Mother Country: Britain's Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45

Mother Country: Britain's Black Community on the Home Front 1939-45

by Stephen Bourne


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Very little attention has been given to black British and West African and Caribbean citizens who lived and worked on the "front line" during the Second World War. Yet black people were under fire in cities like Bristol, Cardiff, Liverpool, London, and Manchester—and many volunteered as civilian defense workers, such as air-raid wardens, fire-fighters, stretcher-bearers, first-aid workers, and mobile canteen personnel. Many helped unite people when their communities faced devastation. Black children were evacuated and entertainers risked death when they took to the stage during air raids. Despite some evidence of racism, black people contributed to the war effort where they could. The colonies also played an important role in the war effort: support came from places as far away as Trinidad, Jamaica, Guyana, and Nigeria. Mother Country tells the story of some of the forgotten Britons whose contribution to the war effort has been overlooked until now.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780752456102
Publisher: The History Press
Publication date: 09/23/2010
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Stephen Bourne is a leading authority on black history, and is the author of 10 books on the subject, including A Ship and a Prayer, Black in the British Frame, and Speak of Me as I Am.

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Mother Country

Britain's Black Community on the Home Front 1939â"45

By Stephen Bourne

The History Press

Copyright © 2013 Stephen Bourne,
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7524-9681-8



Dr Harold Moody was born in Jamaica but lived in Peckham, south-east London, for most of his life, from the Edwardian era until his death in 1947. In the 1930s and 1940s Moody was more than just a popular family doctor. He was an ambassador for Britain's black community and an important figurehead who – with his organisation the League of Coloured Peoples (LCP) – campaigned to improve the situation for black people in Britain, especially during the Second World War. In 1972 Edward Scobie described Moody in his book Black Britannia as a man whose leadership and strength of character won the respect of English people and carried the League through many difficult periods, gaining it the respect and admiration of white and black alike. Scobie adds that Dr Moody's counterpart could be seen in the charismatic African American leader Dr Martin Luther King Jr:

They were both devout men with an innate love of mankind and the profound belief that in the end, good will prevail. To many extremists among the Africans and West Indians in Britain in the thirties, Dr Moody was looked upon as something of an Uncle Tom – much as Black Power supporters and some extremists looked upon Dr King in his last years. This in no way detracts from the good that Dr Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples did for the thousands of blacks living in Britain between the two world wars.

Harold Moody's Early Life

Harold Arundel Moody was born in Kingston, Jamaica, in 1882, the eldest of six children. Harold's father Charles was a successful businessman. He owned a chemist shop, the Union Drugstore, in West Parade, Kingston, the largest town in Jamaica. Although slavery had been abolished in Jamaica in 1834, Harold's mother Christina had been denied an education. As a young girl she entered domestic service with a white family. Nevertheless, Christina was ambitious for her six children and was a very forceful presence in their lives. She provided a loving and secure home for her family and possessed a sense of humour which was infectious. Christina wanted the best education for all her children, and managed to realise her ambition. For example, Harold's brother Ludlow studied at King's College Hospital in London (1913–18), where he won the Huxley Prize for physiology. He later returned to Jamaica to become the government bacteriologist. Ronald Moody, Harold's third brother, studied dentistry at King's College London, practised for a few years, and then became a professional sculptor.

Harold was encouraged to study hard and did well at school. As a young man he became a devout Christian and his faith was the mainspring of his life and activities. When Harold was growing up, Jamaica was part of the British Empire and Harold was raised on the belief that England was the mother country. His colour may have been a factor in his failure to secure a scholarship to further his education, but in spite of this he was determined to have a career in medicine. With his mother's support, Harold sailed to England in 1904, at the age of 21, to study medicine at King's College Hospital, then situated in Lincoln's Inn Fields, and now at Denmark Hill.

In those days white Britons had little exposure to life in other parts of the British Empire and had limited contact with black people. The black population of Britain may not have numbered more than 20,000 by 1914 and they were mainly concentrated in sea ports, such as Cardiff, Liverpool and London's East End. The young Harold was completely unprepared for life in Edwardian London. He found it hard to find a place to live. On his arrival he had visited the Young Men's Christian Association in Tottenham Court Road where he obtained a list of addresses where he might find accommodation. However, at every address he went to the landlord or landlady turned him away. He finally found somewhere to live in a small and dingy attic room in St Paul's Road, Canonbury.

At this time, Harold often encountered British people whose knowledge and understanding of black culture was limited. They were surprised to meet an educated, well-spoken black man who was more British than themselves. Harold did not allow these experiences to deter him from training to become a doctor and making a new life for himself in the mother country.

Having received several academic awards, Harold qualified as a doctor in 1912, but, though he was the most qualified applicant, he was denied a position at King's College Hospital because of open racial discrimination. He also applied for an appointment as one of the medical officers of the Camberwell Board of Guardians. A doctor who was a member of this board stated publicly that Dr Moody had the best qualifications of all the applicants, but because of racial discrimination he was not given the appointment. Of this incident Harold wrote: 'I retreated gracefully and applied myself to the building up of my private practice.'

Work and Family

Forced into self-employment, the new Dr Moody started his own practice in Peckham at 111 King's Road (now King's Grove) in February 1913. In 1922 Harold moved his family to their second Peckham home: a spacious, rambling Victorian house at 164 Queen's Road. A deeply religious man, he felt strongly that God had called him to serve the people of south-east London. In the first week his takings amounted to just £1, but gradually they increased as the people of nearby Peckham and the Old Kent Road grew to know and trust the sympathetic doctor. His daughter Christine said: 'He was a very popular person in Peckham because of his practice. He was a very good doctor and people appreciated this. People came from far and near to see him.' Dr Moody practised in Peckham in the days before Britain had a National Health Service and working-class families faced hardship when they tried to find money to pay doctors for medical treatment. Dr Moody often treated the children of working-class families for no charge.

Harold also found time for a personal life. In 1913 he married Olive Tranter, a kind, affectionate English nurse. Mixed marriages were uncommon in Edwardian England, and some couples faced hostility and discrimination, especially if they had children. Fearing for the young couple, the Moody and Tranter families tried to persuade them not to marry, but from the start of their relationship the couple were devoted to each other. Their wedding took place at Holy Trinity Church in Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire. Harold and Olive had six children, all born in Peckham: Christine, Harold, Charles, Joan, Ronald and Garth. Meanwhile, family and work commitments prevented Harold from visiting Jamaica. He returned on only three occasions, in 1912, 1919 and finally in 1946–47.

Founding the League of Coloured peoples

As well as being a doctor, Harold Moody was driven to be active in his community. As a Christian, he became involved with church affairs as soon as he arrived in Britain. By 1931 he was president of the London Christian Endeavour Federation, and he became involved in the administration and running of the Camberwell Green Congregational Church in Wren Road, where he was a deacon and lay preacher. He often used church pulpits to put across his views of racial tolerance. English dignitaries attended these services, the highlight being the singing of spirituals. Harold's experiences of hardship and racial discrimination also led him to become the founder and president of the League of Coloured Peoples. The organisation became the first effective pressure group in Britain to work on behalf of its black citizens.

The 1920s and 1930s were a difficult period for black people in Britain, especially settlers from Africa and the Caribbean. Cities like Cardiff, Liverpool and London were often highlighted as places where hotels, restaurants and lodging houses refused to accept black people, but racial prejudice was widespread and institutionalised. Like most settlers of African descent, Harold had become frustrated with the racial discrimination he encountered in Britain. He helped many black people who came to him in distress. They told him about the difficulties they faced in trying to find work or somewhere to live. Sometimes Harold would take it upon himself to confront employers and make a powerful plea on behalf of those who were being victimised. Soon, other middle-class black people in Britain joined Harold in his crusade for equal rights, and before long they realised they would be more effective if they formed an organisation. In 1931 the League of Coloured Peoples was born.

The League had four main aims: 'protect the social, educational, economic and political interests of its members; interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world; improve relations between the races; and co-operate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people.' In 1937 a fifth goal was added: 'to render such financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity.'

In the 1930s the League based itself at Harold's home in Queen's Road, Peckham, which became a popular meeting place for black intellectuals. The visitor's book read like a who's who of black historical figures. Visitors included the famous singer and actor Paul Robeson; Trinidadian historian and novelist C.L.R. James; Kwame Nkrumah, who became president of Ghana; Jomo Kenyatta, who became the founding president of the Republic of Kenya; and the Trinidadian cricketer Learie Constantine (see Chapter 2).

Other black people who had made Britain their home supported Dr Moody and the League, including Dr Cecil Belfield Clarke of Barbados, George Roberts of Trinidad, Samson Morris of Grenada, Robert Adams of British Guiana and Desmond Buckle of Ghana. Also present at the League's first meeting was Stella Thomas who would later become the first female magistrate in West Africa. Dr Moody saw the League primarily as serving a Christian purpose, not a political one. Yet for two decades the League was the most influential organisation campaigning for the civil rights of African and Caribbean people in Britain. Through various campaigns and The Keys, a quarterly journal first published in 1933, the League struck many blows against racism in Britain. It was devoted to serving the interests of African and Caribbean students, and campaigned for African and Caribbean settlers to be given better housing and greater access to employment. For thousands of black people in Britain, The Keys was the main vehicle for airing their racial grievances. In 1939 the publication of the journal was suspended due to lack of funds. During the war its place was taken by the News Letter.

In 1941, in the League's News Letter, Arthur Lewis said: 'At the outbreak of this war spokesmen of the British Government made speeches denouncing the vicious racial policies of Nazi Germany and affirming that the British Empire stands for racial equality. It therefore seemed to the League ... that the time had come once more to direct the Government's attention to its own racial policy, and if possible to get these fine speeches crystallised into action.' The height of the League's influence as a pressure group came in 1943 when the organisation held its twelfth annual general meeting in Liverpool. It was attended by over 500 people and one of the talks concerned 'a charter for colonial freedom'. The following year the League drafted 'A Charter for Coloured People' and the text included a demand for self-government for all colonial peoples. It also declared that all racial discrimination in employment, restaurants, hotels and other public places should be made illegal and 'the same economic, educational, legal and political rights shall be enjoyed by all persons, male and female, whatever their colour'. The charter foreshadowed the resolutions of the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester. The League was the forerunner of such organisations as the Race Relations Board (1965–76) and the Commission for Racial Equality (1976–2007).

'Joe' Moody and Racism in the British Army

During the Second World War, five of Dr Moody's six children received army or RAF commissions. Dr Moody's son Ronald served in the Royal Air Force. His daughter Christine and son Harold both qualified as doctors and, after a short period in practice at Peckham, they joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and became captain and major respectively. Moody's youngest son Garth was a pilot-cadet in the Royal Air Force. However, at the start of the war Dr Moody found himself challenging the war office when one of his sons was informed that he could not become an officer in the British army because he was not 'of pure European descent'.

In 1939 Dr Moody's 22-year-old son Charles Arundel, known as 'Joe', qualified for basic training as an officer in the British army. He went to a recruiting office in Whitehall and was interviewed by a captain. Joe recalled in the Channel 4 television documentary Lest We Forget (1990): 'The Captain was obviously quite embarrassed with my being there.' After the captain talked to the major, he informed Joe that he could not become an officer because he was not, in spite of being born in England, 'of pure European descent'. The captain then suggested that Joe join the ranks and hopefully be commissioned as an officer at a later date.

When Joe informed his father about his rejection, Dr Moody fought back. Joe said: 'He immediately picked up the telephone and spoke to the Colonial Office and made an appointment with one of the under-secretaries. That started the wheels in motion for getting the Army Act changed which enabled members of the colonies to have commissions in the forces for the duration of the war.' Dr Moody led the campaign to change the law, and joined other members of the League, as well as the International African Service Bureau (IASB) and the West African Students' Union, to lobby the government. Letters to the press and editorials in The Keys and the News Letter, reinforced by speeches in public and private lobbying by Dr Moody, all made a difference. On 19 October 1939 the Colonial Office issued the following statement: 'British subjects from the colonies and British protected persons in this country, including those who are not of European descent, are now eligible for emergency commissions in His Majesty's Forces.' But Dr Moody remained unsatisfied: 'We are thankful for this,' he said, but 'we do not want it only for the duration of the war. We want it for all time. If the principle is accepted now, surely it must be acceptable all the time.'

Joe Moody was sent to Dunbar in Scotland where he joined an officer-cadet training unit for four months of intense training. Joe said: 'I was a guinea pig, so I had to be very careful and really perform outstandingly. And I didn't get thrown out so they must have thought I could make it.' When he was commissioned Joe was given some advice by his company commander: 'He took me into his office and he told me that I was going to a good regiment and that I would be the first coloured officer to walk into their officers' mess, and there would be dead silence, but I was not to be embarrassed. And he said, "Joe, do your job and when your time comes to shine you will shine." That was great advice.' In 1940 Joe became only the second black officer in the British army when he joined the Queen's Own Royal West Kent Regiment; the first being Walter Tull in 1917.

Dr Moody and the League of Coloured Peoples during the War

During the Second World War, thousands of black workers and military personnel came to Britain from colonies in Africa and the Caribbean to support the war effort and this increased the workload of Dr Moody and the League, but it also gave him and the organisation greater purpose and influence. In 1940 Dr Moody forced the BBC to apologise after a radio announcer used the word 'nigger' during a broadcast. He complained that 'this is one of the unfortunate relics of the days of slavery, vexatious to present day Africans and West Indians, and an evidence of incivility on the part of its user'. In a written statement to Dr Moody, dated 16 May 1940, the BBC admitted liability for the presenter's comments and offered a full apology. In 1942 Dr Moody wrote a letter of protest to the director general of the BBC after the exclusion of Africans and West Indians from their radio programme Good Night to the Forces.

When the Jamaican nationalist leader Marcus Garvey died in London on 10 June 1940, Dr Moody wrote a moving tribute in the League's News Letter. He described Garvey as one of the greatest men the League had been associated with: 'No other man operating outside Africa has so far been able to unite our people in such large numbers for any object whatsoever.'

At the height of the London Blitz, in addition to his work as a GP and a campaigner, Dr Moody continued to produce the League's monthly News Letter, and in an editorial he said: 'our work, such as the preparation of this letter, has to be carried on to the hum of hostile planes and the boom of friendly guns.'

Dr Moody's influence continued to grow. He accepted an invitation to visit Buckingham Palace on 12 December 1940. On this occasion Her Majesty the Queen (the present queen's mother) received a fleet of thirty-five mobile canteens in the forecourt of Buckingham Palace. The mobile canteens had been purchased and provided by the colonies on behalf of Britain. Dr Moody's life-long friend and biographer, David A. Vaughan, described this important occasion in Negro Victory (1950), his biography of Dr Moody: 'During the ceremony Moody was presented to the Queen [who] made enquiries concerning the welfare of the people of his race and displayed a real interest in them.' The League's News Letter said: 'The canteens will serve hot drinks and food to people in London and other cities who have been bombed out of their homes, or who, during the winter, have to spend long and anxious nights in shelters away from their homes.'


Excerpted from Mother Country by Stephen Bourne. Copyright © 2013 Stephen Bourne,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Author's Note 8

Introduction: 'Let Us Go Forward Together' 9

Chapter 1 Dr Harold Moody 15

Chapter 2 Leading and Inspiring the Community 25

Chapter 3 Keep Smiling Through 36

Chapter 4 Esther Bruce 49

Chapter 5 The Evacuee Experience 56

Chapter 6 'Front-liners' in Civilian Defence 63

Chapter 7 When Adelaide Hall Went to War 75

Chapter 8 Keeping the Home Fires Burning 82

Chapter 9 London Calling 93

Chapter 10 Front-line Films 105

Chapter 11 For the Mother Country 113

Postscript If Hitler Had Invaded Britain 127

Endnotes 135

Further Reading 149

About the Author 153

Index 155

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