Hetty was born in 1905 into a Dalston, east London, Jewish family of Rimel, along with sisters Pearl and Anita. The oldest sister, Pearl, who used to go secretly to suffragette meetings at Toynbee Hall and then tell Hetty about them was probably a big influence in the three sisters later joining the Communist Party.
Hetty joined the Labour Party in 1923 and the Independent Labour Party (ILP) in 1924. On a 1927 trip to Bradford to stay with the Betts family, who they had met at an International Labour Party summer camp, she got to know the daughter Barbara, later Barbara Castle. It was through the Labour Party that Hetty met her husband, Reg Bower, with whom she shared over seventy happy years after she gave him his Labour Party card in 1926. Although her marrying outside of the Orthodox Jewish faith was to the consternation of her parents.
She probably joined the Communist Party in the early 1930s. In the period leading up to Word War II Hetty worked for Kino Film, a progressive film documentary production company with links to the Soviet Union. During the war, with two young daughters to care for, she volunteered to help at the offices of the Czech Refugee Trust Fund and subsequently ended up running a Czech Refugee Hostel in North London.
After the war, wanting a job to fit in with her children’s school hours, Hetty applied to become a teacher. She was rejected on the grounds of hearing difficulties but has always believed the real reason was her fervent support for the progressive education both her daughters enjoyed. Instead she became a school secretary and a passionate advocate of music in schools.
When CND was founded in 1957 it was inevitable that Hetty would join. Less inevitable was that more than 50 years later she would still be supporting it and the Stop the War Coalition just as actively as she ever did.
A long-term Communist Party activist in north London, Hetty would seem to have stayed with the CPGB until either its dissolution or not so far from it. The collapse of the USSR amidst further revelations greatly affected her views. Although she has said in recent years that she doesn’t: “regret joining the party, but I do regret that I didn't leave earlier - perhaps in 1956. But I would still describe myself as a communist.” A huge factor in her mind over this assessment appears to be the fact that her brother-in-law had been arrested in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and, as she said to the Guardian in 2006 “we now know he was shot as a spy”.
In fact, this isn’t quite accurate; the brother-in-law has to be George Fles. Born in 1908 in Amsterdam, he spent time in Britain, where he married Pearl Rimel. With his newly-wed wife, Hetty’s sister, he moved to the Soviet Union to work as a translator and ended up in an observatory in a remote corner of Georgia, which would seem to have partly been the basis of his undoing.
Some local concern appeared to have existed – and resulted in the spotlight focusing on George – about the questionable role of a firm called Control Union & Co., Nederland, an international firm of grain certification brokers for which two of his uncles worked. Control Union had opened a Moscow branch in 1934 (it is still a major force in import-export business in Holland).
Informally warned that he should leave, Fles sent his pregnant wife back to England but stayed himself. Suspicion about Fles’ international connections now rose. The only concrete evidence against Fles now appeared and this was a magazine that his father had posted to him from the Netherlands, which contained and an article by Trotsky. To make matters worse, Fles had lent it out to Soviet citizens.
Predictably, he was arrested and put on trial and convicted for a five year term for espionage and Trotskyism. As he was asthmatic, his health deteriorated quickly. Fles quickly succumbed to despair. In a letter to Pearl, he had written that he would not survive "the long dark night”. He died of natural causes on May 31st 1939 in a prison near Smolensk, three years into his sentence. His wife and their son emigrated to the United States.