First Black man to head Cambridge University college shares remarkable success story
Lord Simon Woolley has an amazing tale to tell. The 60-year-old, who grew up on a council estate and left school without any A-levels, is the first black man to serve as principal of Cambridge University’s Homerton College.
Lord Woolley, who has worked in Downing Street, sits in the House of Lords and is a knight of the realm, wants to use his role at Homerton to encourage more black and working class children to go to university.
“I’m in a great position to tell working class kids ‘you belong here’,” he told the Mirror. “So I’m selling ideas.”
Lord Woolley was brought up by Dan and Phyllis, known as Pippi, on St Matthew’s estate in Leicester after being given up for adoption at the age of two. Although Dan worked at the local Dunlop Tyres factory, money was an issue.
One of his earliest memories is of Pippi shoplifting for food. Even at that early age he knew it was not “thieving but feeding”.
“I must have been about five or six but I acutely understood it,” he said. “Never said a word to anybody.
“I knew what thieving was, me and my friends used to take sweets and sometimes we’d nick for the sake of nicking, but this was different. This was eggs, butter.”
Racism was also present from an early age. “Skinheads would come by the playground singing ‘send the w**s to Vietnam,” he said.
“We knew we were the ‘w**gs’ but I couldn’t understand why they wanted to send us to Vietnam as I never heard of it. I said to my mum ‘why do they want to send us to Vietnam?’
“She just held me and cried. And my mum never cried.”
Like most boys from his estate, Lord Woolley left school at 16 and became an apprentice car mechanic. Life changed when he met a bunch of “wide boys” from London who persuaded him to come to the capital to be a sales rep for a shower company.
He proved good at selling. By 21 he had his own home. He flogged showers, then coffee machines and film adverts. On the side he was a tout for West End theatre tickets.
“When you live with the south London spivs there’s a lifestyle that goes with it,” he said. “It’s fast-talking, it’s Champagne drinking, it’s sharp-suited.”
Despite earning a good living, Lord Woolley was acutely aware of his lack of education and decided to go to university to study politics. That gave him the chance to go to Costa Rica and then Colombia, where he saw shootings and violence related to the cocaine trade.
“I came back really firing,” he said. “My mantra was I’m not going to get kidnapped, I’m not going to get shot, what excuse do I have not to change the world?”
The determination to change the world led to Operation Black Vote, which he helped establish in the mid-1990s to tackle the anger at “black people going into police custody and coming out in a body bag”. They started campaigning to get more black people in Parliament, more registered to vote and to increase the number in organisations such as the judiciary.
“When we started there were four black and Asian MPs now there are 64,” he said. “We have transformed the magistracy. We have 150 magistrates that have collectively done over 1,200 years of public service.”
That success opened new doors, including a friendship with Prince Charles. “He believes I can be an agent for social and racial change with him,” he said. “I can go to places he can’t go. And he says to me ‘use me to open doors to do the things we both want to see happen’.”
Racism remains a regular experience in life, though. Since entering the Lords he has three times been confused by other peers for a member of staff.
Lord Woolley said it is “heartbreaking” that his son Luca, 16, gets called the n-word. “What makes me angry is some politicians have been dredging this to win votes,” he said.
“The faux cultural wars, the war on woke, the demonising of footballers who take the knee, is pitching poor white people against poor black people.”
When Lord Woolley became the principal of Homerton College at the end of last year, he said he was “honoured and humbled”. He said he would fund two full college bursaries for underprivileged students each year.