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Born in 1918, Betty Tebbs joined her first trade union at 14, lost her first husband in WWII and spent her entire life working for rights for women and workers, global peace and justice and nuclear disarmament.
Pic: Betty (middle) at Faslane at the age of 89!
She started her first job in a paper mill in Radcliffe at the age of 14. Realising that the boys working on the same machine as her were being paid 3 shillings a week more just because they were boys, she complained to a colleague and was told “you want to go upstairs and see this woman who organises the union.” “So I joined – I still have my badge!” said Betty in 2007.
“But by the time I got into the big East Lancs Paper Mill in Bury, I (got accepted) … a while after … I started organising. I was there 17 years and at one time we had a time and motion study. They were trying to make us work harder for less, and I brought the women out on strike. There were nearly 300 of us women, but the men who worked on the process side wouldn’t come, so we were on pickets a lot.
They sacked the man who collected the union dues, at a minute’s notice, and that’s why I brought the women out, but after a fortnight it was coming up to Christmas, and he said he weren’t going to see all the women out like that at Christmas, and he wouldn’t go back. I tried to persuade him that it wasn’t right, but he wouldn’t. So the union organiser went to management to tell them, and they said that we all had to apply individually for out jobs and we had this big meeting and I said that we all had to go back as we came out, or not at all, so we hung out for another 4 days, and then they accepted and we all went back. I became Mother of the Chapel then. And I can tell you, we became the best paid paper mill women in
Betty’s first husband, Ernie, was killed in WWII, by which time they had a young daughter. “I’d heard on the radio that free train tickets were being sent to the families of men wounded on the front, so when the envelope arrived with the telegram I thought he’d been injured, not killed, and that they were our tickets,” Betty recalls.
But Betty still supported the war against Nazi Germany. Of a newspaper interview which suggested she had been a pacifist, she declared proudly: “They said I’m a pacifist! I’ve never been a pacifist! I’ve always been a revolutionary! And you know what upset me – was that they assumed that because my husband was killed in the war that I was against the war! I worked on munitions!”
Ernie himself had been in a reserved occupation, but nine months into the war had volunteered, believing that “I shall have to go because fascism has to be fought.”
“So Ernest went and in 1943 he was transferred from the artillery into the King’s Own Scottish Borderers which was like a crack regiment, and after training he was put down on the South Coast and he was on the Second Front. And he got through the second front and fought for 6 weeks till he got the other side of Caen, which was a big battle, I believe, and he was killed the other side of Caen,” Betty describes.
But what did rankle was that within days of hearing that Ernie had been killed in action, Betty got another letter telling her that the money she would receive from the government was to be cut from 28 shillings for herself and 12/6 for their daughter to 18 and 11.
“And when you were still reeling from that, you hadn’t recovered from it, you get another letter saying I was now a single woman and that I would be getting a reduction in the money the government was giving me,” she remembers.
“I was so angry, and his sister was the union organiser and after the war she put up for the local authority in Radcliffe, and she got in but we weren’t accustomed to having Labour in the ward we were in. and I canvassed for her and she got in, and then I became interested in politics.”
But exhausted by working for a living and bringing up a young child, Betty’s mother send her to stay with an aunt in
“One day I’m sat on the beach and there’s a young soldier sat on one side, and Pat [Betty's daughter] was good at speaking for her age and he got talking to her, and then me. And then he was there pretty often, and I though it was coincidence but apparently not. But I’d never been out with anyone else than my first husband, and I weren’t thinking about anything.
“But he started talking to me politically, and how if we had socialism we could have peace, and if we didn’t have socialism we wouldn’t have peace, and if we didn’t have peace we couldn’t have socialism! He’d been to the William Morris school, he was from Walthamstow, where the teachers were all socialist, so he had a head start you see. And he’d volunteered when he was 18, he was 3 years younger than me. And he was there each afternoon – he had a really good job during the war, he was on a motorbike in the Signals, going from one battery to the other to keep the communications open.
“I went home and he kept writing to me, he’d got my address, and then he asked if he could visit and in those days you didn’t have someone in your house like that, so my sister said he could go to her. And then he wanted to get married and I wasn’t ready for being married, and then he said if I weren’t going to consider it there’s no point in me coming when he was on leave, so I said alright, I would. He was posted to
Betty and Len started out as Labour Party members, but after it accepted Marshall Plan aid from the
In the 1950s, with a son as well as daughter Pat, Betty and Len left
On moving, Betty asked the union which factories in
In the late 1960s, Betty also ended up on the teatime TV news after a scandalous speech she made, declaring that “I’m sick of being a kept women” despite being married – her argument being that pay inequalities meant that however hard she worked, a woman would always be dependent on her husband’s income for their standard of living.
But after anti-communism in her trade union meant that Betty’s shot at election to its Executive was sabotaged, she left the job and and got work driving bread trucks for the Co-operative. Reluctantly she started collecting union dues here as well and, finding to her surprise that few Co-op workers were union members, encouraged people to join.
Then, Betty recalls, “I went and got a nice job going round the Polycell factory selling dinner tickets, and I was getting them nicely organised when it closed down.”
At the age of 57, in the mid 1970s, Betty spotted an advert in the Morning Star for a trade union organisers’ course at Middlesex Polytechnic. Encouraged by Len, who said that everyone should have the chance at some further education, she applied. Despite her terror at the interview, she was accepted straight away, recalling that “I think I went through some red lights! So I went there for 12 months, and it were smashing.”
On finishing her course, almost at legal retirement age, Betty stopped paid work, but remained an active organiser. Bringing together a coalition of middle-class feminists and working class women in
“What made him think
During the 1980s Betty also became chair of the National Assembly of Women, regularly visiting
“I met some wonderful women – they came from all over the world,” she remembers. “Valentina Tereshkova was the chair, the fist woman in space – she’s lovely. It were very nice having friendships like that. I remember when I was in the factory in Radcliffe and they said this woman had gone up in space. And then one day I was in this conference and it was the break time and she came up to me and said Betty, tell me what they’re doing at Greenham. And I told her and the bell went for the next session and she said Betty, you’ve not drunk your coffee, I’ll get you another one and I though ‘struth, I never thought she’d be getting me a coffee!” She also met with Warsaw Pact and NATO negotiators on the subject of nuclear disarmament, recalling that senior Warsaw Pact officials met them with courtesy and interest, while junior NATO representatives made them wait and were rude and dismissive. As Betty recalls:
“I said to them, why will you not sign a No First Strike agreement? And one them said, oh
“So we got nowhere with them, and so we ended up at Greenham – thousands of women. It were wonderful. I camped at Greenham, but not like my friends who were there for weeks on end.”
In the wake of the
Just as he retired and they bought a new home near one of their children in Rawtenstall, Len tragically died of a heart condition at the age of just 61. So Betty returned to a flat in
Despite her age, Betty has remained active, particularly on nuclear disarmament issues. In October 2007, at the age of 89, she was arrested for blocking an access road at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in
“It makes me feel awful,” says Betty. “When they were bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and we saw pictures of little children with their skin hanging off them, and I’ve talked to people who were there, people who saw people just burning and who were there one minute and a shadow the next – you can’t think why human beings would do things like that to each other. So for me, it’s a fight for the future, for my children, grandchildren, great-grandchild.”
The state of the world today is still one of Betty Tebb’s big concerns at 91. “Well, now I sometimes wonder what it was all for, the way things are now. In the Middle East, especially – the backing that Europe and the
But despite a world which is far from perfect, Betty Tebbs still has a positive outlook on the decades of work she’s put into the causes she’s believed in:
“It’s not all grind – what you get back from it are life long friendships and understanding, and I feel privileged – that I met Len and he told me how things worked together and how things worked out. He once said to me, ‘I’d not have married you if I didn’t think that you’d be good behind the barricades’! I think I’ve had a good life – and it keeps you going! I’ve often said I don’t know what I’d do if peace broke out! But it’d be lovely, wouldn’t it?”
July 9th 2009 article by Sarah Irving at: http://radicalmanchester.wordpress.com/2009/07/09/betty-tebbs-ive-always-been-a-revolutionary/
Morning Star Letters – Wednesday 22nd September 2010
Award for brilliant Betty
Women from Manchester Trades Union Council were delighted when we witnessed Betty Tebbs win the Elizabeth Gaskell award at a ceremony at Manchester Town Hall last week.
This is a special award given to a group or individual that has promoted the role of women in public life and has made significant contribution to charities or humanitarianism.
Betty, still going strong at 94, is a long-time member of the Communist Party, shop steward from a young age, dedicated peace activist and we think probably one of the oldest and longest serving members of a Trades Union Council.
She was secretary of Radcliffe Trades Union Council in the 1950s and is still a delegate to
We attended the ceremony to support one of our nominees, Hilda Palmer from Greater
Betty has always been an inspiration to women in the labour, trades union and peace movements. Despite being a fierce advocate of her politics - many of us have been told very clearly and precisely where we're going wrong, at length, in many, many meetings - Betty would always stand shoulder to shoulder with you afterwards, or shoulder to elbow in some cases as she is a slight, small, wiry firebrand.
Betty always stood with us, supporting your struggles, picket lines or cutting the fence at Greenham Common.
Betty's commitment, strength and solidarity is precisely what we need in the anti-cuts campaign today. If only we could clone her!
Kate Richardson and Sara Livesey
Manchester Trades Union Council