Born on October 4th in 1921 into a Jewish family in the East End of London, Rita Weiss spent her whole life organising, nurturing, networking and encouraging. Through her many years as a teacher, lecturer and counsellor, in her creative activities with textile and art and in her involvement in social, educational and cultural groups, Rita put in the hard work of making sure that everybody could bring their own abilities to the fore.
This was borne of arduous times in both her personal life and in her early jobs in the clothing trade. On the untimely death of her mother, the eldest child Rita spent her teenage years supporting her brothers and sister. Towards the end of the 1930s, having met her future husband Manny Weiss, she became drawn to working-class politics.
She had experienced the General Strike as a child and the fascism of Mosley as a young Jewish woman. She joined the Communist Party in her late teens. As it did for many, the second world war skewed her life. As a 19-year-old mother she organised for the first air raid shelter to be provided in Watney Street, Stepney, having shyly stepped onto a soap box to give her first political oration. The war years spent as an evacuee with her daughter in Norfolk and in Maidenhead provided further chances for Rita to learn skills and to broaden her understanding of life and politics.
While Manny was away in the army she helped politicise workers in the armaments factory where she was proud of her work at the lathe and milling machine. She campaigned successfully among fellow workers for the factory to provide creche facilities – the kind of social and political preparation that was to make way for the post-war Labour government.
After the war and with two young sons added to the family, Rita embarked on a career and lifetime interest in education. Rita had joined the co-operative movement early and after helping to set up and run two youth clubs served for many years as a member of the London Co-operative Society education committee.
She organised visits to socialist countries for both children and adults and hosted co-operators from around the world who came to study the methods of the British co-operative movement.
Professionally she had followed valuable years working at the Daily Worker with primary teaching and then went on to achieve qualified status at Garnett College, eventually gaining senior positions in Hackney schools and adult colleges.
At the same time she developed her own creative crafts and skills in textiles and embroidery through classes at the City Literary Institute in London and the London College of Fashion – for many years she wrote book reviews on textiles and crafts for the Morning Star.
Her legacy includes garments and framed works of art including collages, embroidery, beading, macrame and knitting, many of which have been on exhibition in her and Manny's adopted home town of Southend, as well as in Bulgaria and Cuba.
Rita always shared her skills and creative ideas, and to this end she set up a local branch of the Embroiderers Guild.
Rita's enthusiasm for international work – stemming from both her co-operative activities and her staunch and longstanding contribution to bazaar fundraising for the Daily Worker and Morning Star – culminated in her foundation membership of Cuba Solidarity.
Continuing into her retirement years Rita devoted much time and practical effort to supporting Medical Aid for Cuba, as well as being an active member of the British Bulgarian Friendship Society.
Through her co-operative activity and as a result of her firm commitment to education Rita had helped to found the National Campaign for Nursery Education. In 2009 she was elected as an honorary vice-president of the campaign.
Rita was an active trade unionist in the NUT and later Nalgo/Unison, maintaining her membership of the latter into retirement. With Manny she had helped to set up the Southend Pensioners Campaign, and following his death in 1999 she continued the work, leading the editing of its magazine, serving as secretary until this year and remaining as chairman until her death.
She broadened her involvement to include campaigns on health issues and membership of locral consultative groups. In the capacity of visiting lecturer, Rita became a guide on elder issues to cohorts of Anglia Ruskin University social work students. At the time of her death, on September 27th 2011, she was a trustee of the Southend Advocacy for Older People. These activities culminated in her award as Southend Citizen of the Year 2009.
Source: Morning Star 13thOctober 2011
Memorials to both Manny and Rita Weiss have been placed on a park bench in the small park (left) at Prittlewell Square, facing the sea.