Andy Andrews: Centenarian political activist

Andy Andrews admonished those present at his 101st birthday party in Taunton in February for going on too much about his lifetime of political activism. After messages of congratulations from Tony Benn, the CND chair Kate Hudson and other left-wing luminaries had been read out, he rose to his feet and complained: "I want less adulation and more politics", and went on to urge the gathering of friends and fellow activists to look to the future and consider instead how to support workers and trade unionists in their struggle.

His remarks were typical of this modest man who devoted much of his life to radical causes. In the 1930s, he confronted Sir Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts; he was the oldest surviving British veteran of the International Brigades who fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War; he was a trade-union activist in the NHS during the post-war years; and as a centenarian, he could still be seen on the streets of Taunton selling the Morning Star, collecting signatures against Britain's Trident nuclear weapons or opposing the Iraq war.

At the age of 16, Andrews joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and was posted to India. "I became a red from the first time I set foot in India," he said. The poverty and injustice shocked him. At Bombay docks, he saw scores of Indian women in ragged clothes, some with babies strapped to them, loading heavy sacks of coal on the steamships. "We went over to the Indian foreman, who told us that it was not unusual for a pregnant woman to carry on working until she was due, go inside the warehouse and have the child," Andrews recalled years later. He turned to his companion and said: "If this is the jewel in the English Crown, I want nothing to do with it."

Then, with an Indian regiment, he was posted in 1926 to the British garrison in Shanghai where, in April of the following year, he witnessed the massacre of thousands of Chinese Communists by Chiang Kai-shek's government forces.

After discharge from the army in 1931, he worked at Queen Charlotte's Maternity Hospital, Hammersmith, became active in the local branch of the National Unemployed Workers' Movement and in Kilburn, where he lived, he held street-corner meetings in which, standing on a chair, he would denounce the iniquities of British imperialism. First he joined the Independent Labour Party, then the Communist Party, which was organising the street protests against the Fascist Blackshirts. "They used to try and come into Kilburn, but we always got enough people and saw them off," he said.

More ambitious was a plan to disrupt a Mosley rally in the Royal Albert Hall in March 1936. Andrews and other anti-Fascists infiltrated the meeting, spreading out around the auditorium with a supply of leaflets. "At a given signal, we all let go. There was immediate pandemonium. Blackshirt thugs came after us and I was given one hell of a thump in the stomach and thrown down two or three flights of stairs. When I crawled to the entrance, I was thumped again, except, this time, two policemen were standing nearby. One of them came over and kicked me himself."

When General Francisco Franco and other generals launched their Fascist-backed uprising against Spain's democratic government in July of the same year, Andrews was one of the first Britons to volunteer to help the Republic. He travelled by ambulance through France, arriving in Barcelona at the end of August, and remained in Spain until March 1938. As part of the newly formed British Medical Unit, he first served at a field hospital at Grañen on the Aragon front, then from January 1937 he worked as an operating-theatre technician at the International Brigades' main base at Albacete.

His main job was to keep all the medical equipment sterile. An American nurse, Esther Silverstein, remembered his hard work and attention to detail:

He operated five or six primus stoves at once, all filled with gasoline. On top of these sat pressure cookers, and in each lay a metal drum containing supplies being sterilised. From this unit Andrews supplied us with the laparotomy sheets, sponges, towels, dressing, gloves, gowns and masks. He had one primus stove which always had a tea kettle "on the boil", and from him I learned to drink strong tea with milk in it.

From Albacete, he was sent to Teruel during fighting in and around the city in the winter of 1937/38. Working in makeshift hospitals that came under attack from German and Italian planes, on one occasion he had to dive behind a wall to escape machine-gun fire directed at him from a plane swooping out of the air.

He was shortly to relive the experience. In 1939 he rejoined the British army and was sent to France with the Royal Artillery. At Dunkirk, awaiting evacuation in May 1940, he was once again strafed by German planes.

In 1955, Andrews settled in Taunton, Somerset. He worked as an assistant in the pharmacy department of Musgrove Park Hospital, where he met his future wife, Winifred. He became a union shop steward, helped to establish a branch of the Cohse health workers' union and was subsequently its secretary for many years.

After his retirement in 1972 came a lull, which lasted until 2005 when he was "discovered" by chance by a local trade-union historian who was astonished to find someone with such a distinguished radical past living anonymously in the area. The final years of his life saw a return to the activism of his youth. In 2006 he spoke at the annual Tolpuddle trade-union festival. That year he returned to Spain for the first time since 1938 to attend a reunion of veterans in Barcelona, which he described as "one of the finest weeks I have ever had in my life".

He declined a 100th birthday greeting from the Queen and sent her a letter protesting against the proposed replacement of Trident nuclear weapons rather than spending more money on the NHS. Last year, he was on stage at Glastonbury, imploring a younger audience to continue the anti-Fascist fight and reject the BNP.

Aged 99, he even rejoined the Communist Party, which prompted a bemused official from party HQ who was processing his application to contact the International Brigade Memorial Trust to verify Andrews's identity and remarkable background.

Jim Jump

Keith Howard "Andy" Andrews, political activist: born London 15 February 1907; married 1965 Winifred Perry (died 1996); died Taunton, Somerset 7 May 2008.

News
Denny Miller in 1959 remake of Tarzan, the Ape Man
people
Arts and Entertainment
Cheryl despairs during the arena auditions
tvX Factor review: Drama as Cheryl and Simon spar over girl band

News
Piers Morgan tells Scots they might not have to suffer living on the same island as him if they vote ‘No’ to Scottish Independence
news
News
i100Exclusive interview with the British analyst who helped expose Bashar al-Assad's use of Sarin gas
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Sport
Angel Di Maria celebrates his first goal for Manchester United against QPR
Football4-0 victory is team's first win under new manager Louis van Gaal
Arts and Entertainment
art
News
newsIn short, yes
Arts and Entertainment
Rob James-Collier, who plays under-butler Thomas Barrow, admitted to suffering sleepless nights over the Series 5 script
tv'Thomas comes right up to the abyss', says the actor
Arts and Entertainment
Calvin Harris claimed the top spot in this week's single charts
music
Sport
BoxingVideo: The incident happened in the very same ring as Tyson-Holyfield II 17 years ago
News
Groundskeeper Willie has backed Scottish independence in a new video
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor poses the question of whether we are every truly alone in 'Listen'
tvReview: Possibly Steven Moffat's most terrifying episode to date
News
i100
Life and Style
Cara Delevigne at the TopShop Unique show during London Fashion Week
fashion
News
The life-sized tribute to Amy Winehouse was designed by Scott Eaton and was erected at the Stables Market in Camden
peopleBut quite what the singer would have made of her new statue...
Sport
England's Andy Sullivan poses with his trophy and an astronaut after winning a trip to space
sport
News
peopleThe actress has agreed to host the Met Gala Ball - but not until 2015
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories