Hetty Bower, who has died at the age of 108, had a life remarkable both for its longevity and for decades of indefatigable campaigning on a range of anti-war and left-wing issues. Despite failing eyesight and hearing, until a few months ago she was still taking part in protest marches, often delivering inspirational speeches. She was not only one of the oldest women in Britain but also one of the country’s oldest political activists.
She was born in 1905, her membership of the Labour Party stretching from the era of Kier Hardie, via leaders such as Ramsay MacDonald and Clement Attlee, to the current leader Ed Miliband, who tweeted a tribute to her as “a remarkable fighter for justice.”
In September this year she stole the show at a Labour Party Conference fringe meeting. She received a standing ovation when she made a passionate speech declaring that “what I have to campaign about in the short time still left to me is peace on our planet and improvement of living conditions.”
Her campaigns and causes spanned the Labour movement, work with refugees during the Second World War, women’s issues, hospital closures, cuts in services for the disabled and others, the Middle East and CND. She once summed up her philosophy: “We may not win by protesting, but if we don’t protest we will lose. If we stand up to them, there is always a chance we will win.”
She was too young to play a part in the Suffragette movement; in fact her father – almost comically, in view of the lifetime of activism that lay ahead of her – did not approve of women “interfering” in politics. But her sister secretly attended women’s rights meetings, passing on accounts of them which politicised Hetty.
She had already been affected by the casualties of the First World War, remembering how she and others had cheered young men who were on their way to the trenches. “But it didn’t take long before we saw those men coming back,” she recalled almost a century later. “They were missing legs and missing arms, totally blind, and war was no longer fun. I think I was 10 years old when my hatred of war began.”
Born into an Orthodox Jewish Labour family in Dalston, north-east London, she had seven sisters and two brothers, all of whom predeceased her. In the 1920s she was involved in the General Strike and she could recall the battle of Cable Street, when Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists clashed violently with anti-fascist protesters in London’s East End.
When she was invited last year to a school in the East End for a performance recalling the episode, a teacher said of her speech: “The response the kids gave her was the best thing about the whole event. It was a fantastic atmosphere, so inspiring.”
She had early leanings towards the Communist Party, working in the 1930s with Kino, a film documentary company with links to the Soviet Union. Joining the Labour Party she was detailed to welcome new applicants, remembering one man who she said, “was very pleasant looking, and you couldn’t help but respond to that smile.” This was Reg Bower, to whom she would be married for 69 years.
During the war she ran a Czech Refugee Hostel in north London for, she said, “trade unionists, socialists, communists, Jews and anyone else they could get out of Czechoslovakia.”
After the war she worked for more than 20 years as a secretary at a secondary school near Finsbury Park, where she promoted music teaching: in the First World War she had been much comforted, she recalled, by the family practice of playing music to drown out the noise of bombing raids. She went on to work in a variety of jobs in business and the cinema, helping to set up the first union for women, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries.
When CND was formed in 1958 she was a founder-member, taking part in her first march to Aldermaston a year later and becoming a familiar figure at many of its marches and other events over the decades. In fact, she last went to Aldermaston earlier this year when, it was said, she complained that some marchers were going too slowly. She was one of the speakers at the annual Hiroshima Day Commemoration in London in 2011.
As a veteran peace campaigner she was upset by the war in Iraq, leaving the Labour Party over the issue but later rejoining. “I’m still marching,” she said. “I just want my great-grandchildren to grow up in a world where war is past.”
In the last few years she signalled that she believed her life had lasted almost long enough. When the Channel 4 journalist Jon Snow remarked to her that he hoped she would be around for many years she replied, “Please not. I am now getting tired.” And when another interviewer asked if she hoped to live much longer she said, “No, I do not. I really hope I don’t make another birthday. There doesn’t seem much purpose.”
Yet she continued to display spirit. Her daughter Maggie said: “Almost her last words were, ‘Ban the bomb, for ever more.’ It was among the songs we sang with her in her last few days.”
Hetty Rimel, peace campaigner: born Dalston, London 28 September 1905; married Reginald Bower (deceased; two daughters); died Hampstead, London 12 November 2013.
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