Betty Tebbs: Farewell to Manchester's finest

Gillian Cooper
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It was a month in which the issue of gender equality returned firmly to the spotlight as hundreds of thousands took part in Women's Marches across the globe. And so it seems especially poignant that January 2017 also saw the passing of one of the cause's biggest champions - Betty Tebbs.
Bury-born Betty was just 14 when she got a taste for what would become a lifelong campaign to improve working conditions.

She had taken a job at a local paper mill and, on receiving her first pay cheque, was puzzled to discover it contained two shillings less than a male counterpart's. After raising the issue among colleagues she was advised to fill in a union form and, from there, managed to secure better wages for all female workers in the mill by the time she left 18 years later.

Betty stuck with the trade unions, later training with the TUC as a trade union organiser, securing jobs in factories where wages and conditions were particularly bad and rallying the workers to fight for their rights. In a 2016 interview with the Mirror, she said: "I will never forget a paper bag factory in Warrington where the conditions were appalling. The place was as bad as the wages. The toilets had never been cleaned; glue all over the floor. By the time I left they were on twice the money."

She remained especially committed to women's rights, joining the National Assembly of Women in 1952 and gaining a position on the Women’s International Democratic Federation. Closer to home, she helped set up a refuge for abused women in Warrington.

But this was by no means her only campaign focus. When her first husband, Ernie, was killed in action in World War II she decided "to spend the rest of my life working for peace". It was a pledge that took her around the world - from peace summits in Geneva to the freedom campaigns of South Africa, marches in Eastern Europe and a peace mission to Libya after the London embassy siege. At the grand old age of 89 her demonstrations even got her arrested when, with three friends ("our collective age was over 300"), she lay in the road at the Faslane nuclear naval base near Glasgow clipped to fellow protestors.

An inspiration to the end, she was recently presented the Radical Hero Award by the People's History Museum and given the Special Women's Award by Manchester City Council. Lynn Collins, a friend from the Trades Union Congress, said her achievements were as far-reaching as they were long-fought, insisting the Manchester firebrand laid some of the groundwork for "legislation that now protects all women".

Typically modest, Betty failed to see what all the fuss was about, shyly telling the Mirror: "I've always just tried to do what needs doing."

Photo source credit:

Betty Tebbs 10th April 1918 - 23rd January 2017

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