Obituary: Faith Lawson

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The Independent Culture
PICTURE AN inner London street in the early 1990s. Under the eyes of a policeman, a few burly men are heaving an illegally parked car off the pavement and into the road. Nearby stands a little old lady carrying a Harrods bag. She watches intently and, sensing that the policeman may be about to intervene, goes to speak to him. The car heaving continues without interference and soon the pavement is free of obstructions. This was Faith Lawson, Chairman of the Pedestrians Association, at an action to "reclaim the pavements".

With her Methodist upbringing and long record of public service, she never ceased to be amused that this episode earned her the label of "eco- terrorist". Someone more devoted to peace and the brotherhood of man cannot be imagined.

Faith Lawson was one of four children brought up in the suburban comfort of West Bridgford, on the edge of Nottingham. Her father, John, was a pharmaceutical chemist who worked for and knew Jesse Boot. As a circuit steward in the Methodist Church, he and his Scots wife (nee Faith Clokie) passed on to their only daughter strong moral values and a whiff of nonconformity. They were also determined that she should have first-hand experience of ordinary life. Education at University College, Nottingham, may have brought her a BSc in Economics (1943) and fluency in Italian but her first jobs were in girls' youth work, and welfare at Boots.

She managed to leave her protective home circle thanks to her older brother Hugh. He was standing for Parliament in 1945 in the election which saw Churchill's defeat. Needing help with his campaign, he asked his sister to bring her typewriter to Harrow West. It was Faith Lawson's first taste of politics and, although Hugh (a Common Wealth candidate) lost his deposit, she was soon nipping in and out of the Palace of Westminster. Typically, she chose to work for Konni Zilliacus, a controversial far left-winger who was the Member for Gateshead.

Lawson's subsequent life fell into three main parts. The first involved audience research initially at the BBC (1950-63) and then in Nigeria. At Broadcasting House she developed a lifelong love of The Archers but was also involved in early research into television viewing. It was at the BBC too that complimentary tickets developed her taste for music. Between 1963 and 1964 Lawson worked in audience research at the Eastern Nigeria Broadcasting Corporation, in Enugu. She then spent three years at the University of Nigeria, in Nsukka as head of the department of Secretarial Studies, actively promoting higher education for women. She had had an earlier taste of black rights issues through hearing Martin Luther King preach in the late 1950s, during a visit to her brother, a professor of Divinity in Atlanta, Georgia.

She returned from Nigeria in 1967 as the civil war broke out and went to work at the London Borough of Camden, where she stayed until 1984, allocating houses to those with special needs. The job required fairness, consistency and bottle: Lawson had all three.

Her final career move swept her into campaigning for transport. From 1984 onwards she was involved in the London Regional Passengers Committee, Transport 2000 and, most notably, between 1985 and 1997, the management committee of the Pedestrians Association. She also found time for her home territory of Wandsworth. Not only did she chair the local Pensioners' Forum but, on behalf of her beloved Samson and Goldie, she successfully fought a ban against dogs on the common. Another irreplaceable part of her life at Wandsworth was Tony Delaney, whom she had met while working for Camden. They had a long, close and deep friendship. Last year she told Tony, Eleanor and their daughter Sophie that they were her "ready-made family".

During her time as chairman of the Pedestrians Association the tide began to turn in favour of walking. The clearest sign was the setting up by Steven Norris, then a junior Transport Minister, of a national walking steering-group. Lawson played her part in campaigning for the group and was amused that she, a lifelong socialist and defender of the underdog, could be so chummy with a Tory minister who famously defined the distaste of suburban England for sitting beside hoi polloi in a bus.

In 1997 the little old lady with the Harrods bag was appointed MBE for years of public service and, in particular, her work for pedestrians. It was a well-deserved prize for a woman deeply principled (though not without guile in matters political) who had striven hard and long with little interest in her own self-aggrandisement. When "Encouraging Walking: the National Strategy" is published this month by Glenda Jackson, the Transport Minister, those of us who knew Faith Lawson will see it as a fitting memorial to her life.

Faith Lawson, housing officer and campaigner: born West Bridgford, Nottinghamshire 9 February 1922; Chairman, Pedestrians Association 1991-97; MBE 1997; died London 16 October 1998.