Betty Birch was born on 2nd March 1930 in Rothwell, Northamptonshire, the second child of Walter Andrew, a boot and shoe worker, and his wife Ruth, who came from the Forest of Dean, where two of her brothers were miners. For much of the time until the start of the war in 1939, Betty’s father was unemployed or on short time.
Betty started her education at Rothwell Victoria Infants School and then, aged 7, went to Gladstone Street Council School, where she won a scholarship providing free tuition at Kettering High School and some further financial support. After seven years at the high school, in 1948 she gained her Higher School Certificate with a distinction in history, was accepted by the history department at Bristol University and won a county major scholarship of £180 a year which covered her fees and term-time living expenses.
Betty’s mother was a Labour Party member and Betty had attended meetings in Kettering of the Labour League of Youth. On her very first day at Bristol University, she was sold a copy of the Daily Worker by her husband-to-be Chris Birch, who soon afterwards enrolled her as a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain. She was soon active in the politics of the students’ union. In her second year (1949-50) she was secretary of the Socialist Society, which was affiliated to the Student Labour Federation, and in her third year she was its education secretary as well as being on the committee of the Student Branch of the Communist Party. She served for some years on the executive committee of the SLF.
In 1950 she married Chris Birch (see separate entry). At the service, the congregation sang Ebenezer Elliott’s hymn: When wilt thou save the people? O God of mercy! When?
And, to the tune of God Save the King,
God bless our native land!
May heaven’s protecting hand
Still guard her shore.
May peace her laws defend,
Foe be transformed to friend
And Britain’s power depend
On war no more.
The following year she graduated and moved to London with her husband. Very soon she got involved in the formation of Aid to Spanish Youth Committee, which campaigned on behalf of young political prisoners in Franco’s jails, and became its first chairman. Both she and Chris were members of first the Golborn and then the Norland branch of the Communist Party in north Kensington.
She and her husband went with their small son, Frank, in April 1955 to Warsaw to work on the International Preparatory Committee for the 5th World Festival of Youth and Students, which was held in Warsaw from 31 July to 14 August. When the festival was over, they went in August to Budapest to work at the headquarters of the World Federation of Democratic Youth. Chris was the Young Communist League’s representative on the secretariat; Betty worked in the propaganda department. Their daughter Harriet was born in Budapest and, when the fighting broke out in October 1956, Betty left with the children on 1 November. Chris stayed until the fighting was over, leaving Budapest on 17 November.
While they were abroad, they sublet their Holland Road flat to Robin Corbett, who worked on Challenge, the weekly paper of the Young Communist League, and later was a Labour MP and then Lord Corbett of Castle Vale. Back in London, Betty resumed her teaching career, joining the staff of Hurlingham, a girls’ comprehensive school in Fulham, in 1958. She and Chris moved with their two young children to Fulham in 1962 and transferred their party membership to the Fulham branch of the party.
Betty eventually became one of her school’s two deputy heads and was heavily involved in its merger in 1982 with Chelsea Boys School to form Hurlingham and Chelsea School, becoming one of the deputy heads of the new school.
A member of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament from its start in 1958, Betty was involved with the Peace Group at her school, which included both staff and pupils. One Easter she went with the group to visit Greenham Common. She was also an active member of the National Union of Teachers, taking part in a number of strikes and having her ILEA file at County Hall marked accordingly.
Betty took early retirement in 1985 in order to look after her mother and disabled brother, who were living with her and Chris. At that time she did voluntary work at CND headquarters and also at the party’s HQ. As her mother got older and needed more help, Betty needed to be nearer home and became a volunteer at the Geranium Shop for the Blind in Fulham.
Being herself a carer, she got involved with the Hammersmith & Fulham Careers Centre and was the chair of its management committee from 2004 to 2007.
Over the years she has taken part in numerous political demonstrations in London, including the huge Don’t Attack Iraq demo in September 2002 and the massive Stop the War demo in February 2003, on which she is pictured above.
She has written an account of the first 18 years of her life, We Save Bits of String, the story of a working class girl growing up in the 1930s and ‘40s in a boot and shoe town in Northamptonshire. It is available, price £12.50, from the St Christopher Press: firstname.lastname@example.org