Obituary: Elsie Janner

Elsie Sybil Cohen, magistrate: born Newcastle upon Tyne 1 November 1905; member, Juvenile Courts Panel 1944-70, Chairman 1960-70; CBE 1968; Chairman, Advisory Board, Stonham Housing Association 1975- 83, President 1984-94; married 1927 Barnett Janner (created 1970 Baron Janner; died 1982; one son, one daughter); died 17 July 1994.

IT IS easy to think of Lady Janner as a kind of Queen Mother figure in the world in which she was active for so long - as a magistrate, as a social worker, as a walker of political corridors, and above all as one of the leaders of Britain's Jewish community. After all, she died at the age of 88 and was highly respected after years of service.

She was nothing like that at all. She was a tough, feisty woman whom you crossed at your peril. She may have been small in stature but there was a feeling that this was a tiny flyweight boxer who could do nine rounds and win if there was a cause she believed in. And she had numerous causes - the welfare of women and young girls, work for the homeless, discharged prisoners, Zionism Elsie Janner was the wife and mother of Labour Members of Parliament, for the same Leicester constituency - Barnett and Greville Janner respectively - but it would never have been wise to think of her as simply some kind of political consort or power behind the throne. She had her own ideas on politics as she had on almost everything else.

Never more was this evident than, when in her old age and when her son Greville Janner was assiduously nursing his highly marginal seat at Leicester West, she announced she was joining the SDP. Greville may not have appreciated it too much, but he knew better than to argue with Mother. She was, though, a tremendous support and comfort to him whenever he consulted her on matters on which he knew she had expert knowledge. Plainly she was proud of him.

Even so, you always had the idea that, just as when he was a small child, she didn't want to spoil him. I remember congratulating her when Greville was elected President of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, in effect the lay leader of Britain's Jewish community and another post her late husband Lord Janner had held before him. 'Why does everyone talk about Greville?' she asked crossly. 'I've got a wonderfully successful daughter too.' Her daughter Ruth (Lady Morris of Kenwood) was a solicitor working in her father's practice.

Elsie Janner was herself a leading member of the Board of Deputies, stepping down only last month - after having been officially declared, as its longest-serving member, the organisation's joint father and mother.

She was born Elsie Cohen in Newcastle upon Tyne in 1905 and came from prosperous Orthodox Jewish stock. Her Lithuanian immigrant father Joseph Cohen had founded the Cavendish Woodhouse furniture stores - now Courts - and from an early age she had been instructed in the traditional Jewish values of giving charity and working for the less advantaged.

She had a good education, first at Newcastle and then at Southampton high schools, where she played hockey to devastating effect - for years afterwards it seemed there was an invisible hockey stick in her hand which she was about to use against political opponents.

It was traditional among her class to go working among the poor in the East End of London. Others saw it if not as do-gooding as a bit of jolly good fun and a chance to meet nice Jewish boys who were also doing a little slumming on the side. She, though, immediately rolled up her sleeves and spent most of her evenings at the Brady Play Centre in Whitechapel. In 1924 she became its secretary; a year later, at 19, she founded the Brady Girls' Club, which before long became the biggest Jewish girls' club and one of the biggest clubs of any kind in Britain Although now moved to Edgware, it still exists as part of Brady Maccabi. At the time of her death she was its president, as she was of the Brady Friendship Club, a gathering of old people living in the East End, many of whom were her former girls' club members.

She also served as president of the Federation of Women Zionists and of the British Council for Soviet Jewry, and was vice-president of the Association for Jewish Youth.

In 1936 she had been appointed a magistrate - at the time the youngest ever in Britain. Later she became chairman of the Thames Division and served as chairman of Inner London juvenile courts from 1944 to 1970. She was a vice- president of the London Magistrates' Association. It went hand- in-hand easily with her political activities. In 1927 she had married the Cardiff solicitor Barnett Janner who was 14 years her senior. In 1930 she worked to help him win a notable by-election at Whitechapel as a Liberal. Later she joined him in the Labour Party and campaigned for his subsequent election as Labour MP for what was then Leicester North West. She was her 'Barney' 's right arm (she wrote his biography in 1984) - and always his driver, which was appropriate for a Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Motorists who proudly displayed its badge. Somehow, it eased the guilt she felt at having had a driving licence dating back to the time before tests were compulsory. Good driving was one of her important causes.

In the war she had been a captain in the Mechanised Transport Corps heading a group of people who ferried vehicles from factories to army bases. She was awarded the Defence Medal for her work. She was also the commanding officer of the Stamford Hill detachment of the Girls' Training Corps in north London.

Her public work continued for another 40-odd years and she was appointed CBE in 1968. When the then Home Secretary Roy Jenkins asked her to become chairman of the Stonham Trust devoted to fund facilities for homeless people and discharged prisoners, she more than lived up to expectations: she raised hundreds of thousands of pounds for the cause.

Israel was close to her heart. She chose as her husband's memorial a village she founded on the slopes of Mount Gilboa, in upper Galilee, called Gan Ner, the Garden of Light.

She lived in London and in Bournemouth - where every August she could be seen having a flutter at the Royal Bath Casino, an indulgence she thought she deserved for herself. Her greatest pleasure? 'Grandchildren', she said - and listed that as her principal recreation in Who's Who.

(Photograph omitted)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
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 People

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the world's leading suppliers and manuf...

Recruitment Genius: Multiple Apprentices Required

£6240 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Apprentices are required to join a privat...

Sauce Recruitment: HR Manager

£40000 per annum: Sauce Recruitment: This is an exciting opportunity for a HR...

Ashdown Group: Interim HR Manager - 3 Month FTC - Henley-on-Thames

£35000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established organisation oper...

Day In a Page

Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee