LILIAN (LILY) ROSE HARRISON, NÉE PARKER, MBE (1924-2015)

OBITUARY: LILIAN (LILY) ROSE HARRISON, NÉE PARKER, MBE (1924-2015)

from Battersea Labour Party
Annual Report (2015), pp. 23-4

LILIAN (LILY) ROSE HARRISON, NÉE PARKER, MBE (1924-2015)

Lily Harrison had a strong, feisty, ‘giving’ personality, with an intense civic commitment to the Shaftesbury Estate community in particular and to Battersea in general. In another generation, when opportunities for working-class women were greater, she would have taken a front-seat role. But she did more as an active grass-root, throughout a long and non-stop life, than many front-benchers. Her award of an MBE in 2008 was a justified honour.
For Battersea Labour Party, Lily was not only the longest lived of a post-war generation of committed working-class activists who ran Labour in its unchallenged prime within the area – but she was also a personal link between three generations of truly remarkable women in Battersea left-wing politics. Lily worked closely with Caroline Ganley (1879-1966), who was Labour MP for Battersea South (1945-51) and a long-standing Battersea Councillor (1919-25, 1953-65). And in turn Caroline Ganley had worked closely with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939), the pioneering suffragette and left-winger, who lived in working-class Nine Elms and stood (alas, unsuccessfully) for Labour in Battersea in the 1919 general election. It was Charlotte Despard who purchased 177 Lavender Hill as BLP’s headquarters; and it was Lily Harrison who for many years ran 177 as its guardian figure.
Lily was born in Canning Town, East London, into a family of working-class Tories. After a sickly childhood, she grew into a wiry and indefatigable adult. She left school at 14, working as a sewing machinist. In 1941 she joined the WAAF and had a ‘good’ war, proud of her contribution to London’s home defence. At one stage, she was in charge of a team of women operating the huge barrage balloons on Sydenham Hill in south London, which were used to disrupt the flight of enemy bombers as they tried to blitz Battersea’s industries and rail networks. It was a challenging task, Lily told me, not just technically but also because she had to manage a team of ‘flighty’ young women who were not used to physical labour and were all too keen on enjoying wartime London’s night-life. Later, she was in charge of a similar team operating barrage balloons on the cliffs of Dover at the time of D-Day.


When stationed on war duties in Cambridge in 1944, Lily met her husband Herbert (Bert) Harrison, nicknamed ‘Ginger’ for his auburn locks. Married in 1947, they were devoted to one another and to their growing family: two surviving sons, Edward and Derek, and a daughter Joan, who had Down’s Syndrome and died from pneumonia at the age of two. At that time, many parents used to put Down’s children into institutional care. But, as Derek Harrison recalled: ‘Not Lily! She dressed Joan in a red coat and displayed her to the world, lovingly declaring “That’s my daughter”.’ The little coat was kept as a treasured family memento, and was buried with Lily.
Bert Harrison came from a politically committed Labour family. His own father, another Herbert Harrison, had been a Labour Councillor and Mayor of Battersea (1953); and Bert followed in his footsteps, representing Shaftesbury Ward on Battersea Borough Council. For Lily, joining the Harrison clan meant that her leftish sympathies were suddenly jolted into non-stop activism. ‘It was a steep learning curve’, she admitted, but one that she thoroughly enjoyed.
When interviewed for the making of BLP’s DVD Red Battersea (2008), Lily gave me the following account of her role in Battersea Labour: ‘After Bert was elected for Shaftesbury ward, I attended every Council meeting for fifteen years. I became a dedicated Party nut! I lost half a stone in weight during my first General Election campaign, in 1964 – but it was worth it because we got Ernie Perry in [as MP for Battersea South] with a big majority. Later, I ran the BLP Afternoon Section for the older ladies: we had jumble sales, garden parties, raffles, knit-ins, and dinner parties, the annual Bazaar. You name it, I’ve organised it. It’s been my life.’
Lily and Bert, who lived on the Shaftesbury Estate, were also part of the strong community life of the Estate; as well as busy in many other local projects. After Bert’s death in 1990, Lily continued her civic involvement, being active on: Battersea Arts Centre Board (founder member from 1971 and later Trustee); Battersea United Charities (Trustee from 1960 and chair 1990-2006); Bolingbroke Hospital Friends; St George’s Hospital Friends; Tooting & Balham Carnival Committee (member from 1971; secretary 1984-94); and SHARE Community (Self-Help Association for Rehabilitation & Employment), of which she became Life Vice President. She wound down only when halted by illness, late in life.
As that account indicates, Lily had the gift of working well with others. She always did what she’d promised to do, with efficiency and good humour. She got on well with most people, and faced the twists and turns of politics with a certain stoicism. In organisational terms, her greatest regret was that Bert did not become Mayor of Battersea, as his father had done before him, or Mayor of Wandsworth, the larger authority that swallowed Battersea Borough Council in 1965. And there’s no doubt that Lily would have made a great Mayoress.
Yet her tireless activism showed that civic individuals don’t need an official position to get involved. By the end of her long life, Lily had friends across the political spectrum. That’s because – unofficially – she was for many years the equivalent of an uncrowned Lady Mayor of Battersea. But she was no mere ceremonial figure. Lily was nothing if not hands-on. It’s how she lived her life.

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2016-07 No1 Dancing House Prague

MONTHLY BLOG 66, WHAT’S SO GREAT ABOUT HISTORICAL EVIDENCE?

If citing, please kindly acknowledge copyright © Penelope J. Corfield (2016)

‘Evidence, evidence: I hate that word’, a vehement colleague in the English Department once hissed at me, when I had, all unawares, invoked the word in the course of an argument. I was surprised at his vehemence but put it down to a touch of dyspepsia, aggravated by an overdose of (then) ultra-fashionable postmodernist doubt. What on earth was he teaching his students? To disregard evidence and invent things as the passing mood dictated? To apply theory arbitrarily? No need to bother about dates, precision or details. No need to check one’s hunches against any external data or criterion of judgment. And certainly no need to analyse anything unpleasant or inconvenient or complexly difficult about the past.1

But I thought my colleague’s distaste for evidence was no more than a passing fad. (The date was sometime in the later 1990s). And indeed intellectual postmodernism, which was an assertive philosophy of doubt (a bit of a contradiction in terms, since a philosophy of doubt should be suitably doubtful), has faded even faster than the postmodernist style of architectural whimsy has been absorbed into the architectural lexicon.2

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials. Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Fig. 1 The Rašin Building, Prague, known as the Dancing House, designed by V. Milunić and F. Gehry (completed 1996) – challenging classical symmetry and modernist order yet demanding absolute confidence in the conventional solidity of its building materials.
Image by © Paul Seheult/Eye Ubiquitous/Corbis

Then, just a week ago, I was talking to a History postgraduate on the same theme. Again to my surprise, he was, if not quite as hostile, at least as hesitant about the value of evidence. Oh really? Of course, the myriad forms of evidence do not ‘speak for themselves’. They are analysed and interpreted by historians, who often disagree. But that’s the point. The debates are then reviewed and redebated, with reference again to the evidence – including, it may be, new evidence.

These arguments continue not only between historians and students, but across the generations. The stock of human knowledge is constantly being created and endlessly adjusted as it is transmitted through time. And debates are ultimately decided, not by reference to one expert authority (X says this; Y says that) but to the evidence, as collectively shared, debated, pummelled, assessed and reassessed.

So let’s argue the proposition the other way round. Let’s laud to the skies the infinite value of evidence, without which historians would just be sharing our prejudices and comparing our passing moods. But ok, let’s also clarify. What we are seeking is not just ‘evidence’ A, B or C in the cold abstract. That no more resolves anything than does the unsupported testimony of historian X, Y or Z. What we need is critically assessed evidence – and lots of it, so that different forms of evidence can be tested against each other and debated together.

For historians, anything and everything is grist to the mill. If there was a time when we studied nothing but written documents, that era has long gone. Any and every legacy from the past is potential evidence: fragments of pottery, swatches of textiles, collections of bones, DNA records, rubbish tips, ruined or surviving buildings, ground plans, all manufactured objects (whether whole or in parts), paintings from cave to canvas, photos, poems, songs, sayings, myths, fairy tales, jokes … let alone all evidence constructed or reconstructed by historians, including statistics, graphs, databases, interpretative websites … and so forth. Great. That list sounds exhausting but it’s actually exhilarating.

However, the diversity of these potential sources, and the nebulousness of some forms of evidence (jokes, fairy tales), indicate one vital accompaniment. Historians should swear not only by the sources but by a rigorous source critique. After asking: what are your sources? the next question should be: how good are your sources, for whatever purpose you intend to deploy them? (These stock questions or variants upon them, keep many an academic seminar going).

Source auditing: here are three opening questions to pose, with reference to any potential source or set of sources. Firstly: Provenance. Where does the source come from? How has it survived from its original state through to the present day? How well authenticated is it? Has it been amended or changed over time? (There are numerous technical tests that can be used to check datings and internal consistency). No wonder that historians appreciate using sources that have been collected in museums, archives or other repositories, because usually these institutions have already done the work of authenticating. But it’s always well to double-check.

Secondly: Reliability of Sources and/or Methodology. A source or group of sources may be authentic but not necessarily reliable, in the sense of being precise or accurate. Evidence from the past has no duty to be anything other than what it is. A song about ‘happy times’ is no proof that there were past happy times. Only that there was a song to that effect. But that’s fine. That tells historians something about the history of songs – a fruitful field, provided that the lyrics are not taken as written affidavits.3 All sources have their own intrinsic characteristics and special nature, including flaws, biases, and omissions. These need to be understood before the source is deployed in argument. The general rule is that: problems don’t matter too much, as long as they are fully taken into account. (Though it does depend upon the nature of the problem. Fake and forged documents are evidence for the history of fakery and forgery, not for whatever instance or event they purport to illuminate).

One example of valid material that needs to be used with due caution is the case of edited texts whose originals have disappeared, or are no longer available for consultation. That difficulty applies to quite a number of old editions of letters and diaries, which cannot now be checked. For the most part, historians have to take on trust the accuracy of the editorial work. Yet we often don’t know what, if anything, has been omitted. So it is rash to draw conclusions based upon silences in the text – since the original authors may have been quietly censored by later editors.4

When auditing sources, it also follows that a related test should also be addressed to any methodology used in processing sources: is the methodology valid and reliable? Does it augment or diminish the value of the original(s)? Indeed, is the basic evidence solid enough to bear the weight of the analytical superstructure?

Thirdly: Typicality. With every source or group of sources, it’s also helpful to pose the question as to whether it is likely to be commonplace or highly unusual? Again, it doesn’t matter which it is, as long as the historian is fully aware of the implications. Otherwise, there is a danger of generalising from something that is in fact a rarity. Assessing typicality is not always easy, especially in the case of obscure, fragmentary or fugitive sources. Yet it’s always helpful to bear this question in mind.

detectives

Overall, the greater the range and variety of sources that can be identified and assessed the better. Everything (to repeat) is grist to the mill. Sources can be compared and contrasted. Different kinds of evidence can be used in a myriad of ways. The potential within every source is thrilling. Evidence is invaluable – not to be dismissed, on the grounds that some evidence is fallible, but to be savoured with full critical engagement, as vital for knowledge. That state of affairs does include knowing what we don’t (currently) know as well as what we do. Scepticism fine. Corrosive, dismissive, and ultimately boring know-nothingism, no way!

*NB: Having found and audited sources, the following stages of source analysis will be considered in next month’s BLOG.

1 BLOG dedicated to all past students on the Core Course of Royal Holloway (London University)’s MA in Modern History: Power, Culture, Society, for fertile discussions, week in, week out.

2 For the fading of philosophical postmodernism, see various studies on After- or Post-Postmodernism, including C.K. Brooks (ed.), Beyond Postmodernism: On to the Post-Contemporary (Newcastle upon Tyne, 2013); and G. Myerson, Ecology and the End of Postmodernism (Cambridge, 2001), p. 74: with prescient comment ‘it [Postmodernism] is slipping into the strange history of those futures that did not materialise’.

3 See e.g. R. Palmer, The Sound of History: Songs and Social Comment (Oxford, 1988).

4 A classic case was the excision of religious fervour from the seventeenth-century Memoirs of Edmund Ludlow by eighteenth-century editors, giving the Memoirs a secular tone which was long, but wrongly, accepted as authentic: see B. Worden, Roundhead Reputations: The English Civil Wars and the Passions of Posterity (2002).

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