John Smith 1938-1994: Party HQ gathers messages of grief

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The Independent Online
THE FIRST man to put his condolences in writing tried hard not to cry. 'I don't even vote Labour,' he said. 'I just thought he was a good man and I respected him.'

Tony Palmer, a van driver from Tonbridge, Kent, was passing the Labour headquarters in Walworth Road, south London, when he heard the news on the radio, so he stopped to ask if there was a register for condolences.

There was not, but one was opened for him. 'With deepest sympathy to Mrs Smith and family and to the entire Labour movement on the tragic loss of John Smith,' he wrote. 'The nation has suffered a heavy loss.'

News of Mr Smith's heart attack filtered back to Walworth Road shortly after most of the 130 staff had arrived for work. A note, signed by Larry Whitty, the general secretary of the Labour Party, told workers that Mr Smith was in Bart's hospital. Inevitably, there was an uncomfortable atmosphere until about 10.30am when they were given the bad news.

'Everyone is devastated,' a party worker said. 'It has come as a tremendous shock. Most of us saw him last night at the Park Lane dinner (to raise funds for the European campaign) and he showed no signs of being ill. He was in fine form. We're just trying to carry on as best we can.'

As the rain poured down on late arrivals, some workers embraced, comforting one another. One young woman had heard only of the heart attack, not of Mr Smith's fate. Another worker broke the news; her hand rose painfully to cover her mouth and she began to weep.

The first flowers, 10 red roses, were laid on the steps of the party headquarters at 11.30am by a young man with cropped hair called Ricky. He had written: 'Such an unjust day for your family, friends and the world of politics. You will be missed, Mr Smith.'

Then they came in torrents. Mostly red roses, but there were carnations, chrysanthemums and lilies. The people who brought them found difficulty in masking their grief.

There was Alex Jan, 24, who spoke of Mr Smith's 'vision and integrity'; there was 59-year-old Suzy Thomas who said he should have lived to become Prime Minister. And there was Nick Berry, a 32-year-old sound engineer: 'When I heard the news, I felt like I had lost a friend,' he said. 'I really thought Mr Smith was going to put the party back in power. He would have changed things.'

Within four hours of Mr Smith's death, telephonists had taken more than 1,500 messages of sympathy, some from Conservative voters in tears.

Meanwhile, Tony Palmer's book of condolences had taken centre stage. A bright, quiet meeting room at the front of the building had been set aside as a shrine. There was a large table covered in pale blue paper. On it was a black and white photograph of Mr Smith, a bowl of red roses and Mr Palmer's book.

The silence of the room was broken by a party worker who rushed in with a message of condolence telephoned in by Terry Waite. She wanted to record it in the book while it was still fresh, but she paused on the way out and looked at the photograph. 'You know,' she said. 'I've got a photograph of him holding my baby.'

(Photograph omitted)