Former ILPer Hetty Bower, the veteran activist and peace campaigner, died earlier this month aged 108, just weeks after appearing on a panel alongside Labour leader Ed Miliband at Labour Party conference.
Hetty Rimel was born into a Jewish family in Dalston, east London, in 1905, and grew up with her seven sisters and two brothers. Her political interest was first sparked by her older sister Pearl who told Hetty about her secret visits to suffragette meetings at Toynbee Hall.
Hetty joined the Labour Party as a teenager in 1923, and the ILP in 1924. She became friends with Barbara Betts, later Barbara Castle, on a trip to Bradford in 1927, and met her husband Reg Bower when collecting party dues and handing out membership cards in 1926. They were married for more than 70 years.
During her long life Hetty was involved in many of the British left’s most iconic campaigns. She was active with the ILP in support of the general strike in 1926, opposed Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts on Cable Street 10 years later, and joined CND when it was founded in 1957.
More recently, she was a member of the Stop the War Coalition, which campaigned against Britain’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan, and demonstrated against closures at her local Whittington Hospital in north London, marching on a hip replaced by its surgeons. As someone who could remember the Whittington as a pre-NHS Poor Law hospital, she was an outspoken critic of the coalition government’s cuts and reform programme.
A long-time member of the Communist Party, she also made progressive documentary films, worked in education and cinema, ran a Czech refugee hostel in north London, and helped to set up the first union for women, the Association of Women Clerks and Secretaries – all while being a mother to two daughters, Celia and Maggie.
In recent years, Hetty became something of a ‘celebrity’ on the left, a last living link with struggles of the past, although she never stopped campaigning on today’s issues.
She was interviewed by the BBC a couple of years ago, talking about her experiences of the general strike, and she appears in Julien Temple’s 2012 documentary on radical London history, London: The Modern Babylon.
She featured on Channel 4 News, on the Guardian website, and in the Mirror newspaper, appearing at their ‘Real Britain’ anti-austerity event at Labour conference this September when she told Ed Miliband she’d been a fan of his dad, Ralph, the Marxist academic attacked by the Daily Mail.
“What words of advice do you have for me as Labour leader?” Miliband asked her. “Two words,” she said. “Social justice.”
Hetty Bower died on 12 November at London’s Royal Free Hospital two weeks after suffering a stroke. When he heard, Miliband sent a tweet describing her as “a remarkable fighter for justice”.
“We may not win by protesting,” Hetty told the Mirror. “But if we don’t protest we will lose. If we stand up to them there’s always a chance that we will win.”