of all sorts, pigeon pies, ham, tongues, round of beef, etc.’
Working with the BBC
On the eve of war, we can find Una Marson in the 1939 Register living in Hampstead Heath with 4 others, a student teacher, civil servant, film producer, and someone living by private means. Marson’s occupation was a journalist.
That same year, Una Marson had already started her career in broadcasting and we can see her name in the daily listings with a broadcast ‘Simple Facts: Jamaica’.
With the outbreak of war, thousands from the West Indies joined the armed forces and arrived in Britain to work in factories to support the Allied forces. The BBC saw the need to connect those serving men and women with loved ones. In 1941, the BBC launched Calling the West Indies with Una Marson as the show’s producer. Marson was the first Black female broadcaster at the BBC. The show featured inspirational stories, music, poetry, and messages from loved ones. The Scotsman wrote about transmission from Scotland to loved ones in the West Indies.
‘About a score or so of young people from various parts of the islands were clustered before the microphone is not very obviously nervous anticipation…To set the mood of the broadcast the whole company gave a rousing rendering of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean”. This was followed by a series of personal messages.’
A 1944 cinema reel, West Indies Calling features Una Marson and groups of West Indians speaking about their work to support the war effort.
Una Marson continued to advocate for the people of Jamaica. In a talk at Dartford in 1941 she explains how war and disruption to trade has affected the people of Jamaica after England, known to those in Jamaica as ‘Home’, had stopped importing bananas.
During the war, The Sphere called broadcasting ‘the only new weapon of this war’ and ‘the cavalry of the air’. The article pushes for the transmission of broadcasts further to Greece, Yugoslavia, Spain, Syria, Morocco and more. It called attention to those shows which were seeking an international audience, including Una Marson’s Calling the Indies. Alongside Marson was Joan Gilbert broadcasting to Gibraltar and Berry Warren delivering a broadcast to the Middle East.
Una continued to contribute to the International Women Suffrage News. Marson is listed as a contributor alongside familiar names such as HG Wells and Vera Brittan. Through her work not only highlighted the needs of those in Jamaica but also challenged the racism she experienced in Britain.
Post Second World War
While working for the BBC, being an international advocate for Jamaica, contributing to suffrage newspapers, Marson also continued to pursue her poetry. In 1945, she published
‘Towards the Stars’. It was a collection of ‘her poems of nature, love and life are spontaneous, simple and musical, and when she writes of her compatriots there is poignancy in her verses…They reveal deep sincerity and a joyous delight in singing.’
After the war, Marson spent time back in Jamaica and in the United States. In 1964 Marson attended the Haifa seminar on Social and Cultural Integration in Urban Areas with delegates from African, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. A short time after the seminar, Marson returned in January 1965 to work at the Mount Carmel Training Centre as a House Mother. She tended to the sick and those in need. Then she was awarded with British Council scholarship to study social development in Jamaica. Unfortunately, at the age of 60, Una Marson died of a heart attack. She had an incredible life breaking down barriers and challenging social norms.