The story of the Bristol University cleaner the nation

‘Do your best and don’t let me down’: Herman the cleaner – who was given £1,500 from kindhearted students – says he tries to inspire them because he left school with no qualifications before arriving in UK as part of Windrush generation

  • Herman Gordon, 65, came to the UK as a 13-year-old Windrush child in 1965
  • His positive philosophy has seen him through a near fatal stroke a few years ago
  • Last week Bristol students fundraised £1,500 so he could visit family in Jamaica 

Cleaner Herman Gordon has one very simple philosophy — be happy, no matter what life throws at you, and do the very best you can.

He may not earn a fortune, or boast a string of qualifications, but Herman has become an inspirational figure to the students at Bristol University around whom he manoeuvres his Henry vacuum cleaner.

As a graduate of ‘The University of Life’, the lessons they have learned from Herman cannot be found in any of the textbooks in the biomedical sciences library where he works.

A smile here, a kind word there, a joke or a fist-bump of encouragement from cheery Herman makes all the difference to stressed students hunched over their books and laptops as final exams loom.

Bristol University cleaner Herman Gordon cried tears of joy when his students gave him £1,500 to visit family in Jamaica for his and his wife Denise’s wedding anniversary 

Indeed, ‘icon’ is the word they use to describe this gentle 65-year-old, who cried when he first came to Britain from Jamaica aged 13 in 1967 as part of the Windrush generation.

‘I didn’t want to come to Britain. It was so cold I had to wear my pyjamas under my new school uniform,’ says Herman, who’s worked at Bristol University for 12 years. 

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‘But now Britain feels like home to me.’ Solid, reassuring and laid-back, you can see why the students describe him as ‘the epitome of happiness’. 

In his sunny presence, the world suddenly seems a better, jollier and altogether less complicated and frightening place.

Happy couple: Herman and Denise will now spend their 23rd wedding anniversary in the Caribbean 

Not even a near-fatal stroke in 2006 — which temporarily paralysed his left side and left him with a limp — has dimmed his zest for life, making him all the more determined to enjoy each day as if it were his last.

And last week, the students showed their appreciation for Herman by surprising him with a white envelope, filled with £1,500 in cash they’d raised, so he and 56-year-old wife Denise could celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary in Jamaica with relatives they haven’t seen for nine years.

The money was accompanied by a note which read: ‘Dear Herman, on behalf of the students of Bristol, we would like to thank you for all the positive energy you have given us throughout the years.

‘You have brightened many of our days, and we want you to know that we love and appreciate you. We have come together to give you a special gift as our way of saying thank you. Have a lovely summer!’

The heart-warming gesture was sparked by a Facebook post on May 19 which called Herman ‘the jolliest man I have ever met’ and said ‘if you don’t have a reason to smile, go talk to him for a min or two’.

The following day, an anonymous Facebook user announced a crowdfunding page had been launched for him. More than 230 students donated and five days later they had reached their target.

Herman’s eyes mist up and he shakes his head in disbelief as he points to the exact spot (spotlessly clean, naturally) in the library where the students repaid all the care he’d shown them as they struggled with their studies.

Last week, the students showed their appreciation for Herman (pictured) by surprising him with a white envelope, filled with £1,500 in cash they’d raised, so he and 56-year-old wife Denise could celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary in Jamaica with relatives they haven’t seen for nine years

‘I was standing there, cleaning the glass on the doors, when a female student came up to me and said: ‘Have you heard the good news?’ I didn’t know what she was talking about, so I said ‘No’,’ he recalls.

‘Then a male student handed me an envelope filled with money and a note.

‘I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was in complete shock. It was the last thing I’d been expecting. It was one of the most humbling moments of my life and I had tears streaming down my face. I don’t know why they did it, but it was an amazing thing to do.

‘I left school at 15 with no exams, so I always tell the students here ‘Do your best and don’t let me down’,’ says Herman. ‘Exams are important, so I encourage them, but so, too, are the little things in life.

‘I never disrupt their learning, but they are always coming over to talk to me. Sometimes the library staff have to tell them to leave me alone so I can get on with my work, but I love those kids and care about them.’

And they have made it clear they value him more than he could ever have imagined. After the story broke, the internet was awash with comments from his very own fan club of former students.

Passport photo: Herman Gordon is pictured as a 13-year-old when he arrived in Britain from Jamaica 

Anh Hoang Le wrote: ‘Oh my gosh, the happy cleaner who always gives fist-bumps to students. I was honoured to fist-bump him once! He is the spirit of the medical library.’

Another added: ‘Big up Herman! Always managed to put a smile on my face during exam season!’

Jimmy Wei, 30, a PhD student, said: ‘Herman is always happy and gives off positive vibes around the place. He’s not too good on his feet but his work is perfect.

‘Everyone is delighted to have played a small part in sending him to Jamaica for a holiday, and we know he really appreciates it.’

Herman’s parents, Sidney and Corinne, arrived in Britain from Jamaica in the Sixties, settling in the Midlands to work in factories.

Part of the so-called Windrush generation, they were among hundreds of people from Commonwealth countries who arrived between 1948 and 1971 in response to post-war labour shortages.

The first ship, MV Empire Windrush, arrived at Tilbury docks in Essex on June 22 1948, bringing workers from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago and other islands. Many children came, too, travelling on their parents’ passports.

The eldest of ten children, Herman was 13 when he and his two younger sisters took three flights to join his parents in West Bromwich, leaving behind in Jamaica the grandparents who had brought them up.

Seven further siblings were born in Britain.

Herman is pictured with his much-loved students at Bristol’s biomedical sciences department

Despite his initial dislike of the British weather, Herman decided to remain in the UK when his parents returned to their homeland in 1974.

If, as a young black man in an increasingly multi-cultural Britain, he encountered any racism, then he either doesn’t remember it or says he shrugged it off with the same positive attitude that has been the hallmark of his life.

After leaving school at the age of 15, Herman worked in a series of factories over the years, making steel runners for filing cabinets and parts for the car industry. 

And 33 years ago he fell in love with his future wife Denise, a former college PA, who he met in a nightclub.

Denise, a Methodist church minister who now works for the charity Dress For Success, helping women back into the workplace, confirms that Herman is just as sunny at home as he is at work.

‘He is the most loving and caring man I have ever met,’ she says. ‘When we first met, he told everyone ‘I have found my Queen’ — and he has made me feel like royalty ever since. Each morning, he wakes me with a kiss and tells me he loves me.

‘Every day, he’s up at 5am to get ready for work. He never grumbles or complains, but feels incredibly grateful to be able to work.

‘He is very bold, outgoing and jolly. He will give of himself to anyone. You don’t even have to ask.

‘He will talk and take care of everyone he meets, and people are drawn to him because he’s always on an even keel.

‘But it’s so amazing what these students have done for him. They are the real heroes in this story.

‘Despite all their worries over their exams, and the financial pressures they face, they decided to do something very special for another person.

‘When Herman rang to tell me, he was crying so much he could barely get the words out. 

‘It just goes to show that it’s the little things in life that really matter. Telling a joke or a riddle to brighten someone’s day can really make a difference when they are struggling.’

Bristol University’s students aren’t the only people to benefit from Herman’s natural ability to forge connections with those in need.

When he and Denise first moved to Bristol from Northampton, more than 15 years ago, they were so shocked by the number of homeless people they saw on the street near their local church that they decided to ‘adopt’ them. 

Denise recalls: ‘We walked down the street and counted 12 homeless people.

‘We felt horrified and couldn’t just walk past and ignore them, so we sat down next to them and listened to their stories. 

‘One told us his wife had died and he’d gone to pieces, another that she’d escaped an abusive family.’

She adds: ‘We took them food and clothes, and tried to get them practical help, a roof over their heads, but most of all we let them know we really cared about what happened to them.’

The couple say they have never been blessed with children of their own, but that they couldn’t be happier than they are now.

Herman and Denise are pictured outside Bristol University where he works 

Although Herman knows his cleaning job will never compare in monetary terms with the high-achieving careers the students he meets are destined to enjoy, he says he feels like the richest man in the world.

He almost died after his stroke in 2006, one week after being made redundant without warning when a Bristol firm manufacturing car parts suddenly went into liquidation. 

‘Herman went into work to find the gates locked and all the workers had been made redundant,’ says Denise. 

‘There had been no warning at all and I will never forget the sight of grown men and women crying outside.

‘A week later, he had a stroke after attending a funeral in Birmingham. I think it was triggered by the shock of losing his job. It was a life and death situation. I thought I was going to lose him.

‘He spent months in hospital before he was well enough to come home. He lost the use of his left side and had months of rehabilitation, so it’s amazing that he was able to recover enough to go back to work. We are very lucky.’

Herman, who started working as a cleaner at the university just months after his recovery, adds: ‘There were times when I’ve felt down, but never depressed.

‘Even in hospital, after the stroke, I felt very grateful because there were other people much worse off than me.

‘I may not have much of a formal education, but these are lessons in life I can share with others. It’s all about doing the best you can with what you have. It’s a blessing for me to be able to work still.

‘It’s about making the most of every single day, because no one knows how long you might have or if your life might end tomorrow — and for me that’s about making others happy. I love to chat with the students, about the weather or football, and sometimes I even help with their studies.

‘I tell them about my experiences, because it might help them. I try to encourage students if I see them struggling.

‘I don’t know anything about law or sciences but I know a bit about life. If I can motivate them a bit, then it makes me very happy.’

The Gordons are looking forward to travelling to Jamaica to see Herman’s Uncle George, who is now in his 80s, and all his cousins, their spouses and children for the first time in almost a decade.

Last weekend, they went to a travel agent but have yet to book any tickets. They are still a little overwhelmed at the prospect of being able to afford a rather more luxurious hotel than they are used to.

The Gordons say they can never thank the students enough for their generosity. Some have now finished their finals and will be moving — as Herman says — into the ‘big wide world’ where he hopes some of his ‘life lessons’ will prove useful.

But for now, there’s still work to be done. Henry the Hoover is waiting.

Herman’s life lessons will resume for the cohort of new students in the (very clean) medical sciences library this autumn.

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