Jane Gilchrist was a lifelong campaigner for socialism, and for homeopathy on the NHS. She was born Jane Valentine on 22 April 1913, the 6th of 8 children in a moderately well off middle class Jewish family. The family had come to Britain illegally centuries before and thereby managed to outwit the Inquisition. Jane’s family name is on the wall of the Bevis Marks synagogue in Houndsditch; her father’s family had helped to found it 500 years before.
There was a lot of poverty in the 1920s and one of Jane’s most formative experiences as a young child was walking through Petticoat Lane with her father and asking why so many children were running around with no shoes on, whilst the stalls were stocked high with new shoes. She was clearly already well on the way to being a socialist! She was proud of her scholarship to Tollington High School for Girls and passing the Baccalaureate. (90 years later Baccalaureates are back in vogue). At that time, opportunities for higher education were almost unheard of for girls, and she became the supervisor of the telephone exchange at Selfridges and later at Aquascutum.
Left: Jane in 1945 with her husband Bill Gilchrist
In her early twenties she married her childhood sweetheart, a stockbroker, Norman Albu. It looked like the start of an unremarkable life. But, in 1936, with the advent of the Spanish Civil War, she joined the Communist Party, left her husband and set up home with a young communist journalist, Jack Bernstein. This action effectively saw her pretty well ostracised from her family for many years.
She became very active politically. At the start of the Second World War, she helped the celebrated journalist Claud Cockburn (one of the initial contributors to Private Eye) illicitly to distribute his banned left wing newsletter ‘The Week. Apparently, their favourite hiding place was lavatory cisterns. (Claud Cockburn was able to drink almost anyone under the table, an ability he used to good effect to get information from leading politicians of the day). At that time, Jane was being bussed every day from Marble Arch to Bletchley Park, the home of the code-breakers, where she worked on the telephone exchange. The Soviet Union was an ally of Britain but it was somewhat surprising to have a well-known communist in such a sensitive job (especially as it would seem that you could easily listen into conversations on those old manual exchanges). However, her idyllic life did not last. Bernstein was diagnosed with TB and so, in an era before antibiotics, they moved to Weston-Super-Mare in the hope that the sea air would be of help.
Jane became a full-time organiser of the Communist Party. She was trained as a public speaker at Marx House by Mary Pollit, wife of the CP General Secretary Harry Pollitt; a training that stood her in good stead throughout her whole life. She could get up at the turn of a hat and give an amusing speech with little or no notes, even into her 90s. In the early 20th Century there were no real mass media and major public meetings were one the main means of communication. Jane Gilchrist was the principle speaker at many large rallies in the West of England during the Second World War, for example urging the opening of the Second Front. When Bernstein died in 1943, she carried on her public speaking and it was at one such rally that Bill Gilchrist, by then a well-known trade Unionist, caught her attention by presenting a large collection ‘on behalf of the lads at the BAC’ (the British Aircraft Corporation).
They married in 1945 and went on honeymoon to the Isle of Skye. Jane liked to recall that, by a touching piece of serendipity, as they walked off the ferry they were surprised to be greeted by an equally surprised Willy Gallacher, the Communist MP for Fife.
Bill and Jane first had lodgings in Bristol with the family of a university physics lecturer, Cecil Powell (who was strongly sympathetic to the CP). In 1950, Cecil Powell won the Noble prize for Physics for the discovery of pions, one of the sub atomic particles that are the basis of modern electronics. Jane regularly spoke on Sundays on the soap box on Bristol Downs: not a task for the faint hearted! She stood as a Communist candidate in council elections and actively campaigned and marched for left wing causes. Bill became the full-time secretary of the shop stewards the BAC and worked with Tony Benn, Minister of Aviation and a Bristol MP, to secure the building of Concorde at Filton. Odd clanking occurred when the family phone was picked up, as it was regularly tapped. Letters arrived in the wrong envelopes after being opened at the sorting office and (deliberately) put back wrongly.
In the 1980s, Jane and Bill moved to Bromley to enjoy seeing their grandchildren grow up. One day, Jane brought a member of the ANC, Moses Maphida, to Sunday lunch at her son’s house. After lunch, Moses said he needed some exercise and proceeded to dig the garden. He became secretary of the Communist Party of South Africa and, in the 2010 Football World Cup, his name was literally in lights as one of South Africa’s top new stadiums was named in his honour. ‘A gentle man but with an iron will’.
Jane had been introduced to homeopathy in Bristol by a CP member. In 1980, an old friend Mimi Silver asked her to help in the snack bar at the Royal Homeopathic Hospital and she soon became one of its principal organisers. After Bill’s death in 1991, Jane’s political campaigning reduced as she became more involved with promoting homeopathy within the NHS. She had founded the Bromley Homeopathic Group in 1982 and was the driving force behind the establishment of the Bromley Homeopathic Clinic in 1995, the first new NHS homeopathic clinic for many years. It was closed down in 2005 during a wave of attacks on Homeopathy.
Jane Gilchrist was as passionate in her views about medicine as she was about politics. For some 30 years she was a pillar of the Friends of the Royal Homeopathic Hospital (now renamed the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine), serving on its committee, organising and serving in the snack bar. Standing at the snack bar making sardine sandwiches for patients, Jane was a good listener as well as a good talker and she took her role as its co-ordinator very seriously. When, at the age of 95, she could no longer carry on this role, she became the Hospital Friends’ Ambassador and enjoyed sitting in the waiting area, talking and informing patients of their rights to access the NHS treatment of their choice.
She appeared on numerous TV and radio shows. Peter Fisher, Director of the Royal London Hospital for Integrated Medicine recalls that her approach to any attack on homeopathy was ‘I am 90-whatever it was, I don’t take any of those evil, capitalist big Pharma drugs, I owe it all to homeopathy. So don’t give me any of your cheek!’ At Jane’s funeral, Dr Fisher surmised that one of her appearances on a radio talk show was more effective than 10 of his meetings with NHS bureaucrats.
Throughout her life Jane Gilchrist campaigned for and supported the Palestine and Cuba Solidarity Campaigns. For her, a highlight of her later years, at the age of over 90, was being able to combine her two passions, homeopathy and communism, in memorable trips to the homeopathic Finlay Institute in Cuba. Needless to say, she also found the energy to march against the Iraq war in 2002 and 2003.
In her personal Life, Jane was unshockable and, indeed, liked to shock. Her grandchildren recall that, what was even more hilarious, was that she did it in such an everyday way that made you feel prim if you were taken aback. Their friends all like to recount the time when she got bitten by a dog walking down the road. She got a really terrible bruise which she showed to everyone. Not that shocking you might think but what did this actually involve? Dropping her trousers and pants and displaying her bottom in its entirety to anyone who would have a look. The beauty of this particular demonstration of course was that it transitioned so seamlessly into the wonder of Arnica and onto Homeopathy! Their grandmother could get an audience (and another Homeopathy supporter) out of everything.
Jane particularly liked to meet and talk to people that she met anywhere, and they liked talking to her. In her later years, Jane always had her homeopathic remedies in her handbag which she frequently gave away. A friend, Cynthia Burton, recalls how a train journey to Grove Park with Jane was always an adventure and how she made many friends on buses and trains and recruited them to the snack bar, and won them over with her passion for life.
Jane Gilchrist liked people with a spark, those who had ideas, even if she disagreed with them.She stuck with her principles throughout her life but she enjoyed the dialectic; she liked a good quality debate to investigate the truth of opinions. Jane was a true fighter, one of a breed that grows ever smaller, motivated selflessly by the desire to make things better for everyone in society. The world needs more people like her, but now, sadly, it has one less. Hers was indeed a long and remarkable life.
Jane Gilchrist, political campaigner and supporter of homeopathy on the NHS: born London 22 April 191; married 1945 Bill Gilchrist, patternmaker and trade unionist (died 23.10. 1991); one son; died Lewisham 9 January 2014.
Bob Gilchrist, incorporating contributions from family and friends. March 2014