This blog was written by Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer.
For many years’ Dr David Pitt was one of the most recognisable Civil Rights Campaigners in Britain. A trusted figure who commanded a universal love and respect from the many people he helped along the way. A journey that would lead him to Parliament when he became the second black Peer of the Realm and given the title of Lord Pitt of Hampstead.
Over recent decades his name has been somewhat forgotten. In this blog, I want to highlight the tremendous achievements of a great activist. An unabashed moderate politician who significantly contributed to the passing of Race Relations legislation. A man of principle rather than arguments, choosing sensibility over street protest. This doctor from Grenada was a true pioneer.
A Scottish Education
David Thomas Pitt was born in Hampstead on the island of Grenada on the 3rd October 1913. From a young age he was a most gifted scholar whose talents saw him awarded a place to study medicine in Edinburgh. After the initial culture shock of his new surroundings, Pitt began to embrace the Universities extra-curricular activities becoming Student Council Junior President. This period was forever known as the ‘Hungry Thirties’ and the abject poverty of slums like the notorious Cowgate didn’t go unnoticed by the sensitive Pitt. His biographer, Mike Phillips later wrote that this first-hand experience of economic depression in Scotland converted him to socialism. Shortly before returning to the Caribbean he joined the Labour Party not knowing that their stars would be aligned in the future.
The next port of call for the newly qualified doctor was Trinidad to work at the City Hospital in San Fernando. It was here that Pitt caught the bug for politics fuelled by a desire to help decolonialise the West Indies from imperial rule. He soon became a spokesperson for the cause of Trinidadian nationalism and in 1943 founded the West Indian National Party. But four years later a disappointing electoral performance led to a change of heart. Pitt decided to return to England and began petitioning Clement Atlee’s Labour Government for greater constitutional powers for his adopted country. This migration to London coincided with the first wave of the Windrush generation and like many of his compatriots he hadn’t envisaged a prolonged stay in the capital. Pitt started to put down roots by opening a surgery in Euston as his growing family joined him for a new life.
London is the Place for Me
Established by the early 1950s, Dr Pitt’s Surgery was a haven for the increasing number of West Indian migrants now settled in North London. As the only Caribbean practitioner in the borough he assumed the role of an informal community leader available to provide guidance with employment or accommodation issues. Away from his practice he closely followed international affairs actively supporting the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament & Anti-Apartheid Action Groups. At the 1958 Labour Party Conference, Pitt cut a distinctive figure amongst the predominantly white male delegates. Joan Lestor, a future Labour MP observed that he was an, ‘impressive and mature man already deeply immersed in the struggles around race and human rights both in Britain and abroad’. As the new decade begun Pitt’s rising public profile made him a target and he was front-page news after his office was subjected to an arson attack by far-right supporters. When Martin Luther King visited London en-route to collecting his Nobel Peace Prize he addressed a select audience of senior UK Civil Rights activists including Pitt. Drawing inspiration from his own racial equality initiatives King strongly urged the assembled group to form their own homogeneous organisation.
A New Order
The Campaign Against Racial Discrimination (CARD) formed in 1965. Founding member Marion Glean exclaimed that, ‘The weeks after King’s visit, ordinary immigrants some hardly literate wrote to help. I recall their excitement and hope’. As the most experienced campaigner in the ranks, Pitt was voted Chairman. Discord between various factions took hold leading to a crippling disharmony. However, as a pressure group they did achieve some success. A lobbying campaign orchestrated by General Secretary Jocelyn Barrow was a major influence on the ‘equal opportunities’ ethos of the 1968 Race Relations Act. Barrow said of CARD,
‘We was a very effective organisation though it wasn’t as grassroots as I would have liked it to have been. It was led by people like me & Pitt. The people at the bottom were too busy trying to survive though some did join’.
At the same time the UK Black Power Movement came to prominence after their American leader, Stokely Carmichael was refused entry into the country by the Home Office. A generational gap developed as a more politicised strand of black consciousness came to the forefront as highlighted in the ‘Mangrove Nine’ case heard in the Old Bailey at the decade’s end. The trial saw defendant Darcus Howe gain cult status while Pitt was being primed for the mainstream.
In 1957 David Pitt first stood at a Parliamentary election in the nearby constituency of Hampstead. Thirteen years later he was confident he could rectify the previous defeat in the relatively safe Labour seat of Clapham. But the fabled British sense of fair play was ominously absent as the campaign reached its climax. Racism reared its ugly head and inevitably Pitt was narrowly beaten by his Conservative opponent.
Shelton (Con) 16,593
Pitt (Lab) 13.473
Thwaites (Lib) 2,982
Simkins (SPGB) 220
Boaks (Indp) 80
In the early hours of the following morning, Pitt had the good grace to appear on BBC One’s election coverage when he was interviewed in the studio by Robin Day. Below is a transcript what was said;
Robin Day: Dr David Pitt you lost Clapham with a Conservative swing in your constituency of 10 %. Do you attribute that to colour prejudice?
Dr David Pitt: No, I never did get the impression that colour was involved in it at all actually. I think probably the most likely explanation is that I was a late adoptee. I was only adopted three weeks ago. And y’know my opponent had been nursed in the constituency for two years and I think people hadn’t had the chance to get to know me. This is really the point.
Robin Day: Do you think that Mr (Enoch) Powell’s activities in the campaign contributed to your defeat?
Dr David Pitt: It might have but again I didn’t get that impression. But I must confess that I had the opposite impression. I got the impression that I was being well received in Clapham.
Robin Day: I’m sure you were but not quite well enough
Dr David Pitt: Yes quite (smiles)
(Watch interview at 5.40.40:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq8PMfpA-6g&t=9733s )
Despite the obvious disappointment Pitt was kept busy as Deputy Chairman of the Race Relations Commission. Over a seven-year span he sat on several Home Affairs Committees deliberating education, law & order and immigration. In a 1969 discussion regarding ‘the problem of coloured school leavers’ he drew on the contradictory nature of a black girl and her white equivalent applying for the same job at a shop counter. He also called for the BBC to schedule more broadcasting time for people of colour to show diversity.
Two years later he motioned a recommendation for recruiting local liaison officers to alleviate police relations within disputed areas. On the subject, of being an immigrant he made this memorable quote, ‘I ‘am merely going to flog my favourite hobby horse point that it was not in 1968 that UK passport holders first started being controlled. Because anyone who lives in a colony, who was born in a colony, or grew up in a colony is a citizen of the United Kingdom. I happen to be a colonial’.
David Pitt once said that ‘Some people regard me as an Uncle Tom, while some whites regard me as a Black Power Revolutionary, so I imagine I got it about right’. This observation rang true when he accepted a Life Peerage and entered the House of Lords in 1975. To a minority in the black community it confirmed their suspicions of his ambition to be part of the establishment. While he found himself very much alone as the only black Parliamentarian in Westminster. But Pitt made his presence felt with a famous Chamber speech on immigration in June 1976.
Lord Pitt of Hampstead: When people are told that immigration is being reduced, they expect to see fewer black people around, and they also expect less deprivation, but the opposite is bound to be the case. The people who are here will have children, and therefore their numbers will increase. Therefore, far from seeing fewer people around, they are going to see more. Then since immigration and the immigrants have nothing whatever to do with their deprivation, the deprivation will continue.
(Read debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1976/jun/24/immigration-policy#S5LV0372P0_19760624_HOL_348)
In the spirit of serendipity, the new Race Relations Bill was now going through Parliament. Pitt greatly assisted in steering the statute through the Upper House. Even though his natural style was persuasive rather than argumentative , if required, he was willing to trade punches as this Committee Stage debate shows;
Lord Pitt of Hampstead: I continue to be unhappy about this whole affair. It is clear that the Minister and I see race relations quite differently. One of the basic points about prejudice is that it is based upon ignorance. The more people get to know each other, the more they mix and the more they do things together, the less likely they are to be prejudiced. More prejudice is broken down by people working together for a common objective than in any other way. Therefore, I do not agree that the fact that people have to work together, discuss matters together and come to certain agreements about the way they work is a reason for agreeing that they should be able to discriminate against each other. I do not agree and I therefore cannot share the Government's approach to this particular point.
(Read debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1976/sep/29/race-relations-bill#S5LV0374P0_19760929_HOL_248)
The Scarman Report was published in the winter of 1981 as a Government response to the Brixton Riots that took place earlier that year. When it was discussed in the Lords, Pitt used the platform to give an example of over-zealous and prejudiced policing in London that referenced his old sparring partner, Darcus Howe who was now editor of Race Today;
Lord Pitt of Hampstead: The facts of the case are that Darcus went down to Oxford Street to buy a pair of shoes for a funeral he was attending the next day, which anyone knowing his normal sneakers and boots footgear will not find surprising. He went with Michael Cadet, one of the Race Today collective to visit two shops, where they expected to find a bargain. In one of the shops they met a friend of Cadet's, one of the assistants, and chatted briefly, before Darcus went next door to the other shoe shop to check the basement. All normal so far, but on emerging to the pavement, Darcus was stopped by two policemen, Police Cadet Willis, and PC 411 from West End Central station, who insisted on searching him as a suspicious person. He asked the reason and was told he had been seen dipping into ladies' handbags. He refused and was arrested.
(Read debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1982/feb/04/brixton-disorders-the-scarman-report#S5LV0426P0_19820204_HOL_96)
Pitt didn’t just address racism. He used his cultured public speaking skills to focus on other contemporary matters. Still a committed socialist he was left disillusioned by the homeless problem of the eighties. As chairman of the charity, Shelter from 1979-1990 he spoke frequently in the chamber about the unjust housing shortage as this example from 1988 illustrates;
Lord Pitt of Hampstead: My Lords, as has been said earlier, homelessness is increasing tremendously, quite rapidly. We ought to do something to reduce it and abolish it, but we do not seem to be doing anything. Homelessness has doubled in the past eight years. Worse than that, we are aware of the increasing homelessness and yet it has increased by 14 per cent. over the past two years. Therefore, the condemnation of us for allowing this to happen is considerable.
(Read debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1988/jan/20/homelessness#S5LV0492P0_19880120_HOL_168)
He kept his surgery opened throughout these years and in 1985 he was appointed Chairman of the British Medical Association which he considered a career pinnacle. Public Health was always a core concern and he relished the opportunity to scrutinise any changes in NHS policy that would be detrimental to the average working-class household. Giving his own personal perspective as seen in this exchange;
Lord Pitt of Hampstead: The general practitioner is the only person who sees the individual from birth to death, and often before birth. I often see men and women in the Caribbean and also in this country whom I knew before they were born because I provided antenatal treatment for their mothers. Sometimes I delivered them myself but, even when they were delivered in hospital, I provided most of the antenatal care.
(Read debate in full: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1988/apr/27/public-health-in-england#S5LV0496P0_19880427_HOL_105)
The mantle of elder statesman sat comfortably on Pitt’s shoulders and to mark his seventieth birthday the Lord Pitt Foundation was set up to advance the prospects of persons of West Indian origin or descent. As ill-health imposed itself, he still frequently spoke in Parliament and friend Joan Lestor noted that his love of an intellectual argument remained till the very end. In his final days he was visited by many of his brethren, men and women who had been on the same road as him. Far away from home but always with a little hope in their hearts.
He passed away on the 18th December 1994 and was buried in his homeland of Grenada.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography Vol 44 – David Pitt biography written by Mike Phillips
The Oxford Companion to Black British History
Renegade – The Life and Times of Darcus Howe by Robin Bunce & Paul Field
Hansard – Parliamentary Debates
Home Affairs – Select Committee on Race Relations & Immigration 1968-69- 1974-75
Obituaries – Lord Pitt of Hampstead written by Joan Lestor, The Independent, 20th December 1994
BBC General Election 1970 - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cq8PMfpA-6g&t=9733s