Thursday, July 14, 2016

Edith Stevens

As Theresa May settles into her new job the expectation is that she will include a significant number of women in her cabinet.

Today I am publishing a blog post written in April 2012 about one of Swindon's own political women.

"Don't just say, what a world, change the world," is the advice Edith Stevens would give to a disaffected electorate who complain there is no point in voting.

Born in Swindon in 1884, Edith Stevens was the eldest of railwayman George and his wife Harriet’s six children.  The 1901 census finds the family living at 11 Theobald Street where Welsh born George is described as an iron turner in the engine shop.  His 15 year old son Stanley worked alongside him as an apprentice turner, Edith, aged 17, was a pupil teacher; the four younger daughters were Elsie 14, Olive 12, Winifred 8 and five year old Edna.

Edith grew up against a backdrop of political awareness and activity.  Her father George was secretary of No 3 branch of the AEU and served as a Labour Councillor for eighteen years and Edith, a women’s rights campaigner, was one of the first women to record her vote in Swindon.

In 1903-05 Edith attended Southlands College, Battersea where she gained her certificated teacher qualification, after which she returned to Swindon to teach at Clarence Street School. Throughout the interwar years Edith worked with families battling against unemployment and poverty, organising food for the children in her care that frequently came to school hungry.

Edith served as president of the Swindon National Union of Teachers and was a member of the Retired Teachers Association.  She was also an active member of the Swindon branch of the National Federation of Old Age Pensions Associations.

During the 1930s Edith became involved in the Friends of the Soviet Union organisation.  A former member of the Independent Labour Party, Edith nailed her colours firmly to the mast, and subsequently joined the Communist Party.  She became one of the founder members of the Swindon branch and in 1942 along with Bill Sargent and Ike Gradwell, Edith secured party headquarters at 1 Bridge Street.  The house was named in her honour and when the party moved across the road in 1970 to 77/78 Bridge Street the new property was named Edith Stevens House.

Edith’s lifelong involvement with the former Soviet Union included fund raising efforts during WWII when she became secretary of the Swindon Anglo-Soviet Friendship Committee.  In 1968, aged 84, Edith took part in a peace tour organised by the British Peace Committee, attending a peace conference in Helsinki and making her sixth and final visit to Russia.

Edith died at Stratton St Margaret Hospital on September 10, 1970 aged 86. She remained president of the Swindon Communist Party until her death.

At a subsequent memorial meeting held for Edith in the Les Bates Hall at the AEU House in Swindon, Dick Pearce, one of the founder members of the Swindon Communist Party, led the tributes.

"Throughout my life, he said, "I learned that anywhere in Swindon in working class and progressive movements you would find Edith Stevens in the thick of the struggle."

Photographs are published courtesy of Swindon Local Studies Collection.

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