Betty Tebbs has a formidable reputation amongst activists both locally and nationally. Today at 96 she may look like everyone’s grandmother with her petite figure, curly white hair and piercing blue eyes but she has an engagement with daily, local and international events that make her an fascinating and forthright personality.
Betty is like many of the people whom I have come across over the years, people who have spent their lives working for all kinds of campaigns and who have a truly internationalist view and compassion for their fellow humans.
Betty was born on 10 April 1918, as the First World War was coming to a bitter end, to working class parents in Bury, Lancashire . It would be another ten years before any of the women in her family were able to vote in elections. But, like most women and men of her generation, Betty was working in a factory at an early age;
At the age of 14 years I experienced first hand the double exploitation of women in industry and it seemed quite right for me to work to change this situation.
It was when Betty got her first week’s wages that she realised the boy working next to her on the same machine was paid more. Betty was not prepared to put up with this and immediately joined the trade union, the National Union of Printing, Bookbinding and Paper Workers. After negotiations between the union and the management the women’s wages were increased. Thus began her lifelong commitment to trade union activism.
Betty met her first husband, Ernest, when she was 16 years old. They married when she was 21 years and, although he was in a reserved occupation, he decided that the Second World War was a fight against fascism and he joined up.
Like many people of her generation the Second World War affected her views on war and peace. Ernest was killed in France in 1944 and the army immediately cut her allowances for herself and her daughter, spurring her into political activity:
The injustice of the Government’s treatment to Pat and myself brought a resentment, which soon turned to anger, and I vowed again I would work for peace for the rest of my life.
War and Peace
On her way to work on 6 August 1945 she saw in a newspaper that a nuclear bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima city in Japan, killing 140,000 people. Three days later another bomb was dropped on the city of Nagasaki.
It is as relevant today in the fact that in the nuclear arsenals of the world, there are now tens of thousands of bombs immeasurably more powerful than those which destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
In 1946 she left the Labour Party because of the Labour government’s decision to accept Marshall Aid from America which meant they cut their trade links with the Soviet Union and instead bought grain and ships from the USA. With her second husband, Len, she joined the Communist Party and, in 1952, when the British government started a war in Malaya, they became involved in the opposition to the war.
Alongside my husband, Len, I decided I was going to work for peace for the rest of my life.
Mother, wife and activist
They led busy lives, working in factories and being active trade unionists, whilst also campaigning against the threat of a world-wide nuclear war. Her life as a mother and housewife meant it was not easy fitting in her political work:
“I had to rush home from work, get the children and Len their tea and leave home before 7pm to catch two buses to get to Bolton just in time for the 7.30pm meeting. I would sometimes get home by 10.30pm but other times it would be 11pm.”
In 1952 she joined the National Assembly of Women:
The inauguration meeting was attended by 1,400 women from all walks of life and they included in their declaration that peace was the central issue around which they would fight for better healthcare, housing, education, childcare and for the social and economic equality of women.
In the 1950s she moved with Len and their two children to Warrington where Len was now a lecturer in a technical college. They also left the Communist Party and rejoined the Labour Party, although they still worked together with Communists on various issues.
Grass roots campaigning
In Warrington they organised a campaign and petition against council house rent increases, and canvassed council estates with other communists and left wing supporters. They held a demonstration on the night of the council meeting and succeeded in halving the rent increases. Betty recalls:
Warrington was a right wing controlled council. it lacked any socialist content. It was a great shock to them when they came to the council meeting to find hundreds of people gathered in the grounds, the town hall full of protestors and the council chamber overflowing with people sitting on windowsills.
It’s a woman’s life
Over the years Betty worked on women’s issues, not just in her trade union but also in the community to gain a better life for all women. When she was 60 she helped set up the first battered women’s refuge in a town where the head of the Council Housing Committee had claimed, “We don’t have battered women in Warrington.”
In the mid-1970’s, supported by Len, Betty went on a trade union organiser’s course at Middlesex Polytechnic . “So I went there for 12 months and it were smashing!”
Betty supported the Grunwick strike in London of mainly Asian women workers which became a key event in 1977 as many progressive people (including Arthur Scargill) and left groups saw the significance of supporting some of the most vulnerable trade union members and turned up in tens of thousands to support the strikers.
Betty’s husband Len, had played a major role in her life, both personal and political, but sadly died aged 61, just as they were about to retire. She dedicated her biography to him:
To my husband, Len, who taught me at a time of despondancy, how to work for a system where wars were not necesssary. That system is socialism.
By the 1980s she was chair of the NAW and travelled to many countries, including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the USSR, Italy and Austria, for international women’s conferences.
This broadened my political knowledge tremendously, learning about the struggles of women internationally and how they were protesting gave me confidence to speak about and publicise events I had previously not known about.
In the 1980s when cruise missiles were stationed at Greenham Common Betty and her sisters in NAW gave support on the many demonstrations as well as joining in the camp. They took the campaign to the streets of Rawtenstall and showed how ordinary people supported the protestors:
The NAW group in Rawtenstall decided to have a street collection for sleeping bags for the women at Greenham and we collected enough money to buy four arctic sleeping bags.
It was the women at Greenham who contacted Betty to tell her that American bombers had set off from Britain to bomb Libya after a bomb brought down a Pan Am jet over Lockerbie, killing 243 passengers and 16 crew. At the invitation of the Libyan peace movement she led the British contingent of 150 peace activists on an international delegation to Libya.
In 1988 Betty stood down as chair of NAW after being chairperson for 12 years. Her 70th birthday was celebrated by her family and friends and, in keeping with her socialist and feminist ideals, she requested that instead of giving her presents they make donations towards helping equip a clinic in Palestine for women.
At the party she was honoured by her trade union, SOGAT, with the union’s gold badge for trade union activity. Over the years she had worked in many factories and workplaces concentrating her efforts in organising, mainly women, into unions as well as being active in her trade union to campaign for equal pay for women workers. This was not always a popular subject, even with trade unions!
An older activist
Over the years Betty has remained active on many issues including in 1997 when she took part in a picket of the BBC because they broadcasted an election speech from the BNP.
Aged 89 she was arrested for blocking an access road at the Faslane nuclear submarine base in Scotland by locking herself to fellow protestors using thumb cuffs. She is incensed by the refurbishing of Trident:
It is wrong to spend millions on it whilst children go hungry in this country.
Looking back and forward
In her 96th year Betty is concerned about the lives of young people in this country, as well the growing tensions in the Middle East and across Europe. Her peace work has been a continual thread throughout her life and she says:
The struggle for peace is as vital now as ever if we are to secure any quality of life for young people or future generations.
Betty is not disheartened by the constant onslaught of the Government in its austerity agenda:
I must say the only answer to the question “what now” is to carry on as we have done and keep up the struggle, the bottom line being, “it’s up to us”.