Heritage: Impish, irrepressible campaigner Walter Southgate was a national benefactor
PUBLISHED: 15:00 15 February 2020
Tower Hamlets Archive
Prof Ged Martin remembers a Harold Wood personality
People who live in Harold Park generally don't get obituaries in The Times. The Top People's newspaper records deaths of the rich and powerful, not somebody who lived in a bungalow on the A12 Colchester Road.
Walter Southgate was a tiny man who fizzed with fun. A lifelong socialist, he cheerfully despised wealth and power.
Born in London in 1890, he had to leave school when he was 12 because his father was unemployed. As he said of those distant days in the title of his autobiography, That's The Way It Was.
He was the proud owner of a certificate stating that he'd never missed a day's schooling.
In his teens, Walter joined Labour Party's forerunners, the Social Democratic Federation and the Clarion movement. Nowadays we'd call them far-left organisations, but they stood for brotherhood and sharing.
As The Times said when he died in 1986, Walter's socialism was "ethical, expansive and gentle, with a simple belief in social justice".
He formed a Clarion cycling club, exploring the roads of Essex before cars made them a racetrack.
At 14, he became a clerk in a solicitor's office. Hi-tech it was not: the firm even trained him to write with quill pens.
But he learned the importance of filing documents. Walter saved the leaflets and posters from the various campaigns he'd supported. They filled his bungalow near Harold Court Road.
In 1964, he showed me placards from a demonstration he'd organised denouncing the Tsar of Russia. In 1908, it was dangerous to criticise royalty. Walter was a clever cartoonist. His ugly caricatures of Nicholas II attracted police attention. Half a century later, he still described that day with sardonic mockery.
"He sought neither office nor limelight", wrote The Times. Walter always worked behind the scenes. He'd founded a union branch at the age of 15.
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If he was not a conventional hero, he'd shown the courage of his principles. When war broke out in 1914, Walter decided it was an imperialist conflict, and refused to fight.
An official tribunal tried to catch him out with a trick question. Surely he'd fight the Kaiser to defend his own home? Typically cheeky, Walter replied that the Kaiser must be very hard up to want his tiny terraced house in Hackney.
Maybe Walter was too short for the Army anyway. As a conscientious objector, he was sent to still-rural Dagenham to do farm work.
This led to a change of career following his marriage in 1918. The Southgates bought a smallholding near Ongar, where they lived until moving to Harold Park in 1955.
Walter saw the Second World War as a people's conflict. He gladly used his administrative skills to help find accommodation for people bombed out of their homes.
In his seventies, he worked as a part-time gardener. How could a senior citizen do such heavy work? Easy! Walter was a pioneer of "no dig" gardening - you piled weeds on other weeds, clearing and mulching your garden without backbreaking work.
Labour's 1978 Blackpool conference honoured his "outstanding voluntary service".
Walter wanted his collection to tell future generations about his fight for social justice.
When the National Museum of Labour was started in 1975, Walter donated 600 items. It's now the People's History Museum in Manchester.
Present at the official handover was Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. Refusing to be overawed, Walter asked Wilson if there was still a warrant out for his arrest for skipping military service!
Lloyd's of London sometimes commissioned him to cut quill pens for use on ceremonial parchment documents.
In 2004 came further posthumous recognition, a place in the multi-volume Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, alongside legendary heroes like Winston Churchill and Florence Nightingale - although they did get rather more space!
The tiny glowing man from Harold Wood merited his place among the Top People and the country's icons. He was a Havering treasure - and a national benefactor.
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