Obituary: Elsie Janner

Michael Freedland
Wednesday 20 July 1994 23:02

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)

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