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Letter From America: Heavyweight Champions III - Bessie Braddock

Ronnie Bray pays a fitting tribute to Bessie Braddock, a doughty heavyweight politician from Liverpool who never flinched from battling to enact legislation for the relief of the marginalised, the sidelined, the forlorn, and the forgotten.

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The third colossus that attracted my attention - after Sophie Tucker and Tessie O’Shea - was the redoubtable Elizabeth ‘Bessie’ Margaret Braddock. Not only was she supersized, vital statistics 50", 40", 50", but she had a voice to match her size, and a burning passion for bettering the situation of the poor, the dispossessed, and the mentally ill.that exceeded the considerable sum of her other proportions.

Born into an politically active commonest oriented family in 1899 Liverpool, she was raised amid its poverty, becoming increasingly aware of the social inequalities that moved her to devote her life struggling to ameliorate the circumstances of the downtrodden, for which endeavours she was called ‘Battling Bessie’ by friend and foe.

As a child, she helped her mother, ‘Ma’ Bamber, serve lines of the hungry poor at the soup kitchens on Liverpool’s mean and dirty streets. The vision of the starving forged in her young mind an impression that she was never to forget. In her autobiography she wrote:

"I remember the faces of the unemployed when the soup ran out. I remember their dull eyes and their thin, blue lips. I remember blank, hopeless stares, day after day, week after week, all through the hard winter of 1906-7, when I was seven years old. I saw the unemployed all over Liverpool."

Bessie followed her mother into the British Communist Party but was disillusioned with the diktats from the Kremlin and the Soviet Communist Party’s failure to commit itself to democracy. Consequently she and her husband, John Braddock, turned their backs on Marx and Lenin’s political philosophies and joined themselves to the democratic and socialist British Labour Party.

Bessie remained involved in hands-on politics for more than four decades, during which period she served on Liverpool’s city council, and in the House of Commons, earning a reputation as a fierce but unconventional warrior who championed the causes of society’s underprivileged masses, motivated by her first hand experiences during the depression of the 1920s.

Her eccentricities are legendary. Whilst a member of Liverpool City Council, Bessie hauled a two-foot long megaphone into the Council Chamber to provoke councillors into taking vigorous action to improve Liverpool’s dire housing conditions, its growing slums, and the predicament of the mentally sick by volubly addressing the councillors about over-crowding, and the appalling standard of neglect of patients who were sealed up in massive Victorian lunatic asylums, where they were institutionalised, all but forgotten, and unlikely to be discharged.

In 1954, Winston Churchill invited her to sit on the Royal Commission on Mental Heath that resulted in the 1959 Mental Health Act (England & Wales). Bessie Braddock was a major contributor to the ‘Mental health Act (1959) England & Wales,’ a boldly enlightened Act whose provisions led to the closing of bizarre institutions in which the unfortunate were treated worse than animals.

In 1956, as Member of Parliament for Liverpool’s Exchange district, Bessie worried about the crime rate among the young, and was particularly anxious about their use of air rifles. One day when the House was sitting, she lugged three air rifles, which she had confiscated from young malefactors, onto the floor of the House of Commons. Once in a prominent position, she fired them, unloaded, towards the ceiling of the chamber, before crossing the floor and handing them to a stupefied Home Secretary. When censored for the melodramatic demonstration, she angrily snapped:

"I have to startle this House before anyone does anything about anything! No one takes any notice about anything unless someone does something out of order or unusual!"

It was this idea of startling the establishment, and raising the profile of unpopular issues that informed Bessie’s political tactics. She fought for unpopular social issues, not caring what people thought of her.

Bessie was a what-you-see-is-what-you-get woman of great courage and tremendous force, who would not be deterred from her mission by harsh or unkind criticism. These idiosyncrasies enamoured her to the broad masses of the working class.

Never ostentatious, she spent her annual holiday at Scarborough. She had no hint of braggadocio, did not drink or smoke, and, always true to her roots, dressed like a working class woman, despite her considerable income from her parliamentary seat.

Bessie acquired a deep respect for the democratic process, and for the House of Commons. When her critics insinuated that she behaved disrespectfully in the House, and made ambiguous suggestions about her morality, she was deeply offended. This came about when in 1947, during a debate, Tory Members filed out of the House of Commons in protest. Then, Bessie and some other Labour Members crossed the floor and sat on the Opposition side so that the Minister of Transport did not have to make his report to tiers of deserted benches. The next day, a newspaper article accused her of "dancing an Irish jig" as she crossed the floor.

The article, headlined as ‘Revelry at Night,’ said:

"The whole performance was nauseating, a sorry degradation of democratic government by discussion, the nadir, let us fervently hope, of this parliament."

She was shocked and angered at being accused of an ‘unlovely burlesque,’ a term that carried insinuations of musically accompanied decortication, and of the seedy places where such peelings occurred.

Bessie denied the accusation and brought a libel case against Tillotson’s Newspapers, because the "burlesque" comment was hurtful, and a direct slur on her personal decency.

The case was heard by a jury of people from different economic and social backgrounds than Bessie. They had read of her character in hostile news reports, so it was no surprise that with such prejudices in their minds that Bessie’s outlandish behaviour in Liverpool City’s Council meetings were thrown in to throw further muck on a spotless reputation.

It was true, she readily acknowledged, that she had referred to a fellow councillor as ‘a blasted rat,’ and had bellowed at recalcitrant and obstructive Tory councillors, ‘I’d like to take a machine gun to the lot of you!’ She lost the case.

Bessie did not employ shock tactics for egotistical reasons, nor because she was eccentric or mad. She was well balanced and completely rational, and used odd strategies to gain maximise publicity for neglected and unpopular causes that no one else would champion, for fear of making themselves unpopular.

Her continuing campaign to improve conditions for mental patients and prisoners, in which she stood solidly alongside the marginalised, the outcasts, and the forgotten, rendered her unlikely to enlist strong support from the electorate.

Despite that she never flinched from battling to enact legislation for the relief of the marginalised, the sidelined, the forlorn, and the forgotten. Battling Bessie blazed on regardless in the unique and indomitable way provoked by her rage against social injustices.

Bessie’s fearless stance in the face of tradition, etiquette, and chauvinism made her an unpredictable antagonist. Her critics referred to her ample size and novel tactics to damage her, as if both were emanations of the Devil himself.

Even so, her methods did not altogether dent the often-begrudged respect from colleagues and opposition politicians, especially those that admired her zeal, and her indisputable talents in the political arena. Shortly before she died in 1970, Bessie Braddock, champion of the downtrodden, was made a Freeman of the City of Liverpool.

In a fitting and permanent memorial of her self-sacrifice and tireless efforts on behalf of the vulnerable and needy of the city she loved and served, it was announced on September 3rd, 2008 that a statue of her will be raised outside Lime Street railway station. The pity is that it took thirty-eight years for this giant crusader to be so honoured.

Robust and durable memorials in time grow old, then deteriorate, and, in time, step aside in favour of new heroes and heroines. Yet the social improvements inaugurated by tireless Bessie Braddock will continue as a permanent memorial, even when she is no longer remembered by the living.

It is fitting that, on behalf of the millions of people that benefited from her industry and compassion, those of us who do remember her, doff our caps and say,

"Thank you Bessie. You are a Champion. You made a difference! God bless you!"

© 2008 – Ronnie Bray

Ronnie's "RETOLD YORKSHIRE FOLK TALES" Website at: http://yorkshiretales.com

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