Papworth Betty

Betty Papworth

Born in 1914 in Stepney to a large Jewish family, Betty was always a bright child, well able to go to the level of university, although family economic pressures sent her out to work from the age of 14.

As a young woman, she manned the barricades at the Battle of Cable Street in 1936 and became active in the Stepney Communist Party. When war broke out in Spain, Betty helped organise public meetings and fundraising events, becoming a member of an Aid For Spain committee, and through this, befriended the black American singer Paul Robeson. She even put him up for a night at her East End home.

During the Second World War, Betty went to work in the west London Sperry aircraft factory making gyroscope (an early form of helicopter) compasses.  So committed was she to the war alliance with the Soviet Union that, at her nephew’s bar mitzvah in 1942 she asked guests to donate money to the Aid For Russia campaign.

She met and married fellow Communist and London bus workers leader, Bert Papworth (see separate entry), Pappy to all and sundry, soon after the war ended. 

Betty was involved in the Communist Party’s 1946 squatting campaign for homeless families. She also ran the business side at the family’s high-fashion clothing company in Cricklewood.

In the mid-60s, Betty trained as a teacher, and taught at Holloway girls school in north London.

Betty never forgot Pappy – even decades after his death, she was still regularly inserting an advertisement regarding some personal anniversary or other. In these, she was especially fond of recalling Pappy’s trade mark motto: “nothing is too good for the workers”.

During the 1990 successful T&G campaign against proposed Tory deregulation of bus operations in London, when she was about 76 years old but acted scores of years younger, she turned up at all of the union’s rallies and protests, personally handled scores and scores of sheets of petitions and persistently reminded union members of Pappy’s motto, and urged them to keep up the fight!

Later in her life, she learned Russian and travelled to the country she had visited many years before once again. Islington North MP Jeremy Corbyn accompanied Betty to Israel in 2004 to see the release of Mordechai Vanunu, the peace campaigner who had revealed to the world that Israel was developing nuclear missiles.

It was her 90th birthday when she stood at the gates of the prison to greet Vanunu as he was released, despite right-wing protesters yelling at her and throwing eggs, and the heavy-handed nature of the Israeli security police. When asked to move, she simply refused and waved her walking stick at the guards.

Age did not diminish Betty’s political drive: as well as staffing a book stall in Hampstead selling left literature each weekend, and she was also involved in the Stop The War coalition and the London Pensioners’ Forum. 

She travelled weekly to Westminster to sell copies of the Greater London Pensioners’ Association newsletter. A policeman asked fellow GLPA member and friend of Betty for 60 years, Ken Savage, to ask her to move on. No way, she said to Ken. The policeman shrugged his shoulders. "We both knew," said Ken, "that it was pointless trying to tell Betty what to do."

Betty died aged 94 years.

Sources: Guardian August 15th 2008; Camden New Journal July 2008; GS personal knowledge















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