Dr Harold Moody, the Peckham physician ‘who ought to be thought of as Britain’s Martin Luther King’

Owen Sheppard (26 October, 2017) In depth history

Dr Moody worked tirelessly to campaign for better treatment for black Brits in the early 20th century

19735Dr. Harold Moody

Dr Harold Moody was a kind and familiar face on the streets of Peckham. He was a caring physician who earned the gratitude of those he treated for free, in the days before the National Health Service. Nowadays, this unsung hero of black British culture is remembered by those familiar with his work as this country’s Martin Luther King.

Dr Moody, was born in Jamaica, and lived the greater part of his career at his family home and general practice in Queen’s Road, until his death in 1947.

He travelled to Britain in 1904 to study medicine, and he qualified in 1910, aged 28, finishing top of his class at King’s College London.

Had he been alive today, one can imagine Dr Moody might have quickly climbed the ranks of junior doctors at King’s College Hospital, or at Guy’s or St Thomas’. But he was wholly unprepared for the outright rejection he would face, despite his talents, due entirely to the colour of his skin.

As researcher John Graves points out in his 2014 thesis, these were the days when Britain’s black population was in the mere tens of thousands, and concentrated in ports linked to the slave trade, such as London, Bristol, Liverpool and Cardiff. Yet there was strong resentment among white British people, at times mobilised in influential trade unions, who felt their entitlement to jobs was being threatened.

It wasn’t until 1913 – three years later – that Moody took matters into his own hands, and he set up his own general practice at his house in King’s Road (now King’s Grove). In the same year, he took the second bold decision to propose to nurse and colleague Olive Tranter, whom he met at the Royal Eye Hospital. This was at a time when relationships between people of different races were extraordinary, and mixed-race children could be met with open hostility. But the couple went on to have six children.

In the days before a national health service, when any kind of treatment was expensive, Dr Moody would treat poor children for free, and earned a reputation as a good, compassionate, Christian.

And in 1922 he moved the practice and his family of eight to a new home in Queen’s Road, Peckham.

Dr Moody’s blue plaque at his former home in Queen’s Road ©English Heritage

After WW1, race relations in the UK grew evermore tense. 1920 even saw the government pass The Aliens Order, designed to force employers to favour white British people over black people in those post-slave trade port cities.

As Dr Moody raised his family and became increasingly mindful of the discrimination going on throughout the country, he set about creating The League of Coloured People (LCP), and became its first president.

The LCP’s first members were similarly middle-class black Londoners, including: black historian C.L.R. James; the first leader of independent Kenya, Jomo Kenyatta; poet Una Marson; West Indies cricketer Leary Marston; and singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson.

The League’s stated objectives were to “improve relations between races”; “to interest members in the welfare of coloured peoples in all parts of the world”; “to co-operate and affiliate with organisations sympathetic to coloured people”; and “to provide financial assistance to coloured people in distress as lies within our capacity”.

Dr Moody employed all forms of lobbying of the government, firing off many a persuasive, cordial, yet critical letter to the then home secretary, and to the secretary of state for colonies, as well as to the Prince of Wales, and The Times of London newspaper.

In 1940, Dr Moody hit out at the BBC, calling on the organisation to publicly apologise after a radio presenter used the word “n***r” during a live broadcast. The incident set a new precedent in broadcasting standards after The BBC issued a swift apology, accepting full liability for the outburst.

Also during WW2, those lobbying letters were answered, when Dr Moody became a consultant of sorts to numerous government departments about race relations.

In 1944, Dr Moody presented his Charter of Coloured Peoples at the LCP’s annual conference in London. It demanded “full-self-government” for the colonies and insisted that racial discrimination In Britain be made illegal. The Charter foreshadowed the resolutions set out in the 1945 Pan-African Congress in Manchester.

Moody’s campaigning for civil rights was key to influencing the 1965 Race Relations Act – the first legislation in the UK to outlaw discrimination on the “grounds of colour, race, or ethnic or national origins” in public places. And it prompted the creation of The Race Relations Board in 1966, to consider complaints made under the Act.

And in the eyes of Southwark’s most prolific black cultural historian, Stephen Bourne, Dr Moody “ought to be thought of as Britain’s Martin Luther King”.

Bourne also wrote in his 2008 biography that Dr Moody and the LCP’s work would likely have benefited the generation of black and Caribbean settlers who travelled to work and helped rebuild Britain’s cities after the war.

Sadly though, Dr Moody wouldn’t live to see the fruits of his labour. He died aged 64, in 1947, after contracting influenza. In his final months, Moody went on a “speaking and preaching” tour of North American states during a freezing winter. It was reported that the trip exhausted him, and he died at his home in Queen’s Road.

Dr Moody’s work was commemorated in 1995 with an English Heritage Blue Plaque, erected at his former home at 164 Queen’s Road, Peckham.

An information board was also unveiled by Southwark Council outside Dr Moody’s old family home for last year’s Black History month, on October 20. A children’s playground is named after him on the corner between Consort Road and Sturdy Road, and a head-and-shoulders statue of him is on public display at Peckham Library.

For this year’s Black History Month, the Local History Library also has a copy of John Graves’ thesis on display, entitled: ‘The Impact and Significance of Dr Harold Moody and the League of Coloured People in its promotion of social reforms in housing and employment for black migrants in London, between 1930s and 1940s’.

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