Britain’s oldest anti-war campaigner, Hackney-born, Hetty Bower, died last Thursday at the age of 108.
Known as an untiring activist and founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Hetty had a key role in the Battle of Cable Street, the famous clash between fascist and anti-fascist groups in 1936.
She was the seventh of ten siblings, born into a large working-class Orthodox Jewish family in Dalston in 1905, her political views heavily influenced by her radical father and older Suffragette sister.
As a young girl, waving goodbye to the soldiers setting off for the First World War, Hetty quickly became distraught by the destructive consequences of war. A century later, she recollected the memory:
“I was very patriotic and waved to the men as they set off … but it didn’t take long before we saw those men coming back. 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.”
Her anti-war sentiments went on to fuel her political activism and stayed with her for the entirety of her life.
As young woman Hetty took part in the Battle of Cable Street, helping set up barricades to prevent Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt fascists marching through the Jewish districts of Whitechapel and Shadwell on Sunday November 4, in 1936.
She then went on to join the Communist Party in the late 1930’s and remained involved until its demise after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Hetty also ran a Refugee Hostel in North London, which provided aid for trade unionists, socialists, communists, Jews and as she said: “Anyone else they could get out of Czechoslovakia”.
At the age of 106, Hetty walked three miles in St Albans, Hertfordshire as part of Oxfam’s Annual Herts Hike, to collect money for Palestinian children. In her own steadfast words: “As long as my legs can take I will be participating in anti-war activity.”
In the last years of her life, Hetty became a critic of the policies of the coalition Government, particularly those relating to welfare.
In a speech at the Labour Party conference this September she recalled her own experiences of life in Edwardian Britain and urged the Labour Party to save the last vestiges of the welfare state.
Despite her increasing frailty, Hetty spoke with vigour and earned a standing ovation, when she said:
“You have eyes and ears that can hear and see. Neither of mine function properly now but I remember sufficiently to know just what it was like to see poverty and deprivation and the word ‘welfare’ was totally unknown.
So we have progressed, but I’m now wondering what’s going to happen to our welfare state and that is what I have to campaign about in the short time still left to me – peace on our planet and improvement of living conditions.”
Meeting Labour leader Ed Miliband, shortly after the conference, she was not scared to remind him of the principles that she campaigned tirelessly for since joining the Labour Party at the age of 17.
Miliband paid homage to Hetty as “a remarkable fighter for justice”.
General secretary of Unite, Len McCluskey, added: “Hetty was a truly inspirational woman. Spanning a century of extraordinary change for this country, Hetty was a reminder that the NHS and the welfare state were created thanks to the struggle of ordinary men and women like her.”
Hetty worked as a secretary at a secondary school in Finsbury Park for over 20 years and was married for 69 years to fellow Labour Party member, Reg Bower.
She died at the Royal Free Hospital in Hampstead last Tuesday.
Hetty Rimel, 1905-2013, born Hackney, Dalston, died in Hampstead. Married Reginald Bower (deceased). Leaves behind two daughters, Margie and Celia.