Apparently the meekest of little old ladies, Elizabeth Sigmund is actually one of Britain's most remarkable campaigners: a one-woman bulwark against a host of chemical menaces

Justine Picardie
Saturday 30 September 1995 23:02

AT first sight, Elizabeth Sigmund - 67 years old, grey-haired, terribly well-spoken - seems so thoroughly conventional, so soothingly ordinary, that you might expect to be introduced to her alongside other bastions of society at the local Women's Ins-titute. But we have arranged to meet at her cottage in Cornwall, where roses grow around the front door, and chickens scratch in the garden.

Inside the house, all is quiet and neat and tasteful. We drink tea served in faded bone china cups and saucers, and eat home-made lemon cake while she tells me about her grandfather (a wealthy mill-owner who served as a colonel in the First World War); her great-aunt (who wore kid shoes and silver fox furs and played bridge with Queen Mary); and her dearly beloved six children and nine grandchildren, whose pictures stand framed on polished wood side-tables.

There are, however, a few signs which suggest that nice Mrs Sigmund might not be quite so conventional: for one thing, beneath her sensible green jumper she wears a slightly eccentric long patchwork skirt. And soon the conversation takes a more dramatic turn: to those bothersome occasions when her telephone was tapped and her mail opened; or when the local MP warned her that the security services were trying to frighten her. She shrugs this off as a minor inconvenience, but it does not take long to realise why some people in high places fervently wish that Elizabeth Sigmund would shut up.

Between polite sips of tea, she gently lets slip the most startling allegations: about a secret nerve gas factory that blighted the Cornish coastline; about experiments with biological weapons conducted upon human guinea- pigs in a prestigious London hospital; about faceless multinationals, sinister scientists and careless government ministers, all of whom, she makes clear, threaten the air we breathe and the water we drink, in this land that is no longer quite so green and pleasant as it used to be.

For although she looks like part of the Establishment - the sort of model citizen who would be welcome in the Conservative Women's Club - Sigmund has been a long-standing thorn in various governments' sides, as one of the most persistent of this country's environmental campaigners, and probably the most doughty. True, she is crippled by arthritis and sometimes confined to a wheelchair and therefore not to be found with those muscular young activists who confront French troops in the south Pacific or conduct daring night-time raids against motorway builders. And unlike those hunky campaigners, she never makes the front page: partly, perhaps, because her current battle concerns toxic sheep dips, which does not sound very exciting.

Nevertheless, Sigmund is taken seriously in her field: not only at Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth (whose researchers deem her to be "in a category of her own"; "a determined expert"; "an inspiration"); but also at the Department of Health, where the senior scientific officer talks with cautious warmth of her "intelligence and energy". Even the official spokesman for the chemical companies that she so vigorously opposes admits, "I have to say, I ad-mire her success and skills." (And this is a man to whom she has said, "I despise every atom of your body.")

So when Sigmund tells us that we should be very wary of sheep dips - or, more specifically, of the organo-phosphate pesticides from which they are made - maybe we should start listening. (She points out that these substances - known in the trade as OPs - are not some mild disinfectant, but are from the same family of chemicals as a lethal nerve gas developed by the Nazis; and that their ill-effects, ranging from muscular spasm to memory loss and heart problems, are not confined to the farmers who use them, but also harm people whose drinking water has been contaminated by discarded sheep dip.)

It might also be worth asking ourselves what prompted a little old lady - armed only with a telephone, a computer, and her unflagging optimism - to learn so much about some of the world's more obscure poisons, which most people prefer to ignore.

ELIZABETH Sigmund says that it all stems from her childhood, which turns out to have been almost as remarkable as her adult life. She was born Elizabeth Tillotson in 1928, in Bolton, the only child of a well-to-do Lancashire family. When she was about three, her father, a former naval officer who had never settled into a job after coming home from sea, rather unexpectedly became a Fascist and joined the Blackshirts. "My mother said that he became one of Oswald Mosley's bodyguards," says Sigmund, in her characteristic tone of calm amusement. "I once listened to a programme about the Fascists on the radio, and then I fell asleep and dreamt of seeing my father in his black uniform with black boots. I think I really must have seen him like that when I was a child. My mother said I did, that he used to come home wearing these horrible big black boots and the full regalia."

After constant arguments about her father's politics and drinking, her parents separated when she was four; Elizabeth went with her mother to live with her maternal grandparents, who owned a large house on the outskirts of Bolton. Her grandfather, who had gone back to running the family bleaching mills after leaving the Army, was an important influence. "He was an absolutely lovely man - kind and funny and wonderful to me. I always thought God was like Gramps." He was educated at Rugby, where he had been instilled with Dr Arnold's Victorian beliefs in the importance of being an honourable Christian gentleman; these tenets he tried to pass on to his family. "It's given me a tremendous belief in basic goodness, because I saw it in Gramps," says Sigmund. "He had this absolute belief that if you were lucky enough to be born relatively rich and reasonably intelligent, then you had a duty to help people who didn't have those things.

"On Christmas Day I'd go to church with him and then to a hospital to visit the men in his regiment who'd been wounded in the First World War. Many of them had been gassed and had lost limbs. Gramps would cry on the way home, very quietly. So I learnt that there were people who had had a very tough time, and that you should look after them."

These and other early experiences also left her with a deep and abiding loathing of chemical weapons, and of the politicians who ordered their use. Three of her uncles had fought in the war alongside her grandfather; Billy, the youngest of them, had been poisoned by mustard gas. "The family were told that he had TB, because the government didn't want to pay compensation for gas poisoning, so he died alone in an isolation hospital. The women in the family with children wouldn't go and see him, because they were terrified of TB. Gramps used to visit, but Billy's own wife never went, and he never saw his own daughter."

Then, in 1936, when she was eight, her grandfather died. "He was only in his sixties. His kidneys had been affected by the gas, too. I remember being taken into his bedroom the night before he died, and he was in agony. In my baby mind, it must have sunk in that gas was the most appalling thing."

The following year, Elizabeth was sent to school for the first time in her life. Her mother, she explains, had previously kept her at home because she was terrified that her estranged husband might snatch the child ("but of course he wouldn't have wanted me!"). Her mother had never been educated, except in the art of watercolours and playing the piano, and so had little to teach her own daughter; Bolton Grammar School was therefore a startling experience for Eliz-abeth, not least because it gave her the opportunity to meet local children. "I joined their gang, and had a wonderful time." When the Second World War began, she spent more and more time away from home. "All the men had disappeared, and my mother and grandmother fought like cats and it was a disaster. I hated the sound of them quarrelling."

Towards the end of the war, when she was 16, she became embroiled in their arguments and finally hit her grandmother, "though not hard", she says. (It is difficult to imagine her walloping anyone, except perhaps a manufacturer of chemical weapons.) "So my grandmother threw my mother and I out of the house." Elizabeth had to leave school, in order to earn a living. "We lived in awful circumstances, in an attic. I was earning a pound a week working in a nursery school, and she was washing up and cooking in a canteen."

In order to escape, perhaps, she got engaged at 17 and married at 18, to a young man who had recently returned from the RAF. Like hers, his family were wealthy local mill-owners, but soon after the birth of their daughter they moved to London, where he attended the Young Vic Theatre School. "We lived in Pinner, and it was awful," she says. "He'd buzz off in the morning, and I'd be left in this wilderness with a baby. I was only 20 - still a child myself." She was so depressed that her husband took her to see a Jungian psychiatrist, with whom she discussed her marital problems with unusual frankness. "And he said, 'You're a highly sexed young lady. You must leave your husband, or you'll go mad.' "

She took his advice, but unfortunately her relationship with her second husband - a handsome young writer called David Compton whom she met at the age of 21 - was equally unsatisfactory. They moved to Corn-wall, where he struggled to make a living, and she had two more daughters, followed by a son.

In between looking after small children and trying to make ends meet, she also searched out her long-lost father, who had given up fascism and become a hotelier. "A meteorite had fallen through the roof of his hotel in north Wales, which was how I found him," she says matter-of-factly. "My mother didn't tell me anything about him for a long time, and then she got out this old newspaper cutting about the meteorite, and said, 'If you want to find him, at least this is a clue.' So I rang the hotel, but he'd moved on by then and they didn't know where he was." Luckily, the telephone operator from the local exchange had been listening in to the conversation, and interrupted to tell Sigmund that her father had moved to Cornwall. "So I got in touch with him there, and when we finally met I thought he was horrid. The first thing he said was, 'I hear you and your mother were left lots of money.' I said, 'Absolute nonsense, we've been poverty-stricken.' "

So there she was, with her hopeless father and two hopeless marriages, and nothing to do but try to be as good a mother as she could. Nevertheless, she still believed in the things her grandfather had taught her: in honour, duty and kindess. What she needed was a cause: something to believe in and fight for as her second marriage crumbled around her. She had become, if you like, an activist waiting to happen.

THE CAUSE revealed itself in March 1967, when she listened to a BBC radio programme on chemical and biological warfare, which was then being developed at the Ministry of Defence establishment, Porton Down. Outraged by what she heard - and shocked that the kind of gas that had killed her uncle and grandfather was still in existence - Sigmund wrote a letter to the Observer asking anyone who shared her concern to join in grassroots opposition. "I was besieged with letters," she says. She then sent "innumerable copies of a suitably-worded petition" to Denis Healey, Minister of Defence in the Labour government, "but no acknowledgement was ever received."

In the process of her lobbying, however, she became the focus for a growing campaign about chemical and biological warfare, as journalists and scientists and politicians began to seek her out as a reliable source of information. "What I discovered is that I'm quite clever," she says, "that I have a gift for putting things to-gether, for correlating. I have a fairly cool judgement about what is fact and what is somebody's wild fantasy."

So when she began to hear rum-ours of a secret Ministry of Defence factory in Cornwall that was manufacturing nerve gas, Sigmund dismissed this as nothing more than alarmist scaremongering. "And then one night a friend of mine brought two men to my house, and they'd been working at Nancekuke [an ex-RAF station at Portreath in Corn-wall]. They said, 'Our wives don't even know this, you're the first person we've told. We were manufacturing sarin - nerve gas.' " The men told Sigmund that they had been ill since working at Nancekuke, with muscle spasms, loss of consciousness, ex-haustion and deteriorating eyesight.

Determined to see justice done - that is, for the Ministry of Defence to admit that a nerve gas leak had caused the men's illness, and to pay them compensation - Sigmund set about ringing everyone she could think of: MPs, lawyers, experts in toxicology, consultant neurologists. After 10 years of persistence, one of the men was awarded a small pension, and a back payment of pounds 2,000; the other became insane and received nothing.

Sigmund was also active in campaigning against the biological wea-pons research being carried out at Porton Down. One of the experimen-ts that she brought to light - and which has remained strangely unpublicised, despite her best efforts - involved terminally ill leukaemia and cancer patients at a London teaching hospital, who in 1966 were infected, with their consent, with two rare viruses, Kyasanur Forest disease and Langat virus. The exercise was conducted by a consultant neurologist and a professor of haematology at the hospital, in collaboration with the director of microbiological research at Porton Down, and the establishment's senior scientific officer. The stated object was to produce remission in the patients by decreasing the number of white corpuscles in their blood (leukaemia increases the number of white blood cells), but Sig-mund was - and is - appalled by the very idea. "The fact is that they were infected with brain fever, and two of them died of encephalitis. How those doctors brought themselves to do such a thing, I still can't imagine." She points out that, in 1967, Kyasanur Forest disease was listed at Fort Detrick (the US equivalent of Porton Down) as a potential germ warfare weapon, with a 28 per cent mortality rate. "Those poor people died, having the virus tested out on them. The inhumanity involved is so incredible."

Despite such stories, Sigmund feels the campaign against chemical and biological warfare achieved a measure of success. In 1972, President Nixon signed the UN biological weapons convention banning all research and stockpiling - "the only good thing he ever did," says Sigmund - and Britain followed suit. She notes, sternly, that Britain has signed but not ratified a convention banning chemical weapons; though the nerve gas plant at Nancekuke was eventually closed in 1976.

These days, she still keeps a close eye on stories concerning chemical and biological weapons (including their alleged presence in the former Yugoslavia); she has also provided advice to Army veterans about "Gulf war syndrome", and raised money for Kurdish victims of Saddam Hussein's chemical attacks. But her most zealous campaigning now revolves around sheep-dips. It is, as you might expect, an uphill struggle.

BEFORE Mrs Sigmund came to sheep-dips, however, there were some other matters to be sorted out in her life. In 1968, her second marriage came to a messy end. She quickly became involved with her third partner, a potter, and bore him two more daughters in rapid succession, only to see this relationship founder as well. It was then - perhaps not coincidentally - that her interest in another good cause was ignited: again, by a BBC programme, this time on the death of a young heroin addict. "Before she took the overdose, she kept saying, 'If only I had somewhere to go.' And I was on my own with the children, and we had a couple of spare rooms..." It is tempting to speculate as to why she felt compelled to offer to share her home with troubled teenagers: being thown out of her grandmother's home at 16, maybe; or feeling a keen sense of her own adult loneliness? She had also suffered enormous grief when two of her friends had, separately, killed themselves: first the poet Sylvia Plath, whom she met when they were neighbours in the West Country (Plath's novel, The Bell Jar, is dedicated to Elizabeth and her second husband, David Compton); and secondly the television director, James Mossman. "So two of the most intellectually important people in my life ended their lives," she says (and there are tears in her eyes). "It gave me the feeling that if you can save people's lives, you have got to try."

She turned her home into a refuge for a succession of young people, "some of whom were so sweet". And in doing so, she met her present husband, Bill Sigmund, who is 20 years her junior. He had heard of her work through a neighbour, and arrived at Elizabeth's house offering to help. "He came down with a basket of strawberries," she says, "and did lots of useful things like chopping wood." Elizabeth and Bill ended up falling in love, and married in 1973. Twenty-two years later, they still seem devot-ed to one another.

Shortly after their marriage, they moved with her children to Bristol, to run a hostel for ex-heroin addicts. "That was very hard," says Elizabeth, "because there were drug dealers all over Bristol. When our children, for the first time ever, saw one of the boys who had been living with us tak-en away in an ambulance, they were very upset, and I said, 'That's it.' "

So they gave up the hostel and moved to Devon, back to environmental campaigning. This seems a curious choice for a quiet life, given that her earlier campaigning had led to her phone being tapped and her mail tampered with. Did she not worry, I ask, about the effects on her children? She tells me about how angry she was when her son James was sent a Christmas present by his father, a Meccano motor which was ripped open, she presumes by Special Branch, before it was delivered. She pauses and looks thoughtful, then tells me that he wrote an essay at primary school, "about coming home one day and finding his house burnt down, and seeing men in gasmasks who said, 'Your mother isn't here.' "

But whatever her concerns for her children, she was by now gripped with the conviction that if she said nothing about the dangers of organophosphate sheep-dips, no one would. These dips were developed to control scab, a skin parasite in sheep; from 1976 until 1992, when dipping of the 44 million sheep in Britain was compulsory, they were widely used. Their side-effects on humans (both in sheep-dips and in crop-spraying) had come to her notice some years previously, when she was researching the effects of the nerve gas produced at Nancekuke. "The OP pesticides were based on the same chemical," she says. "They were very effective, but the ill-health resulting from the use of them has been hidden."

Part of the problem, she says, has been that doctors did not recognise the symptoms in sick farmers as being the result of OP poisoning. "People were put in mental hospital, because depression, anxiety, confusion, difficulty in using language - all the things that lock you in - were the first effects, along with headaches, joint pain and extreme fatigue. So farmers would go to the doctor, and be diagnosed as schizophrenic and put in mental hospital. Others would be treated for rheumatism."

Largely thanks to her efforts in establishing a data-base and an information service about OPs, farmers and doctors are now far more aware of the dangers in using these sheep dips. But she is faced with the task of trying to persuade the Government and chemical manufacturers to compensate farmers who used the dips, as instructed by the Ministry of Agri-culture. So far, she has got nowhere.

Does she ever feel despair, I ask, at the enormity of the job before her?

"No, I don't," she says. "I have this ridiculous optimism that good will triumph. It comes from reading all those Conan Doyle stories, and Dick- ens. I was brought up that way, and I lived through the Second World War, when good triumphed in the face of the most horrific odds.

"Most of us have a sort of idiotic belief that everything will come right in the end. I may never see it come right, but somebody will. Perhaps my grandchildren will," she says, gesturing to the open faces that smile out of the photographs assembled in the room around her.

"I think if I hadn't had children and grandchildren, I might not have bothered," she says. "But it's not just my children. I see other people's children, and think, how can they possibly grow up in a world where they might be poisoned by walking through a barley field?"

TOWARDS the end of our meeting, when the cake is finished and the tea grown cold, she tells me about one of her ancestors, who founded the Man- chester Guardian. "He was a pacifist," she says, "and someone challenged him to a duel because of an article he had written about the Tory government. He replied, 'I will gladly fight you, with umbrellas.' I love that story! I can really identify with it."

Indeed, one can imagine Elizabeth Sigmund in her wheelchair, charging at her enemies, umbrella aloft. She comes from a kinder, simpler world - the world her grandfather inhabited, where, as she says, "people still be-lieved in angels."

"Do you believe in angels?" I ask.

"Of course!" she says. And with Elizabeth Sigmund fighting on their side, perhaps the angels will one day be victorious. !

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