Standing up to Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts at the age of 19, Beatty Orwell’s century-long fight against injustice took her from Cable Street to Mayoress and Tower Hamlets Councillor.
On 7 July 1917, as German bombs were being dropped on East London, Beatty Orwell was born into a one-bedroom flat on Goulston Street, just a stone’s throw away from Aldgate East Station.
Running perpendicular to Whitechapel’s bustling High Street, today the road is the site of a seemingly never-ending cycle of demolitions and high-rise developments, pushing our East End skyline further up into the clouds.
But in Orwell’s time, Goulston Street’s Brunswick Buildings were the area’s tallest development; a five-storey tenement block where Orwell lived with her parents and two sisters.
Born to East End Jewish parents, Orwell’s father worked as a porter at Spitalfields Market and her mother made cigars at Godfrey & Phillips tobacco factory on Commercial Street.
Orwell’s first-hand experiences of social inequality in the East End made her acutely aware of the rights of the most vulnerable in society and would inspire her politics later in life.
She came of age during the interwar period when far-right ideologies were on the rise, threatening the harmony of East London’s multicultural society.
In a time of uncertainty and unemployment, Orwell and the Jewish community were painfully aware of growing anti-semitism and the treatment of Jews in Europe.
During the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, 19-year-old Orwell stood firm against Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirt Brigade as they attempted to march through the heart of London’s East End.
Alongside Orwell, the defiance of roughly 200,000 socialists, communists, Jewish activists and Irish dockers successfully thwarted Mosley’s march, and the battle became a venerated moment of triumph against fascism in Britain’s history.
Talking about the Battle of Cable Street to Kate Thompson East End author, Orwell said: ‘It made me who I am … After we drove them out, I could hold my head up high!’
Before her death on 23 June 2023, Orwell was one of the last remaining veterans of the Battle of Cable Street, which was a defining moment in her life and politics.
In the years that followed, Orwell continued to dedicate herself to the cause of social justice, advocating for worker’s rights, women’s empowerment, and racial equality.
Her political and personal life united when she met her husband, John, at a sports day in Victoria Park held by the Young Communists League, though neither of them were members.
After their meeting, the pair attended a Labour Party dance together and when she died in June 2023, Orwell was the oldest living member of the Labour Party.
No stranger to the reverberations of war in the East End, during World War II Orwell was bombed out of her flat, narrowly avoided a Doodlebug, worked as a postwoman and gave birth to the first of her three children.
Orwell and her husband lived in various locations across East London before settling in a three-bedroom flat on Cambridge Heath Road where Orwell would live for 67 years.
John Orwell became the second Mayor of the newly-formed Tower Hamlets in 1966, but the position did not pay enough for him to support the family single-handedly and Beatty worked through her whole life, primarily as a garment trade worker.
When John Orwell died in 1972, Beatty took over his role as a Councillor where she took a special interest in caring for old people across the borough, carrying on her husband’s legacy of singing in old people’s homes.
She retired from politics in 1982 but remained a school governor in Bethnal Green for the next 30 years and worked at Jewish Care’s Brenner Stepney Community Centre supporting elderly members of the community until she was 100 years old.
Orwell passed away in her home in Bethnal Green on 23 June 2023, just two weeks before her 106th birthday.
Her influence transcended political affiliations and reached far beyond her home in the East End. It serves as a reminder of the power of collective action and determination in the ongoing fight against discrimination.
If you enjoyed this piece, you might like our article about Maria Dickin and the history of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals.
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