February 20 2024
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Winston Trew: ‘I believed in myself. That’s how I’ve survived’

Winston Trew: ‘I believed in myself. That’s how I’ve survived’

“This lifestyle is a lonely life. You’ve got this wrong conviction in your head all the time. I used to dream about being in prison. I couldn’t escape. I felt that I was carrying a great weight with me through all my life.” For Winston Trew, the years since his conviction in November 1972 have been difficult. 

Winston Trew was one of the Oval Four, a group of young men who, one evening in March 1972, were accosted by British Transport Police officers at Oval Underground Station, arrested on suspicion of carrying out muggings, and shortly afterwards convicted of crimes that they had not committed. They spent months on bail awaiting trial, endured a five-week trial in the Crown Court, followed by eight months in prison. 

But now things have changed. Just before Christmas the Oval Four’s convictions were overturned by the Court of Appeal after a 47 year struggle (as reported on the Justice Gap here). Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell, the officer who framed him and others, has long since been discredited, and the quashing of this conviction was the final step in Trew’s fight for justice. I met him at his home in South London to discuss his memories of his case, and his epic campaign for justice.

Winston Trew leaving the Court of Appeal in December 2019 with his wife after finally clearing his name

Winston Trew is a quietly distinguished man, more the academic than the campaigner. I asked him about his memory of the arrest. Trew and his friends, Sterling Christie, George Griffiths and Constantine Boucher, were returning from a political meeting.

They got off the tube at Oval, and were climbing the escalator to leave the station when, at the top, a group of men suddenly grabbed them, and pushed them against the wall. They accused Trew and his friends of pick-pocketing and stealing handbags from other passengers on the tube.

The young men denied this. As he put it, “We were four black activists – so we knew our rights. We said, “Show us your ID”. The officers ignored this and made to search Trew and his friends. A struggle ensued. He remembers: “One of the officers got his hand around my neck and was trying to strangle me.” A bystander named Mrs O’Connor jumped on the officer’s back to stop him. Mrs O’Connor was pushed onto the floor, and was arrested and taken to the station with Trew and the others. 

Once they arrived at the police station, Winston Trew reports that he “knew we’d had it. You don’t attack the police and they let you off lightly without giving you a revenge beating…they basically gave us a good hiding.” The four activists were separated into different cells, and given prepared statements to sign, admitting to pick pocketing and attacking the police officers who had arrested them. He refused to sign that statement. “They gave me a few punches to the head and back, and took me back downstairs…they probably went to work on the others.” A little later, an officer came back to his cell and told him that his friend Constantine Boucher had signed the prepared statement. 

Trew was taken to a room with an officer from the Metropolitan Police. The officer had a record of unsolved crimes in front of him. “He didn’t say you’ve got to take some of these unsolved crimes, but I knew that’s what he meant. He asked me about a robbery of an off-license. I was trying to work out what the heck’s happening. They wanted me to confess to things I didn’t do.”

The police accused Trew of carrying out numerous offences, including a mugging on the previous Thursday morning. “Now that very Thursday morning, I had signed on as unemployed. So I couldn’t have done this. As Donald Rumsfeld said, there are three things: things that you know, things you know you don’t know, and things you don’t know that you don’t know. I knew I was in for a hiding that night. What I didn’t know was what the police were prepared to do to convince me to sign that statement. And that worried me. I thought either they were going to come in with purses and all these other things and say we found these on you – I was frightened of that. I was frightened of getting another hiding. And I didn’t want to put my life in the hands of the police, to leave it up to them as to whether they’d stop [beating me] or not.” 

So when the officers insisted he had committed an offence on Thursday morning at the time he had been signing on, he decided to agree. He knew he had a cast-iron alibi.

The Oval Four were all charged. They were granted bail, but had to sign on every Friday at their local police station. Trew recalls that, “from that moment, your life wasn’t yours anymore. Everything changed.”

They spent months on bail awaiting trial. During the trial, thanks to the alibi provided by his signing on, he was found not guilty of the charges he had confessed to under duress at the police station. The four men were however each convicted of two counts of attempted theft, and two counts of assaulting a police officer on the basis of what had happened at Oval Station. Sterling Christie was convicted of an additional count of stealing a police woman’s handbag as he fled the Oval station. They were sentenced to two years imprisonment each on 8th November 1972. 

“We were taken straight to Wormwood Scrubs, and inducted into prison life.” Trew, Christie and Boucher would spend the next eight months in prison together.  Griffiths, who was only 19, went to a borstal alone. “The three of us we could support each other, but prison took its toll. At the end of the day, no matter how strong you are together, when you’re in your cell, you’re alone.” Winston Trew recalls his determination to maintain his innocence throughout the sentence. “I didn’t accept that I was a criminal – I believed in myself. That’s how I’ve survived.”

The four men appealed against their convictions. He remembers: “It’s difficult to sit there [during the trial] listening to the police tell lie after lie after lie after lie. Your counsel has to say, “My lord, my client says the officer is not telling the truth.” You can’t say, “He’s a damned liar, your honour!” You’d like to say that but you can’t.” The Court of Appeal upheld their convictions but reduced their sentences to one year. “So effectively we lost the appeal. Although we were released, we were still [held to be] guilty.” Nevertheless, the four were freed the next day as a result of the eight months they had already served. 

The arrest at Oval Station wasn’t Winston Trew’s first experience of racism. His parents had migrated to the UK from Jamaica in the mid-1950s. He arrived at the age of six with his siblings and began attending school in Peckham. He found school difficult, as his academic ability was not recognised, and he found himself, like other black children there, coming into conflict with the teachers and white children. He remembers that, “all the black boys had to stick together in school…we hadn’t quite got hold of the term racism yet, it was something above our head. We were just dealing with the daily routine issues that were going on.” 

Later, Trew remembers: “The streets were a hostile place, especially late at night, for young black men. There was a general antagonism between black and white, and the police fell into that category. They were suspicious of us, and we were suspicious of them.

So when the men rushed us at the Oval station, we thought it was part of those antagonisms – my friend said to them, ‘The pubs have closed, you lot have had a good drink, you’re out for a laugh aren’t you?’” The officers who arrested Winston Trew were in plainclothes. “As far as we were concerned, we were defending ourselves against a gang of yobs. Those yobs turned out to be undercover policemen.”

Winston Trew is the author of Black for a Cause

It was in this context that Winston Trew became involved with black power activism. He had in fact been on his way home from a meeting on the evening of his arrest. The organisation he worked with was called the Fasimbas, Swahili for ‘young lions’. The Fasimbas were based in southeast London. They put on plays, helped people to access housing, ran a Saturday school, and organised political meetings, martial arts classes, dances, and many other activities. 

For Trew, this was inspiring. He recalls that his brother had introduced him to the Fasimbas: “I went one Sunday, and I was overwhelmed. A sea of black faces, nice and warm, people saying hello – I’d never experienced something like that before. I joined immediately. It immediately filled a gap inside of me. I felt like this was what I’d been looking for all this time.” Joining the black power movement gave him “an explanation…suddenly [I was] rooted and grounded, [I] could do something.”

I asked Winston Trew how he feels about Britishness, as a British citizen who has been treated very badly by parts of the British state. We discussed modern policing tools such as the gangs matrix, which have been linked to racial discrimination. He suggests that, “with the gangs matrix, they’re basically criminalising friendship. They’ve closed down youth clubs and now they’re criminalising what young people choose to do to socialise and root themselves socially and culturally.” For Winston Trew, British values are mainly colonial values that he has spent much of his life resisting. “There’s no space for me in that type of Britishness.” But, as he says, “Britishness is not a fixed thing, it’s a fluid thing…I’m part of [a type of] Britishness that has yet to be expressed.”

The Oval Four were not the only people framed by Detective Sergeant Derek Ridgewell for crimes that they did not commit. Others wrongfully convicted include the Stockwell Six, the Waterloo Four, and the Tottenham Court Road Two – all groups of young black men accused of mugging sprees on the London Underground. In the end, Ridgewell himself was found to be stealing mailbags and sent to prison, where he died in 1982. So far, only the Oval Four and another man named Stephen Simmons have successfully appealed their convictions. Trew hopes that his case will lead to others who were set up by Ridgewell having their convictions overturned. 

Ridgewell has occupied Winston Trew’s mind for a long time. He remembers that when he met the woman who was to be his second wife in 1976, just three years after his release from prison, “My wife said I was an angry young man. I kept on and on about Ridgewell. She’ll tell you that, when we got married in 1984, there were three people in the marriage – me, her, and Ridgewell.”

When asked how he feels about Ridgewell now, Winston Tree simply states, “He doesn’t exist.”