Flowers from Sir Keir for Labour’s oldest member, 105, who was at Cable Street

East Ender Beatty Orwell, Labour's oldest ever member, was on the frontlines fighting fascism at Cable Street in 1936 and has been a member for 68 years


It’s not every day that both Sir Keir Starmer and Sir Tony Blair send flowers and cards to celebrate a Jewish woman’s 105th birthday.

But this was Beatty Orwell, Labour’s oldest member, who was on the frontlines at the Battle of Cable Street and has belonged to the party since 1954.

A true East Ender, Mrs Orwell has spent a lifetime working for the benefit of others, from battling Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts in the 1930s to her service as a Tower Hamlets councillor and mayoress.

Her congratulatory card from Tony Blair, her “favourite leader”, wished her “good health and happiness”.

The message from Sir Keir was: “Congratulations on your milestone birthday, the oldest member of the Labour Party we’ve ever had. I’m so grateful for your support.” In a separate letter, Sir Keir invited her to Downing Street “after the next general election” to give “the new Labour Prime Minister the benefit of all you’ve seen and learned”.

Born in Aldgate in 1917, Mrs Orwell was the youngest of three sisters. Her father died when she was 13 and she was raised by her mother to be strong and independent. After leaving school at 14, she worked in the men’s tailoring trade and her interest in politics was sparked by visits to Victoria Park near the family home, where young socialists gathered.

It was at the park where she met her future husband John, recalling years later: “In my day, you would go and buy a bag of chips and get a date by sharing them with the boys. If you were lucky, they would ask you out.”

In 1936, she was at the forefront of the Battle of Cable Street, clashing with police and Mosley’s fascists as they were prevented from marching through the area. When her East End home was bombed by the Nazis, the now-married Mrs Orwell fled London and started working in a munitions factory to support the war effort.

With the conflict still raging, she returned to London to look for a flat, securing an apartment on the Collingwood Estate in Stepney, where she and John raised their three children.

“It was a very nice flat,” her daughter Maureen told the JC. “And there were lots of Jewish people in those flats.”

As communities across Britain rebuilt in the early 1950s, the Orwells joined the Bethnal Green Labour Party and began campaigning.

John Orwell was elected as a local councillor and in 1966 and in 1971 served as mayor of Tower Hamlets, making Beatty the mayoress. After he passed away, she took over his council seat. She was attracted to the Labour Party because of “the injustice of life at the time”, Maureen told the JC.

“These people were living with outside toilets, no running water. Things were grim in the East End. People were poor then. They were really poor.”

Mrs Orwell was born before women had the right to vote and, interviewed by the JC on her 100th birthday, said: “The suffragettes were marvellous.

“I’ve voted every time since I was allowed to. We used to walk round with banners and tell people who to vote for. I always loved politics.”

Although partially sighted from the age of 40, she lived in a house with stairs until she was 99, before moving to her ground-floor flat in Spitalfields Housing Development.

In her 80s, she joined Jewish Care’s Brenner Stepney Community Centre which supports the remaining members of the older Jewish East End community.

Maureen said: “She told me: ‘What do I want to go with all those old people for?’

“She thought she was too young to go. I said to her: ‘Mum, please go and try it for three months. If you don’t like it, you don’t have to go.’ She walked in and she bumped into Millie [Finger], who she went to school with. And that was it.”

When they were 100, the pair were recruited as guest continuity announcers for Channel 4, recording intros reflecting on how life was when they were young to mark the centenary of women’s voting rights. Mrs Orwell’s interest in politics has never waned and her local MP, Rushanara Ali, invited her to Prime Minister’s Questions on her 100th birthday — and she still listens in avidly to PMQs every Wednesday.

Joining the many well-wishers, Jewish Care chief executive Daniel Carmel-Brown, said Mrs Orwell “inspires an abundance of love, warmth and sense of community.

“A truly remarkable person, Beatty has always stood up for what she believes in and is a role model to us all.”

Maureen added that her mum had a selfless nature, going about things “very quietly. She didn’t do anything to gain anything, she just went on and did it.

“If you came and visited her, she would make you a cup of tea and a biscuit. If you were there for more than an hour, you had to have a sandwich. And if you were any longer, you had to have dinner. She knows everybody and she makes sure everybody’s treated the same. She worried about everybody and I think that’s the Jewish way.”

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