Langton Win

Winifred Langton

Born in Plaistow, in east London, one of six children on May 20th 1909. Three of her siblings had earlier died in the 1902 smallpox epidemic. Her mother was a working class suffragette and a founder of the Communist Party. Her father was an active trades unionist and a foreman in Woolwich arsenal. He was the son of a freed slave from Guyana.

Win won a scholarship to a school in Bexleyheath but left at 16 years, complaining that she was being taught to be a snob. She worked as a waitress and then in a shoe shop.

In the early 1920, she sold Workers Weekly outside the Woolwich Arsenal. In the 1926 general strike, she was a cycle messenger for the unions and was an active supporter of hunger marchers in the early 1930s.

She married in 1931 but it did not last and was ended in 1936 to enable remarriage in 1937. In the war, Win worked as a motor mechanic whilst caring for her children and now elderly parents. After the war, she was a cleaner and ward orderly at Sheppey Hospital. Her husband died in 1947 and she remarried a year later. This third husband became seriously ill and she left work to care for him. They moved to Cumbria in the mid-1960s to join her elder daughter but her husband was to die in 1971.

Win Langton inaugurated a Hiroshima Day vigil in 1967 in Ulverston, which was sustained for more than 30 years. She raised so much money for Medical Aid to Vietnam that she was awarded a medal for it! She was invited to the opening of the hospital that she had helped to equip. In 1988, the Vietnamese Ambassador came to stay with her at her council house in Ulverston, Cumbria.

She joined the Greenham Common protest in the 1980s and, when she herself was in her 80s, she wrote a book about her Greenwich-based parents. In 1999, Ulverston town council awarded her a certificate of appreciation for her work in the community. She died, on March 7th 2003 aged 93, described in her obituary as a `veteran Communist’.

A tribute to Win Langton follows:

`The courage of her convictions – Win Langton’ by Bernard Barry (reproduced from the Working Class Movement Library Bulletin 2004)

To gain a perception of the dominant influence on the life of Win Langton one must look to her upbringing in the home of her parents. Her mother Adelaide was severely crippled, virtually disabled, her father Donald was the son of a freed slave from Guyana. He was a seaman but left the sea to care for his wife. Born May 20, 1909, Win was the last of 7 children, 3 of whom died in the smallpox epidemic of 1902. Together her parents courageously faced hardship, poverty, homelessness, racism and colour prejudice, yet they lived in complete harmony based on their caring, loving relationship, unity of purpose and utter love of humanity, their humanitarianism. Their house was an ever open door for anyone in need. Adelaide was a militant suffragette, a foundation member of the CPGB in 1920, Donald was an active trade unionist on the Woolwich and London Trades Councils. On the 50th anniversary of women�s full adult suffrage the winter 1978 issue of the CP women�s journal featured a long article by Win on her mother, the working-class suffragette Adelaide Knight. In her 80�s Win wrote �Courage�, a book about her parents. The book, deposited in Greenwich Library, has since been used as a teaching pack, celebrating black and Asian people�s historical contribution to Greenwich.

As a child Win sat at home listening to the countless political discussions, debates, classes, weekend schools and meetings between her parents and their friends, members of the Plebs League, WEA, SDF, ILP, CPGB, the Co-ops, Workers� Theatre Group, among others. Thus Win grew up alerted to the problems of racism, the exploitation of women, the Russian Revolution, the attacks on living standards and the struggles of the employed and the unemployed. Adelaide would always see that these latter had a nutritious meal or at least a bowl of nourishing soup. The parents had �a fair division of labour�; Mother writing, preparing activities, Father lovingly caring for her. Win always firmly maintained that she �learned how to fight from her mother, and how to care from her father�. From her childhood she cared for her crippled mother and later for her father and husband Harry until each of them passed away. She remained true all her days to the Socialist ideas her parents taught her and dedicated her life to striving for a just, humane world. Like her parents she had a deep and selfless love of humanity

At the Socialist Sunday School in the Co-op furniture shop in Plumstead, London, Win learned many Socialist songs. At the early age of 11 she was saving to buy ten shilling Russian famine relief bonds. Apart from going on demonstrations with her parents, .attending street corner and factory gate meetings Win had a regular pitch selling the weekly paper �The Communist�, superseded in 1923 by the �The Workers� Weekly�. Each Thursday Win hurried from school to collect the paper. Before and after school on Friday and again at Saturday lunchtime she sold it as the shifts changed at one of the main gates of the Royal Arsenal in Woolwich (where father was a foreman) At weekend meetings she was busy displaying posters and distributing leaflets. She was greatly distressed by the poverty she saw, the long queues at the Labour Exchange and the Poor Law relief. Eagerly she volunteered for activity, especially if her parents were unable to take part � father working, mother in wheelchair. When police arrested Win on a poster parade and interrogated her, she was rescued by her outraged mother, who small as she was (4 ft 10 ins}, made the sergeant squirm. When 12 leaders of the CPGB were arrested in 1925, Win joined the march to Wandsworth jail in the �Release the 12� campaign.

One of her treasured memories of this period was of the day when after a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square the comrades heard of a political prisoner being held at Wormwood Scrubs. They promptly marched there. The mounted police were mocked by the crowd singing �All the King�s horses and all the King�s men, rode up the street and then back again�. A leading comrade called for absolute silence. Everyone hushed. The leader called through his megaphone, �Comrade, can you hear us?. We are solid with you!� From beyond the prison wall came a victorious hail. The silence erupted into thunderous cheers as a gigantic wave of emotion swept across the exuberant demonstrators.

At this time Win felt alienated at her Grammar school due to the snobbery and discrimination she experienced there as a scholarship girl. When rebuked for befriending a cleaner she left. She then worked as a waitress and later in a shoe shop. During the 1926 General Strike she delivered messages to different committees. Once after cycling to the CPBG HQ she was again questioned by a detective.

Life was not all politics. Besides taking part in demonstrations, marches and meetings, caring for her mother, and the home chores of cleaning, washing, shopping etc., Win still managed to fit in dancing, singing, picnics in Bostall Woods, Plumstead, and days out to various parks. However, in later years Win could not remember any time when she was not involved in some protest or campaign, whether local, national or international. The detail of her life reads like a spirited history of the Communist movement during the whole of the 20th century. She was deeply impressed by the mighty demonstrations of the NUWM and the Minority Movement, thrilled by the colourful May Day marches with banners flying and enjoyed the Workers� Theatre. In the YCL she met Bill, her first husband in 1931, but the marriage ended five years later. In 1933 she pushed her baby in her pram to meet the Kent hunger marchers. Ever compassionate, she bathed their blistered feet and helped to bed and feed them. In 1936 Win did the same for the Jarrow hunger marchers. During the 1930�s she was active on the anti-fascist demonstrations in London, including the historic one in Cable St. in 1936. Together with other Co-op mothers when war broke out in Spain she helped to house and feed Basque refugee children, sold milk tokens, collected for Medical Aid and rallied support for the International Brigade. For one �Aid to Spain� demonstration she pushed her infant daughter in her trolley dressed in �bloody� bandages.

Early in World War II bombing around Woolwich Arsenal was heavy. Once Win was blown through a window by blast. To avoid the blitz the family moved to Leysdown on the Isle of Sheppey. There she entered Sheerness dockyard and trained as a motor mechanic, which work she continued to do for the rest of the war. Win joined the AEU. Quickly active in her new locality she chalked Leysdown streets to expose a local farmer who was watering the milk and organised the youth to have a voice in running their youth club.

Later in the war the family moved to Eastchurch, Sheppey. After a 5 year separation Win divorced her second husband in 1947 by which time she had become a hospital cleaner. Matron was hostile due to Win�s trade union activity in the hospital so blocked her promotion to ward orderly. Undismayed, Win went to night school, got grade A in Home Nursing and First Aid, unsurprising after the many years she had spent caring for her mother and also for her father who suffered from asthma and bronchitis. She was then a ward orderly. In 1948 she married the hospital porter Harry, an ex-Royal Navy invalid. However, when in 1950 he became bedridden she left the hospital to care for him, in addition to her bedridden mother, who was still alive.
Like her parents her house too had an ever open door. At different times she housed an unemployed miner; she took in Harry�s friend who stayed with her till he died of cancer; another of Harry�s friends who had been over fond of drink, was fitted out and enabled to regain his self-respect, he too stayed with her until he died. Win helped to deliver babies of young mothers in trouble, one was born on her settee. She fostered one handicapped Jamaican baby for five years. Once after giving a corporal and his wife an overnight stay Win found some books and a bust of Lenin were missing! To her great relief when she contacted the RAF camp the treasured bust was recovered, but somewhat damaged. The Wing Commander had it repaired, then returned it to Win, together with a letter expressing his regrets and apology.

Win was busy collecting signatures for the Stockholm �Ban the Bomb� appeal in 1950. Later she canvassed houses to collect signatures for her petition on prices and the rising cost of living, which she sent to Barbara Castle. Elected to take the chair on Sheerness Co-op Education committee she organised elocution, speaker and dancing classes and a choir and also represented the committee at many conferences. She initiated a cervical cancer campaign with a group of doctors which led to the establishments of clinics in Sheerness and the surrounding areas of Faversham and Sittingbourne and also campaigned for breast screening.

She collected hundreds of signatures in 1955 for a letter of friendship for her daughter to take to the Warsaw Youth Festival, which was reported in the local Sheerness paper. When the Kent District Committee of the CPGB learned of this they contacted Win and before long she was herself on the committee. As its meetings were on Sundays Win prepared the meals on Saturdays. She enjoyed a week�s CP school on Women�s work. Easter 1959 saw her on the CND Aldermaston march with her younger daughter, born in 1950. Later that year when Win at the end of a month�s anti-apartheid campaign saw a Territorial Army parade in Sheerness she couldn�t resist the temptation to precede it and so lead it the length of the High St. carrying her �Boycott S. African goods� banner aloft. Besides selling the �Daily Worker� she regularly brought in a trolley to the annual Bazaar a hundredweight of home made jam, made from fruit picked from local hedgerows.

When the US began sending its troops into Vietnam in 1965 Win quickly invited the Co-op Guildswomen to meet to hear Hilda Vernon speak of Dr. Joan McMichael�s work and her own experiences there. A Medical Aid group was formed. For the rest of her life she never forgot the injunction given by Margaret Hunter, a C.P. organiser, at a meeting of Communist women in Canterbury, to do everything possible to raise funds for Medical Aid and to publicise the truth about the horrors being suffered by Vietnamese women at the hands of US troops. An appeal for help was pinned on the tree outside her home, a folding card table was set up both on the Leysdown and Sheerness seafronts to collect money and signatures. Win was active in the Medway Towns Peace in Vietnam organisation. Prominent among her many activities to raise funds was a constant stream of letters from Win to the Sheerness Times and Guardian giving cogent exposes of the situation in Vietnam.

Before she left the Isle of Sheppey in 1967 for Ulverston, Cumbria, Win felt very privileged to be at the celebrations for the 150th anniversary of Sheerness and District Economical Co-operative Society, ostensibly the world�s oldest Co-operative Society. The Education Committee thanked their chairman profusely for all she had done. Kent CP District Committee presented Win with a copy of �The Petticoat Rebellion� which every member was happy to sign

Vietnam was not an issue in Ulverston when Win arrived there, but within a fortnight Win had resumed her political activity. In her letter to the �NW Evening Mail� she invited people to a coffee morning to raise money for Medical Aid for Vietnam. Those who responded to this invitation became the Ulverston committee, which raised the consciousness of the town and subsequently the surrounding Furness region, to the needs of Vietnam. Win later helped establish another group in Barrow. Under her leadership they raised thousands of pounds over many years via all manner of activities, door to door and factory collections, collection sheets for individuals, share no. 6200 in Ulverston Co-op, again a constant stream of letters to the press appealing for donations, public meetings, exhibitions in the local library, stalls at agricultural shows, trade union conferences, flag days, coffee mornings and evenings, pie and pea suppers, beetle drives, flower arranging events, sponsored walks and climbs (one to summit of Ben Nevis), dances, concerts, film and slide shows, talks, raffles etc. etc. Win also circularised appeals for support from women�s organisations, youth clubs, churches and religious organisations, trade unions and political groups. After a special appeal local doctors sent medical books for onward transmission to Vietnam. Tons of medical supplies were airfreighted to Paris to be linked up with the French Medical Aid committee. Win was now secretary of the South Cumbrian Medical Aid and also an active member of the North-West British-Vietnam Association, whose repeated appeals for floods and typhoon disaster relief she always met with a generous personal donation. She was later made an honorary member. .

Her efforts did not cease with the end of the war in Vietnam. On the contrary, in response to a national appeal for a British Hospital in Vietnam she inspired the formation of the Furness Committee to support the project. It was the first group in the country to achieve the initial target of �1,000. In 1976 at a national meeting in Birmingham for the hospital she represented the Cumbria and Furness region together with two co-delegates from Barrow. Her initiatives and recommendations based on her experiences were commended to the conference.

Win frequently thanked everyone in the Furness area for their support in her letters to the press. In recognition of her decades of activity for Vietnam Win was invited in 1980 to the opening of the British Hospital in Ky Anh together with her closest comrade, Dr. McMichael, and two others. The hospital has a Cumbria bed in the NW wing. While in Vietnam she met Ministers of Health, Education and Culture, the British Ambassador, doctors, specialists, Red Cross members; visited clinics and trade union offices; toured Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City and Kampuchea, where she saw a heartbreaking orphanage. At the Medical Aid committee AGM in London in 1983 Win invited the Vietnamese Ambassador, Dang Nghien Bai, to visit Ulverston. He welcomed the opportunity to thank Furness people for their support. The Mayors and councillors of both Ulverston and Barrow received him most cordially at a civic reception held in his honour where he was presented with the Barrow coat of arms. For the week or so of their stay Win hosted the Ambassador, his wife and two young diplomats in her modest council home.

When in 1991 Win was delighted to be honoured at the Embassy by the award of the Vietnam Order of Friendship medal she commented, �I don�t do it for honours though. I do it because I think it is right�. After his retirement, the Director of the British Hospital, Dr. Nguyen dinh Lan, visited England in 1996 and enjoyed two days with Win, who had arranged meetings with local dignitaries and an impressive exhibition in the library on Vietnam and the work of Ulverston Medical Aid.

By no means did Win�s devotion to Vietnam detract from her work elsewhere. Before her arrival Ulverston was a quiet market town but due to her publicity and letters to the various local papers, her contributions to radio phone-ins and her political work the town soon became aware that it now had a community activist of the highest order. Among the issues Win took up were campaigns to stop the sale of council housing, for decent housing at affordable rents, against the Means Test, against the Poll Tax, for a local income tax, for a community centre, for a speed limit and pedestrian crossing at a busy road junction, for local rail safety, against central locking of doors and allowing more time to alight etc.

Soon after her arrival in Ulverston, Win was elected to the Co-op Board of Directors. As chairman of the Co-operative Club she helped to raise hundreds of pounds for various local causes e.g. for the blind, the local hospital, for poor children, the St. John Ambulance Brigade etc. A founder member of the Croftlands Community Association, she was its life honorary president and was honoured to dig the first sod to mark the building of its hall. A foundation member of Ulverston Age Concern, she served it for 17 years. She also served on the Citizen�s Advice Bureau, was a member of Friends of the Earth and the Renaissance Theatre group and supported the work of Ulverston�s Welfare State International arts group. The local Spirit of Youth organisation presented Win with a bouquet to mark their appreciation of her support for covered seats to be sited on the Croftlands playing fields.

Active in the Ulverston Pensioners� Association Win lobbied her M.P. and the TUC on its behalf. As its spokeswoman at protest meetings and her many letters to the press she was always in the forefront of its demands for increased pensions and restoration of the earnings related link. She was at the National Pensioners� Convention in Edinburgh. Her 79th birthday was celebrated while at Greenham Common with her pensioners group.

On a broader field was Win�s tremendous peace activity. This was highlighted in 1982 when in April Win sat by the Market Cross in Ulverston on a 24 hour vigil to call for an end to the use of nuclear weapons and then again at the same point on August 6th, the anniversary of the H bomb on Hiroshima, to repeat that call. Each year thereafter, until 2,000, Win held a vigil at the same point on Hiroshima Day. Members of the CND, the Quakers, Friends of the Earth and the pensioners rallied to support her vigil while her appeals in the press stirred others to join her. The Mayor of Hiroshima, Takashi Hiraoka, sent Win a letter of thanks for her commitment to everlasting peace.

In CND since its formation she was in demonstrations at Sellafield against nuclear waste and the proposal for a nuclear dump, and was an active member of CORE, Cumbrians Opposed to Radioactive Environment. On every possible occasion, vigils, marches, meetings etc. Win distributed leaflets promoting CND, protesting about the Trident submarines nuclear arsenal. She attended the national CND demonstration in October 1994. After an attack of bronchitis earlier that year her CND friends were so concerned about her that they contributed to and sponsored a petition for her not (!) to do an all-night vigil. In 1983 Win was on the �Women for Life� march from Barrow.

Win was on the first anti-apartheid committee in Furness which proved to be one of the most successful in the country and won the support of Cumbria County Council. Here again she busied herself collecting signatures and cash. The Cuba Solidarity Campaign found Win a stalwart supporter. She arranged events at the Pensioners� club and the local Methodist Church, collected cash and signatures and even persuaded a local firm, Cumberland Pencils, to donate a box of pencils annually for the island�s children. As well as her letters to the press she also spoke on local radio in support of Cuba. She maintained firm contact with the American Pastors for Peace, who faced jail and confiscation of their goods for Cuba.
After the death in 1971 of Harry, her third husband, Win felt free to travel abroad. Wherever she went she keenly noted the situation and sought to increase her understanding of the social and political issues of the day. She was happy to visit the USSR repeatedly, starting in 1974. She led a group of 62 Pensioners for Peace there on her last visit in 1986, bringing with her gifts and greetings from her granddaughter in Greenham. In 1983 on one of her two visits to the former GDR with an international friendship group she had long discussions with the GDR Friendship Society and Peace Council. While in Australia to see members of her family she learned of the Women�s Suffrage Movement there and of the history of the Aborigines and the struggle for their rights. On one of her visits to the USA Win was enabled to meet again Lorna, the mother of the Jamaican girl she fostered for five years in her former home in Eastchurch.

Apart from those on Vietnam the local papers published her very frequent letters supporting Communist Party policy, War on Want, Liberation, Greenpeace, race and sex equality, immigrants, against privatisation of the NHS, among many other issues. As the �NW Evening Mail� later said, �She fought for almost every cause under the sun�. Win developed a unique relationship with the press which indeed often featured articles about her and her work. She was rarely out of the headlines. Her trenchant arguments in her constant letters for the causes she so passionately advocated, her sincere conviction that she was right to do so, won the respect and even some affection from the press, as for example on her 80th birthday when the �Evening Mail� had a huge headline and photograph on its full page article on the �grand old lady of Furness leading the protest march against the Poll Tax�. Even those who differed from her recognised her utter sincerity, including the local police!

Over the years Win bombarded the press with literally thousands of letters. She would usually first compose a draft then rewrite a final version to send off. She was a prolific writer, in constant correspondence with fellow campaigners for peace, Vietnam and a myriad other causes. At times Win was unconventional. She had to find an outlet to fulfil a need to serve in her own manner. Her strong feelings on issues prompted her to devise her own petitions and then canvass for signatures of support for them or carry out some individual demonstration to alert people to the situation. How she crammed in all this amazing range of activities is truly perplexing � until one learns that she often rose at 3.30 a.m. to concentrate on her campaigns!

At Win�s 90th birthday party over 100 people from all parts of Britain and many from overseas, including Lorna from USA, gave her a standing ovation. They came to honour her for her work whether in the Peace movement, the Communist Party, CND, Medical Aid for Vietnam, the Co-op Board, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the pensioners, the Croftlands Community Association or simply as a humanitarian activist. A few months later Win was presented with an outstanding citizen�s award by Ulverston Town Council. The �Address of Appreciation� reads, �from the townspeople of Ulverston in recognition and sincere appreciation for services rendered to the community, life and well-being of the citizens of Ulverston�. Well merited, well earned.

From childhood on, all through her life, Win was an active seller of Communist literature, particularly the �Daily Worker� and later the �Morning Star�. The warm respect of the local newsagent as she sat selling the paper outside his shop in the bitter winter cold prompted him to invite Win inside to continue her sales in the warmth! In 1997 at the age of 88 she was still selling the �Morning Star� on Barrow streets. Thanks often to local comrades who took her she attended as regularly as possible the meetings of the Barrow and Furness branch of the Communist Party, making vigorous contributions to its discussions and activities. To quote Win, �it was my long-standing membership of the Communist Party that helped to guide and develop my understanding and love of my fellows throughout the world and my hatred of war, racism, sexism and greed�.

Win was proud to be a second generation Communist. She was indeed a model Communist in mind and heart who lived out her convictions. She described herself not as a leader but as a grass roots worker, never courting the limelight for herself but for the causes she brought to life with her ceaseless campaigning. With her deep and selfless love of humanity she inspired and smilingly radiated warmth, love and compassion. Her dedication to building a more just, humane world was, thanks to her parents inspiration, the only way she knew how to live. She was a fully rounded human being.

In January 2001 Win suffered a stroke and was admitted to a nursing home at Aldingham, a few miles from her home in Ulverston. She died on March 7th, 2003. As a fitting memorial to her work Medical Aid for Vietnam endowed a bed at the British Friendship Hospital in her name. True to the last to her beliefs Win left her body for medical research and wished any donations in honour of her memory to be sent to Medical and Scientific Aid for Vietnam, Oxfam, Cancer Research or the �Morning Star�. Win also left instructions for a last donation of �100 to be sent to the Friends of Vietnam (formerly the North-West Britain Vietnam Association).

Numerous tributes poured in. Besides many messages of condolences there were obituaries published in the �Guardian�, �Morning Star� and the �Medical Aid for Vietnam Bulletin�. Those featured in the �NW Evening Mail� on successive days under headlines such as �Peace activist Win dies aged 93�, �Peace be with you� were lengthy and accompanied by large photographs of Win in action. The paper kept an archive of Win�s activities over the years. The Mayor of Ulverston said, �Win put her heart into working and fighting for the community�. His predecessor commented, �She spoke without fear or favour. Ulverston is a poorer place for her passing�. The Town Clerk recalled her involvement with the youth of the town and added, �I�m saddened by the loss of such a character. She had very strong views and whether you agreed with them or not she held them very sincerely�.

Many people who for different reasons had associated with Win came to a celebration of her life and achievements in April 2003 at the Lantern House in Ulverston. Family members read poems, favourite songs of Win were heard, several speakers paid tribute to different aspects of Win�s life while a splendid exhibition of press cuttings and photographs gave some measure of the stature of a lifelong activist admired, respected, beloved by all. May the treasured memories she left serve to inspire the causes to which she devoted herself in her lifetime.


Bernard Barry

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