The Red Roses
Hilda Smith MBE
From Burnley to Buckingham Palace
A biography by
Christine Collette and David Smith
She has spent her lifetime, particularly within the Co-operative Movement, fighting for equality for women and for their full representation at all levels of the Labour Movement.
Shadow Ministry for Women 1990 Honours Awards
Nominated by Richard Balfe, MEP
Hilda Smith obituary, The Guardian, 28 June 2013
My mother, Hilda Smith, who has died aged 94, was active in the feminist, co-operative and labour movements for more than 50 years. She was committed to social and gender equality, and fought for the things she believed in.Born and raised in Burnley, Lancashire, daughter of Herbert, a railway porter, and Alice, a cotton-mill spinner, Hilda started work at 14, earning six shillings a week in a sewing factory. During the second world war, she was a nurse at Brockhall psychiatric hospital, near Clitheroe, and Primrose Bank in Burnley. In 1944 Hilda married Harry Smith and the following year they had twins, me and Peter. Between 1947 and 1950, she had to leave her family behind while she underwent painful treatment for tuberculosis in hospital.
When Harry became branch manager of the Co-operative Society in Woking, Surrey, in 1957 Hilda became a nurse at the town's Brookwood hospital, and started her political career the following year in Woking Co-operative Women's Guild. In 1963 she was elected to the political purposes committee of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society, the only society directly affiliated to the Labour party. Hilda became its first and only female chair, and used her influence to ensure the voices of ordinary women and their families were heard.
She was also studying part-time at Hillcroft College, Surbiton, and Morley College in London to gain a social sciences qualification, and became a part-time social worker in the London borough of Southwark, as well as a member of Woking district council and Surrey county council.
For Hilda, the personal was political. She knew from her own experience the importance of access to social, educational and economic opportunities and, as a member of the National Joint Committee of Working Women's Organisations (NJC), campaigned to bring about the introduction of the Equal Pay Act in 1970, the Sex Discrimination Act in 1975 and the formation of the Equal Opportunities Commission.
She contributed extensively on health policy issues and chaired an NJC national working group, which produced the policy document Health Care for Women in 1977. She helped compile the NJC's evidence to government inquiries and in 1982 authored an NJC statement that recommended a national food policy.
Hilda was never concerned with courting popularity. In 1981, against wider conventional opinion, she supported a national minimum wage campaign because she knew this would help millions of women. In 1990 she received a Shadow Ministry for Women award for "her lifetime … fighting for equality for women and for their full representation at all levels of the labour movement".
On retiring to Newport, Gwent, in 1986, Hilda continued to be very active, and in 2013 was made an MBE for her services to frail and vulnerable people.
Harry died in 1982. Hilda is survived by Peter and myself, three grandchildren and nine great-grandchildren.Monday, 13 May 2013
The house is still, silent apart from the gentle ticking of the kitchen clock. I sit and realise this is the first moment of quiet I have felt in months. The baby and toddler are asleep, the builder has finally finished and life for a short while seems calm. So much has happened in the last few months and it is good to finally have a time to reflect on life changing events.
Our baby was born on Palm Sunday and on the Wednesday, very early in the morning my grandma passed away. She was ninety four and had lived a good life but it was still sad to hear the news so close to the birth of a grandchild she would never meet. Birth and death remind us of the rhythms of life; the only certainty in this crazy world we inhabit. What we do with the life we have been given is our choice, to use our time wisely or waste it aimlessly.
My Grandma was born just after the end of the First World War and lived through huge world turmoil and discovery, it is incredible to think of all the change she has known. I wonder what changes our new baby will see in the world if she lives as long?
Last week, we held a celebration thanksgiving for the life of Hilda Smith, known to me as Grandma. I had the privilege of speaking at the service and am so glad I had the chance to honour the life of someone who certainly spent her life making a difference. It was very special to be able to share my memories and listen to the memories of others at her thanksgiving service which was a very positive celebration of all she had achieved in her life.
"....for really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he...."
Thomas Rainsborough (1647)
This was the quote she had above her desk when she was a social worker in Southwark, London. It epitomises her approach to life. She was a real believer in the value of education, probably because she had left school at a young age needing to help support her family, although returned to study later on in life. At the thanksgiving service, I learnt so much about her and all the ways she had fought politically, a true feminist before it was fashionable, she was a strong believer in enabling women to achieve. She was responsible for setting up the first crèche at the Labour party conference to make it easier for women to attend. A strong woman, when faced with a crisis, such as my grandfather having a stroke. She used it as an opportunity to set up a new stroke club so others could benefit.
As a child, I used to love listening to stories about family members I would never meet. Her roots in the working class north were strong and even though she had moved south many years previously, she remained a Lancashire lass for life. After I had my own children, I realised the enormity of some of the situations she had faced in life. Suffering from TB, she spent a long time away from her twin boys recovering: To be apart from your children from the age of eighteen months to five years must have been incredibly hard. She had only been given a few years to live after treatment, living to ninety four is a true reflection of her strength in not letting an illness defeat her.
We all laughed at the memory of the shoes she wore to my parents’ Ruby wedding anniversary; Grandma took great delight in telling us they were the same pair she wore to their wedding forty years previously!
As we celebrated and gave thanks for a life well lived I reflected on the legacy that she has left me. She always encouraged me to achieve and not settle.
Her legacy to me is this:
Do not be afraid to be the one making a change.
Those of you who have been reading my blog for a while will remember the exciting news we received last January: my Grandma was nominated for a new year’s award for services to old and vulnerable people. Sadly, she did not live to collect the award in person but her memory lived on last week as various members of the family made the trip to see the Queen and receive the honour posthumously.
As it turned out, it was Prince Charles and not the Queen who was the royal at the investiture ceremony, although this did not detract from the beauty of the occasion. The nominated family members received an official purple invite to Buckingham Palace along with a huge list of important procedures to follow. Day dress and a fascinator were the order of the day, which left us feeling very over-dressed as we battled the busy commuter train.
A ride in an iconic London taxi felt rather special as we entered the palace, where after showing official identification we were admitted behind the iron gates.
We missed the changing of the guards but were amazed to see them inside the palace standing so still we thought they were statues.
Depositing bags, coats and cameras in the cloakroom, we freshened up in the toilets. Not as grand
as I would have expected but it was very reassuring to be surrounded by other beautiful ladies with gorgeous outfits and hair arrangements.
Walking into the beautiful ballroom, surrounded with magnificent paintings and listening to exquisite music whilst sitting on a velvet bench felt incredibly grand: the perfect background for such a special occasion.
The ceremony lasted for around an hour and a half, the musicians played from the balcony throughout as the enthralled audience watched their loved ones being called and then receiving their award. We saw someone being knighted and read of the many amazing reasons everyday people had been chosen to receive either an MBE, OBE or other prestigious awards. It was really moving to hear of the awards given in the face of death or see a sweet elderly couple enter hand in hand to receive an award for services to fostering.
It was incredibly special to hear my Grandma's name and know all her hard work had been recognised.
It was also lots of fun to hold the award in the courtyard as we battled the freezing wind and posed for photographs.
Hearing the national anthem, joining in the ancient ceremonies of the investiture and being caught up in the amazing emotion of the day, left me feeling very proud to be British and part of something so glorious and long lasting.