Gordon, Mildred (1 of 3). The History of Parliament Oral History Project
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Interviewee’s home, Hertfordshire
Gordon, Mildred, 1923-2016 (speaker, female)
Stowell, Richard, 1950- (speaker, male)
Part 1: Born 1923 in Stepney, East London. Stepney was very poor, but grandfather bought a 13-room large house, with eventually different parts of the family occupying different floors. Describes being slightly better off; but still had bugs at home. House damaged in War. Father served apprenticeship as lithographer, was in army during First War then opened up shop before becoming a market trader in Watney Street, Petticoat Lane and The Waste in Whitechapel. Mother – one of 12 children – left school at 13. She helped him in the market. Mildred went to local primary school [Betts Street] but this closed down due to falling roll, and then on to Christian Street School. Describes doing figure work for the school, which took her out of lessons but still passed the 11+ Examination which gave entry to the Blue Coat School. However mother didn’t want her to travel so she went to the local secondary school. Mother also believed that if she went to the Blue Coat School she would meet rich girls and become ashamed of her home. Also mother wanted her to take German rather than Latin not knowing that then you needed Latin for university entrance. But War broke out anyway. [9.00] Influences on here were her English Teacher, who wanted her to go to RADA. Father influenced by Father John Groser, who was a socialist and led rent strikes, and got her father into the Labour Party. When father became Labour Councillor for Spitalfields Mildred helped him deliver leaflets, which brought her to see poverty. Father was in charge of baths and washhouses on the Council, which pleased the local women when a new machine was bought so they could also take in more washing. Poverty was enormous, but father was kind when working on the market stall. Politically it was an historical area, with both George Lansbury and Clement Attlee local MPs [13.00]. Father had very basic approach to politics. Didn’t discuss politics much then as Mildred was a Zionist, which her father didn’t like. She joined the local Labour Party at 16 or so, which was then dominated mainly by Irish Catholics, so remarkable that father as a Jew got to be a Councillor. [17.00].Left school at 16 after matriculation and when war broke out. Evacuated to Sussex. Describes experience of being billeted with a spiritualist and a Christian; was not happy, so came home, much to the anger of her previous headteacher. Her upbringing was not particularly Jewish. Describes her first lessons in anti-semitism, in school and then when looking for her first job at 16, after learning shorthand at Pitman’s College. [23.30]During the Spanish Civil War she went around collecting food for Spain with the Zionist Youth. Also knew from the papers what was happening. Read the Reynolds News on Sunday; other days the Evening News and The Chronicle. Had no guidance in reading.Describes working for Solicitor during the war, in a controlled occupation. Became an Air Raid Warden, like her father, and saw heavy bombing along the Thames waterfront. Left the solicitors at the end of war and was taken on as an unqualified teacher, which was a real step up for her, even though she had been fortunate in staying on to matriculate at 16. She was sent to teach at a secondary school. [30.51] Went to emergency teacher training school after 18 months initial teaching, though Inspector had given her Qualified Teacher Status already. Taught in East End secondary schools, then met future husband and went off to live in America. Was active in the teachers union. Her cousin, who had earlier persuaded her to join the Zionist Youth Movement, had now become a Trotskyist and persuaded her to go to a Study Group. The Zionist Movement had shocked her by supporting the War, so she went to the ILP and then the Trotskyist Group. First husband was in the merchant marines and a Trotskyist. Describes her life in New York, which she did not like. Worked for trade union, whilst husband got into the printers union, ending up working for the New York Times. Didn’t like climate, but also didn’t like McCarthyism or the hostility towards English people. Husband came to Europe as a Representative to the Fourth International. Describes the Forces Parliament in England, and the atmosphere in England at the war’s end where politics was discussed everywhere. Believed Attlee then was right-wing but he was very courageous and by today’s standards was revolutionary [42.10]. Describes returning in 1952 to become a teacher. Was active in the Labour Party, and first husband said she was a natural-born speaker and ought to go into politics, but she had no such aspirations until much later. Had come from a very poor family, lacking in education with no erudition and no aspirations. Though first husband was a Trotskyist they did not have political arguments, he accepting the need for people to work within a mass party. Describes existence of three Trotskyists when she entered Parliament, but they sounded the same as they had done thirty years ago and had not moved on, so she refused to join them. Had no patience with the Trotskyists, but describes husband’s friendship with Isaac Deutscher, Ralph Miliband and Robin Blackburn [46.20]. Was involved in a lot of political discussions; argued with them over Malcolm X and Black Power. Husband became very ill over a 15-year period. Moved to Hendon area in 1963 and became Chair of the Hendon South Labour Party and stood in first European elections in 1979. May 1973 contested Hendon for the Greater London Council [GLC] and got a big vote in an ‘unwinnable’ seat. Believed politics should be fun and used a bus to campaign; the beginning of campaign buses. In 1970s was busy with husband’s health problems; he died in 1982. Describes going to the North London Polytechnic to try for a degree, but did not complete; not madly keen on studying primary education. Describes 1981 election campaign for GLC in St Pancras North and perceived lack of help from the Labour Party. In 1982 moved resolution at Labour Party Conference to have at least one woman on every shortlist; ended up with all-women shortlists, but containing the wrong sort of women [1.04.20]. When she entered Parliament there were only 19 women, but even this was the most ever. Describes in detail the selection in 1985 for the Bow and Poplar Constituency, and earlier Party disagreements with sitting MP, Ian Mikardo. Recounts patronising attitudes towards her in Parliament. Spent two years shadowing Ian Mikardo at his surgeries. Describes difficulties with ‘posh’ end of the constituency, and campaign to de-select her second time around. Describes politics of her second husband Nils, who was a personal friend of Leon Trotsky.
Life story interview with Sir Mildred Gordon (1923-2016), former Labour Member of Parliament.