Toxteth trailblazer was one of first Black women to join British air force

"I think we’ve given back more to this country than we’ve received"

African-Caribbean people have been members of Britain’s air force for over a hundred years, and one of the first Black women to join was Liverpool’s own Lilian Bader.

Orphaned at nine and raised in a Hull convent separate from her two older brothers, Toxteth Park-born Lilian overcame hardship, racism and discrimination to carve out her place in history.

She was born in 1917 to an Irish mother, and to a dad, Marcus Bailey, whose service as a merchant seaman in the Royal Navy during World War One was not enough to stop his Barbadian heritage from impeding Lilian’s attempts to find work.

This early discrimination when looking for a job kept Lilian living in the convent until she was 20 years old.

The Second World War broke out two years later. Lilian briefly worked in a Navy, Army and Air Force Institutes canteen before being forced out because of her dad’s West Indian heritage.

Determined and intelligent, Lilian drifted through farm work and domestic service until hearing on the radio that the Royal Air Force was accepting West Indian recruits.

Lilian successfully applied to join the Women’s Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF) in 1941.

There she was trailblazer.

She was often the only person of colour surrounded by white people. She passed her training ‘First Class’ and became one of the first women to qualify as an instrument repairer.

During her training, one of her brothers was killed at sea while following in the footsteps of their father in the Merchant Navy.

Back on home turf, Lilian was working long hours in a male-dominated environment as a Leading Aircraftwoman, checking the engines of bombers flown to fight the Nazis.

She was even one of the first WAAF workers to wear overalls instead of skirts.

Lilian rose to the rank of Acting Corporal before her air force career came to an end in 1944.

She met and married a Black D-Day veteran and tank driver, Ramsay Bader, in 1943.

The WAAF discharged Lilian the following year when she became pregnant with their first child.

Her second son followed her lead into the military, flying helicopters in the Royal Navy before becoming an airline pilot.

Lilian persisted as a pioneer when the return to peace saw traditional gender norms closing ranks.

She studied at the University of London and became a teacher, continuing in that works until her 80s.

Lilian Bader died in 2015.

One of her quotes echoes the experience of many African-Caribbean families in Britain, who served the country in times of war and built it back in peace while facing racism, suspicion and discrimination.

She said: “Father served in the First World War, his three children served in the Second World War.

“I married a black man who was in the Second World War, as was his brother who was decorated for bravery in Burma.

“Their father also served in the First World War. Our son was a helicopter pilot, he served in Northern Ireland.

“So all in all, I think we’ve given back more to this country than we’ve received.”