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The Passing of The Sweetest Man Who Ever Lived

The sad passing of Enrico (Henry) Stennett on 7th July 2011.

Enrico Stennett was born on 9th October 1926 in Mount Carey, Montego Bay, Jamaica, at that time a British Colony, his family were Plantation owners.

At the age of 3 he was a day boarder to the only boarding school in that village at that period.  The school was run by two English Headmistresses for pupils whose parents could afford to pay the fees for their children’s education.  He was sent to this school to learn to speak fluent English and English grammar.  The school was for preparing ones child to enter the school at the age of seven.  He attended the school  for four years where he gained a certificate for Elocution.

Because of virtue of his birth (most of his parents were of English and German extraction) he was sent to Cornwall College in Montego Bay for further education.

On leaving College at 17 he was employed by the Jamaican Nationalist Party, headed by Norman Manley as a Social Worker looking after the problems of the membership, he spoke in Sabina Park as the Voice of Young Jamaica at the age of 12.

He came to England in 1947 with the intention of studying law, owing to the climatic situation at the time this was impossible.  The conditions were so bad he was unable to get accommodation because of his colour and was forced to live in bombed houses for some time in the freezing winter and live in Hostels fit for destitutes, the conditions were so dirty that when he woke his body was covered in lice he had to burn all his clothes.

He joined the Colonial Service 15 Victoria Street, London W1, between the years of 1950-1956 and worked under Mr Ivor De Souza as a volunteer assisting with the settlement of the newly arrived West Indians in this country.  He used to meet them at Victoria Railway Station, when they arrived in from the islands with only their few menial possessions.

Between the years of 1950-1960 he spoke in Hyde Park as this was the only voice the black people had at the time there were no black newspapers, he spoke about the racialist conditions in the country and for the freedom of Africa, 7 days a week.  Every evening after work he would go to Hyde Park to speak all through the cold Winter evenings.

He was also a dancer.  In order to earn some money he became a demonstration dancer for Mecca Ballroom.  He used to dance freestyle dancing and the popular dances of the time at many of the Ballrooms.  He achieved such notoriety for his prowess in the dance-halls of London that after first being banned from the Lyceum, The Astoria, the Locarno and the Hammer-smith and Wimbledon Palais, he was hired by the management to perform exhibitions of jiving and jitterbugging to the delight of the white working-class crowds.  This employment took him to ballrooms throughout the south of England and earned him £25 per week for three nights work.  Unable to find a black woman to be his partner, he took a white partner, but discovered dancing with white women provoked intense hostility from the management and sometimes violence.  He and his white partner were contracted to leave immediately, their exemplary performances ended lest other white women asked him to dance.  Operating under the name Sugar he and other young black dancers congregated at the Paramount Ballroom in London’s Tottenham Court Road.   The Paramount rapidly became known as the dance-hall for black teenagers.  ‘Sugar’ and other dance-floor hustlers working under names like The Magic Boots and ‘The Gladiator quickly achieved a monopoly of the dance competitions organized by the ballroom owners.

It was ironic to see in an area of white people you could not find one white male dancing.  At the Paramount the atmosphere was always electric as the Big Bands jostled  to play for us…  At these moments they could really enjoy their playing and by seeing  the black people enjoying themselves to the full it gave them more room for improvisation… Alas there were no black women, but the Paramount was packed with young ladies coming in from the stockbroker belt of Surrey, Essex and Hampshire and  other small villages and towns within a 60 mile radius of London.

Enrico’s account of the ballroom scenes of the early 1950s is particularly valuable if read in conjunction with the autobiography of Leslie Thompson a black musician who worked in many of the biggest dance-bands during this period.  Both testify to the ambiguous penetration of blacks into mainstream working-class leisure space.

The contradictory nature of the black presence in those institutions is exemplified by Enrico’s tale of the ways in which racial hostility was tempered by the high status that derived from black pre-eminence on the dance floor.

He was also a dancer in the ‘Bertha Berzouca Ballet’ called ‘Tobacco Road’ and appeared in a play called ‘How Deep Are the Root’s.’

In 1948 he was the founder of an organisation in Wimbledon, London called the ‘Cosmopolitan Social Association.’  The emblem of this Association was created by Mr Stennett of a black hand shaking a white hand which was used throughout Community Relations.  Through this Association he worked amongst West Indians and Africans assisting in all social problems.  Locating employment through the Trade Unions, assisting new arrivals from the West Indies to find accommodation, aiding both West Indians and Africans when in trouble with the Police.

In 1951 he was co-founder with Mr E Brewar of the African League who became Judge Advocate in Nigeria and Mr W Longmore of Ghana.  This organization was political and social, he was responsible for the protest meetings held in London, in respect of Jagan of Guyana and Ceretsi Kharma of Botswana.   This organisation had branches in Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham and London.  He was a Lecturer for this organisation speaking to Co-operative Societies throughout the country, Trade Unions and Labour Party meetings on social problems which confronted the West Indians and Africans in England.

He founded the first black Newspaper to be printed in this country called the ‘African Voice’ this was a monthly paper sold to the public on street corners.  His work also entailed the organization of house to house meetings in the Brixton area and other areas of London.  He explained to the West Indian and African population the necessity to assimilate themselves in the community, to join the Trade Union Movement, the Labour Party and to take part in all social and political activities.

He was a very active member of the Westminster Labour Party and the National Union of the Furniture Trade Operators.  He was on the B list for the Parliamentary Candidacy for the Labour Party.  He was one of the joint secretaries of the ‘Movement for Colonial Freedom’ led by Fenner Brockway, Member of Parliament in the middle 1950’s.

Working among the immigrant population equipped him for his job in the early Seventies in Coventry, London and High Wycombe in his work in Community Relations.

Even in sadness, one must feel pride in the legacy left by someone so special.  His spirit will continue to shine, lighting the way for others, leaving all of us an example to follow and a remarkable life to remember with grateful hearts.  The heart is comforted by a life well lived.

Let us not mourn, but give thanks for his life as we all would be much poorer in many ways had we not met him.

His spirit and youthfulness made him seem almost invincible.  He had a great integrity and tenacity, never afraid to speak the truth, to stand up for what was right.

His constant efforts to create new opportunities for young people through Education and the Youth Service.  His ideas were ambitious but appropriate if the aim of Social Justice was to be achieved.

He never gave up, courage and determination were his trademarks. 

He was one of our most distinguished elderly statesmen with a mountain of knowledge regarding black history and issues around Race Relations, Trade Unions, Community Cohesion and Empowerment, the effects of Colonialism and Imperialism.

Enrico’s story is a truly remarkable and distinguished experience.

Enrico Stennett, a Leader, an Ally, a Voice for Justice, a Writer, a Dancer, a man with light, humour and kindness in his eyes.

Enrico Stennett the sweetest man who ever lived, you will remain in our hearts forever. 

Why did you have to die? 

I loved you so much.  We all loved you.  

You have left behind so many broken hearts until the end of time.  

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