Harriet Garland: Inspirational mayor of Camden

Harriet Garland, who has died of leukaemia, was a memorable figure in the London borough of Camden, and was its mayor from 2004 to 2005. In her late sixties and far from trim, she abseiled down the walls of the town hall to raise money for charity, she chatted to Prince Charles about his painting at the Royal College of Physicians, and danced with old ladies when she visited them at their care homes. A longstanding member of the Labour Party and already active locally, mostly on behalf of the homeless and the mentally ill, she was elected to the council in 1990, where she exercised her powers with a winning combination of steeliness and charm.

She was born Harriet Crittall in Essex in January 1938, the eldest of four children. The Crittalls were a family of industrialists, makers of metal windows, with a strong interest in design. The windows, which supplied the Model T factory in Detroit, and which, under different ownership, are still made today, were thought to be a defining feature of British architecture between the wars. The family were socialists who took an interest in the welfare of their workers, for whom they built the model village, Silver End.

Garland's mother Ariel was born in 1914, two weeks after her own father was killed in Mesopotamia at the head of his regiment. Ariel has recently published her memoirs, which include an account of the visit she paid to Hitler in 1933. The visit was not made because she was in any way sympathetic to him – but because, like Garland, she was always interested in what was happening around her.

Garland was sent to a small boarding school in Surrey at the age of six – a miserable memory – and from there to Cranbourne Chase, a girls' school in Dorset associated with Bryanston which has since closed down. She didn't much like that, either, and did what many wilful girls did in the 1950s: decided she didn't want to be clever, and, eager for independence, set off for London and secretarial college with head held high. Not going to university was no impediment to having a good or an interesting time. She worked in publishing and at Granada Television; she met and married the cartoonist Nicholas Garland, spent some time in the US, had a daughter, Emily – her greatest prize – and led the glamorous Sixties lifestyle associated with the Establishment club, Beyond the Fringe and Private Eye in its early heyday. A bleak time followed: the death of a baby, separation, divorce. Then in the 1970s she re-emerged, more serious, more engaged, but no less fun.

She worked for a couple of years with Interaction, the community organisation founded by Ed Berman, and other voluntary groups; she set up the mental health support group that became Mind in Camden, organised young people to help the elderly and initiated a Sunday lunch club for single mothers like her who found weekends hard going. Then she joined Islington Council, where she ran a grants programme for voluntary organisations which would grow to be the largest in London.

Former colleagues remember her pizzazz, her bright green thigh-length boots and Jean Muir dresses, and her extraordinary ability to put people at their ease. But when she decided that the right-wing Labour Party politics of Islington were not for her, she picked up her typewriter, threw it on the floor and announced she was off. She would in due course feel much the same about New Labour.

After another bad spell in the 1980s, Garland re-emerged to take on more and more of the problems of Camden's most troubled citizens. Having lived in Primrose Hill since her married days, she became involved with the local community association, and then with homeless people and hostel residents in the borough via the Arlington Action Group, a voluntary organisation centred on Arlington House in Camden Town, the last of the 19th-century Rowton Houses in use as a hostel.

Persuaded to stand for election to the council, she was closely involved from the start with its Social Services Committee and eventually became the chair, a position she took to with her usual combination of gentleness and impatience, determination and good humour. "You weasel, you weasel," Richard Osley, a journalist from the Camden New Journal remembered her shouting at him down a town hall corridor after something she hadn't liked appeared in the paper. But he also remembered that she had a grin on her face as she said it.

"She was as serious and resolute as she was mischievous," Osley wrote in his blog. "She had no time for the blathering, nonsense speeches that waste so much time at council meetings. I recall her audible sighs in committee rooms when anybody began grandstanding like they were in the House of Commons, even if members of her own party were on their feet." By now a bit portly ("your fat friend" was how she described herself to me), she was still beautiful and apparently more benign than before. "She looked rather innocent knitting away at group meetings," a fellow councillor told me, "but if you sat close to her you'd hear her running commentary on various colleagues, which usually involved numerous swear words."

She was well known for not mincing her words. It was part of her charm, but it was also what made things happen. Disturbed by the case of Nellie Hutchin, an old lady whose body was found in her flat quite some time after she died, Garland set up the Vulnerable Older People's Project. It was this aspect of her work, both as councillor and as mayor, of which she was most proud. In the words of a former leader of the Council, "It transformed services for older people in the borough."

She was a consistent supporter of the redevelopment of the Roundhouse, even when as mayor she wasn't supposed to take sides. A creative centre for young people was part of the plan and she didn't intend to let it slip away. She enjoyed herself as mayor, whether opening a crazy golf course on a difficult estate or an exhibition of art work by African children with Aids. Asked why she'd travelled to Windsor Castle for a meeting she had no need to attend, she replied: "To visit Windsor Castle, of course."

In everything she did she was encouraging, enthusiastic and per-fectly down to earth; she was a generous, imaginative, indispensable friend. She joined Emily and her family in the countryside in Hertfordshire almost as soon as her time as mayor was over, and inevitably was co-opted by the parish council.

Mary-Kay Wilmers

Harriet Elizabeth Ariel Crittall, councillor and mayor: born Essex 3 January 1938; married 1964 Nicolas Garland (divorced 1968; one daughter); died 25 January 2010.