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RIP Hetty Bower: campaigner for peace and justice for over ninety years


A caring and giving soul, a mother and a devoted family woman, Hetty Bower never gave up the fight against injustice. She was not a woman to be fooled. From her years as a young adult, when she was a suffragette campaigning for the right of women to vote, through to her campaigning for peace and justice when she was a centenarian, Hetty's commitment was tireless and inspirational.

Born in Dalston in London in 1905, she would recall growing up during the air raids of World War One. She came from an orthodox Jewish background and was the seventh of ten children. Her humanist radicalism was inherited from her father, but also from her cherished eldest sister, who was a suffragette, and not least from her much-loved husband Reg, with whom she spent seventy years of dedicated, happy marriage.

Hetty described herself as an "absolute pacifist". In 1957, she was a founding member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), to which she remained committed until the day she died.

During the second World War, Hetty had two young daughters. However she still found time to volunteer to help Czech refugees and managed the Czech Refugee Hostel in North London for trade unionists, socialists, communists, Jews and anyone else who escaped the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia.

On 4 September 2012, I had the joy of spending some time with Hetty in her home. She was 107 years old. We could not know that she was entering the last year of her life. We were joined by her grandson and her two great grandsons, the youngest being 106 years younger than Hetty.

The air was crisp and the sun was beaming. Hetty wore a long, cream coloured floral summer dress and a white sun hat with a little tie bow underneath her chin, to keep the sun off her face.

I had met her several times before but it was the first time I had the chance to make her an admittedly not very good cup of a tea.

Since the drink wasn't up to her standard, it took me a few attempts until her taste buds were finally satisfied. After sipping and looking at the treasured photographs in her room, we then went into the garden to enjoy the sunshine. We spoke about nature before I asked her various questions about the war policies of our own government.

Below are Hetty's own words from the conversation that followed:

I was nine years old when World War 1 started, the so-called war to end all wars. In 1914 we were being subjected to lies and ferocious propaganda. Telling the British people lying horror stories, they injected fear. During war the real horror strikes you, and it leaves a scar that a child cannot forget. Men's legs and arms were blown off and I can recall, at age nine, asking… why? Nobody could give me a satisfactory answer. I remember the build up - The Lord Kitchener poster with his large index finger pointing - 'Britain Wants You, join the country's army. God Save The King!'

She leapt from her chair and reenacted the image pointing her finger and raising her voice.

But who saves the people? What do you mean your King needs you? For what? To die!

Hetty spoke with passion and with a sad expression, before gazing away in thought.

Nobody can convince me that we need war, I am nearly 107 years old and still I do not see the slightest reason for human beings killing each other and going to war. Nobody has given me a reasonable answer, they just tell lies. My father didn't believe the lies that we were being told. I remember what he said when the Second World War started, on 3 September 1939: 'Oh, they've declared war! Now the lies will begin.' There is no logic in war; and there is especially no logic in a humanitarian war.

Then she shook her head.

I joined the labour party in 1923. I was 17 years old, I vote as left as I can however.
But still there is war. Tony Blair is a Catholic. How can he believe in God when he killed so many people. And now Iraq is a mess. He is a liar and he sold propaganda.

Hetty was 96 years old in 2001, at the beginning of the so-called "war on terror". In the next 12 years, she marched over 30 times -- on anti-war and anti-cuts demonstrations, on protests against nuclear weapons, and in opposition to Israel's oppression of the Palestinians, when she would often march with the group, Jews for Justice for Palestinians.

Peace is essential for a well functioning society to exist. That is why I march. In my room I have a wonderful New year's card from the children at Highgate Primary School. I was asked to come and talk to the children about what school was like when I was a child. There were two small 8-year-old boys that kept persistently asking me questions about the First World War. They asked which one was worse, World War One or World War Two? So I responded by asking, why this fascination with war and with killing each other? What made it so interesting? So, I thought I would turn it around and ask them! Why do adults kill each other? I asked. They were confused, they didn't know how to deal with me.
That New year I received a wonderful card for peace that the children all signed. I take their card to every commemoration. When I go and commemorate Hiroshima and Nagasaki; these are things that should never, ever have happened. Lest we forget, lest we forget - I will not forget Hiroshima, the start of nuclear war.

It was in the First World War that Hetty's love of music began. Hetty sung a little tune, as she told how for the first time she listened to the music of Beethoven and Mozart.

We were told to get to the bottom of our houses; we were air raid children and lived in a four story house. If it were not so tragic it would be funny. Down to the bottom of our houses, down to the bottom of our houses. Mother would call up from the bottom of the stairs - bring your pillows with you! We would bring our pillows down and sit at our enormous mahogany table. On top of that table my eldest sister's husband would bring an enormous HMV horn, on which we played records. That was the first time I heard Mozart and a Beethoven symphony; they were beautiful. It was the beginning of my love of music. It blocked out the sound of the war.
No More War is an essential slogan. Peace is inevitable if we want to be human. I want my great grandsons to grow up in a world with no more war, no more killing and no more lies.

At a meeting at the 2013 Labour Party conference, just two months before she died, Hetty spelt out what it was that had sustained her commitment to the cause of peace and justice for nearly one hundred years.

We may not win by protesting, but if we don’t protest, we will lose. If we stand up to them, there is always a chance we will win.

Hetty Bower, born 28 September 1905, died from a heart attack on 12 November 2013. She was 108. Her last words were, ‘Ban the bomb, for ever more’.

Text and images by Aimee Vallory