Dorothea Heath: Model, councillor and 'Independent' photographer


My mother Dorothea Heath was a woman of many facets. Born in Alexandria, she was a model in the 1950s, a Reigate councillor for the Labour Party in the '60s, a rare species in true blue Surrey and a press photographer in Wales for the Guardian, Independent and Observer newspapers from the mid-1970s until 2005.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, at the age of 10, she was ready to board a ship from Alexandria to the UK, but her father, who was the British Chargé d'Affaires for Egypt and Libya, ensured that his family did not board it. It sank, torpedoed by a German U-Boat.

She married Geoffrey Smither, a fighter pilot and Battle of Britain hero, awarded a DFC, the equivalent of the Military Cross, who was killed in a RAF civilian plane crash on his way back to Blighty. Widowed, Dorothea became a catwalk model in the early 1950s, working with Rosalind Dawson. They were known as the tall and the short of the catwalk – Dorothea was the short one. They wore similar outfits to show that the designer could make dresses for all shapes and sizes. She met Tony Heath, a PR editor for a London public relations company; they married within weeks.

In the late 1960s Dorothea was a vociferous supporter of 40 lecturers who were sacked by Surrey County Council for having supported a student sit-in. During the lengthy battle for their reinstatement she kept an open house for students and lecturers. Among the sacked lecturers was the celebrated artist Ian Walters, sculptor of Nelson Mandela's statue in Parliament Square.

Elected a Reigate Borough councillor in the late 1960s, she utilised her catwalk training to give deportment classes at the Pine End School for Maladjusted Girls, where she was a school governor. As a councillor she often deployed direct action, it not being unknown for her to stage one-person sit-ins in the chief executive's office until her demands were met.

Having moved to Blaenau Ffestiniog in 1974, and short of money, Dorothea went out and bought a Praktica camera and started a new career as a press photographer, working for the Guardian, Observer, Independent and Times. During the 1984-85 miners' strike she was made an Honorary Member of the NUM, having once again opened her house, this time to miners from South Wales who were picketing Point of Ayr and Bersham collieries in North Wales.

Dorothea Heath hung up her camera in 2005; she was a popular member of her community wherever she lived and got on well with people from different backgrounds. She always stood her ground, while always remaining civil. She remained a liberal throughout her life; always elegant, she would wear furs and Hermes scarves while brandishing placards.

Dorothea Margaret Heath, model, local politician and press photographer: born Alexandria, Egypt September 1929; married firstly Geoffrey Smither (deceased), 1954 Tony Heath; died Hay-on-Wye 22 March 2012.

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