Words by Theresa Wolfwood at memorial service for Hilary Newitt Brown, followed by Article published in local papers by Theresa Wolfwood
Hilary Newitt Brown – an activist and inspiration
Hilary’s life was shaped by war – a century of endless war – her life was committed to ending all war.
Hilary, born in 1909, was a child at home during the beginning of the war. It was her delight to greet the postman & collect the mail from him – but times came – four times came when the postman said he had to deliver the mail himself to her mother – each time it was a message telling her one of her brothers had been killed.
Her father’s school was soon closed as it was near naval shipyards that were being attacked by Zeppelins. This lovely rural area still retains its connection to war – it is now a Trident nuclear submarine base & the area around her first home is now military territory.
She grew up in England as her father moved from school to school. Like many of her generation, growing up after a terrible war, she had great hopes for the League of Nations & went to Geneva to study French in a school for future League employees.
Then she went to Germany to the University of Frankfurt in 1929, to study economics and sociology. Her thesis professor was to be Eric Fromm, the famous scholar & author. That never happened – she returned to England, horrified at the rise of Nazism- its power first of all at the local level- she saw many professors disappear, then friends & students vanished, she never returned to finish her degree and thesis.
Back in London she worked for the Business & Professional Women’s organization – the early feminists whom she admired. But she soon realized that these women had little knowledge about the wider politics of Europe. She wanted to alert them to the dangers of fascism which many people were unaware of – she was disturbed and frustrated by their ignorance & apathy. She talked about the many groups that were being eliminated in Germany and Italy as their members were taken away – pacifists, communists, socialists, religious activists as well as ethnic Jews and Romas.
Her frustration was expressed in a book she hoped would help: “WOMEN MUST CHOOSE” She wanted women to understand and act because politics and political systems were important to their survival. She wrote many leaflets and pamphlets for the antifascist movement and when she went to collect them for her archives, she said it was still too painful to read them & remember those times.
Coming to live on Hornby in 1936 was an act of desperation – HB, her husband Harrison, particularly was convinced that fascism would triumph in Europe. And although Heron Rocks is a long way from London – they both maintained their ties with family and friends in Europe and their interest in world politics.
I first met Hilary about 40 years ago – she had enthusiastically joined the Voice of Women in the early 60s – a very active & visible group that was responding to the threat of nuclear war, the struggle for domination between 2 superpowers, the waste of the arms race. Along with her friends and like-minded women, the late Kay Macpherson and Muriel Duckworth (still active at 99 years in Halifax) she again was trying to awaken women to the responsibility of political action for peace – in a time when women had been very firmly put back in the home after WW2. By the 60s that was beginning to change – the house meant the house of Parliament as well as home. Hilary was newsletter editor for VOW – her prose again clear and focussed. She also was involved organizing meetings, a VOW group on Hornby and caring for many travelling speakers and visiting VOW members. It is no wonder she never finished planned books – between all her local activity on Hornby working in cooperation with many different kinds of people and her international work for peace & justice – her connections to China were also important to her.
I remember her presence moderating a meeting for women from Vietnam that VOW brought to Canada. A gracious and welcoming presence – articulate and always knowledgeable and relevant. Indeed whether in her garden or at a meeting, presence was something Hilary had by the bucket.
She never gave up – and never admitted to low periods of doubt. I asked her how she could continue to be that unbreakable thread of consistency holding minority views and being attacked, even on Hornby, as a communist; she replied she was just too pig-headed to quit or admit she was wrong. She was certain she was right – that money and possessions are not important, except as something to share with others to create a better world – the harvest of a good life. Mixing her animal metaphors she later said she was a stubborn and adaptable old goat! That she would never be a contented cow. She stayed the course, all her life, creating the way to peace. Others fell by the wayside or diverged onto other paths but she was a ‘lifer’, committed to a lifetime of weaving a fabric of a full life with the strong threads of her convictions.
She reflected that change historically comes from small places from “small” people – those who were not famous until maybe later – because people worked best in small communities, even in cities, to create change. She said it was easier to make connections in small places – to see needs, dangers and benefits. And that an essential feature of humanity –our relationship with nature -was easier to realize in small places.
Hilary was deeply disturbed by the emerging geopolitics of the 1980s -1990s. She saw, again painfully, she said, many parallels with the pre-WW2 world. With trade agreements, international institutions to oppress the poor, government secrecy, military deals, war in Yugoslavia, Iraq and Afghanistan. She said “I could see fascism slipping in.
She would not give up hope – she had great faith in today’s young people’s ability to find their place and role in the world and said, they did not need any advice from an old goat! She said she believed they could see connections and find their place in a world where every decision is political.
We remember her joy in her garden of Romneya – the lovely sun-centred tree poppy. In recent years Hilary was part of the revival in Canada of the “White Poppy for Peace” campaign (it was started in the UK in 1933, by the Co-op Women’s Guild). A few years ago she decided to call the Romneya, “the Peace Poppy”.
Hilary was a special inspiration for me as an activist, not only because of her strong commitment but because, in a world of snobbery & celebrity, she showed that person with no university degree or profession, no wealth or other claim to fame, living simply in a small place (without internet) could connect around the near & far, affect so many people, and envision a world of peace & justice.
I will always remember her special kindness to me at times of personal crisis – the last being when she stayed with us in Victoria and helped me face my mother’s death in 1998. She was a good friend. Hilary will continue to be a model of persistence and intellectual clarity for me; I have other models as well, including her contemporary my friend, Dorothy Livesay, the great Canadian poet – also a committed activist for peace & justice and a member of Victoria Voice of Women. This poem of Dorothy’s was written on Galiano Island, which Hilary visited often when she was Chair of the Islands Trust – it is for Hilary, Dorothy, Kay and all the mothers of peace who accompanied and supported me on the sometimes lonely path of activism
Last night a full silver
shone in the waters of the bay
one could believe in
an ongoing universe
And today it’s summer
noon heat soaking into
arbutus trees blackberry bushes
Today in the cities
rallies and peace demonstrations exhort
SAVE OUR WORLD SAVE OUR CHILDREN
But save also I say
the towhees under the blackberry bushes
eagles playing a mad caper
in the sky above Bellhouse Bay
This is not paradise
dear adam dear eve
but it is a rung on the ladder
towards a possible
From: The Self-Completing Tree Selected Poems
by Dorothy Livesay. 1986 Press Porcepic, Victoria, BC, CANADA
The World of Hilary Newitt Brown 1909 -2007
By Theresa Wolfwood
“None, and least of all we younger women of the post [WW1} war generation, have the right to despise or belittle the work of early feminists. What may seem in the light of 1937 “tame” demands and a hesitant policy, meant for many of their supporters ostracism and a long and weary, with little personal reward. Until the turn of the [20th] century, to be a feminist was to be a revolutionary in the eyes of established society…
The right to vote, the rights of professional freedom, the adjustment of the marriage laws, a new conception of family rights and responsibilities, above all a changed and enlightened attitude to women on the part of individuals and public bodies- all these were won by the persistence and sacrifices of organized womanhood in various countries, backed up by a few courageous men and by progressive political and social movements.”
From WOMEN MUST CHOOSE, by Hilary Newitt (Brown), 1937.
She was a small child during WW1 Scotland, in a village where her father was a headmaster. She loved meeting the postman and collecting the mail to give to her parents. Then times came when the postman told her he had deliver the mail himself to her mother; each time he said those words, he brought the news that another of her mother’s brother had been killed in battle. Hilary never forgot those sad times. Eighty years later she returned to visit that village to find much of the area around her father’s school was fenced off military ground, overlooking Faslane, the UK navy nuclear base.
Her early experience with the grief and waste of war made her a lifelong committed peace activist. When she saw what had happened at Faslane, it only strengthened her commitment to work for peace.
She was a student in Germany in the 1930’s, but as she saw her professors and fellow students disappear and political repression increased, she returned to Britain without completing her studies. In 1936 while working for political research organizations, she published her first book, Women Must Choose (Victor Gollancz, London UK – sadly difficult and expensive to find a copy now), in which she urged women to select the social system that served their goals and she warned them against the power of fascism. She toured several continents giving public lectures based on this book.
Meanwhile her husband, writer and journalist Harrison Brown, became convinced that the Nazi would win WW2 and he decided they should live somewhere far from Europe. They moved to ocean side acreage on Hornby Island in 1937, at a time when few lived here, people rowed over from Bowser and there was monthly freight boat to bring supplies. They built a home, planted an orchard and garden; in 1956 they established an ecologically planned camp ground which they later sold to a cooperative of frequent campers; it still exists today in the same spirit they initiated.
Her ideas and thoughts at this time are accessible in the recent publication of an exchange of letters between the Browns and their English writer friend, Margaret Storm Jameson in a book published this year by Cambridge Scholars Publishing: Margaret Storm Jameson: Writing in Dialogue, edited by Jennifer Birkett and Chiara Briganti.
While Hilary became active on Hornby Island, helping found many lasting institutions – Coop store, Credit Union, Library, Seniors’ Centre, Elder Housing, she maintained her global activity with peace organizations like the Voice of Women. I remember her organizing a Canadian tour of Vietnamese women in 1969 and being awestruck at her amazing ability to speak at and chair meetings with intelligence, warmth and dignity. She hosted visiting speakers, attended meetings, wrote and organized for VOW for decades.
She also went to China many times, following contacts Harrison had made there, taking groups of women and people with a special interest in cooperatives. But later she defended and helped those who defected from China, including a musician who became a UBC (University of British Columbia) professor. When in her eighties she gave a public lecture on the massive dam project that China has since constructed, she was very critical of its environmental and social effects.
As this part of BC became popular with large scale developers, Hilary initiated a community plan so that Hornby would not suffer from zealous commercial development.
In 1973 the provincial government established “The Islands Trust” to preserve and protect the special ecosystems and societies on the Gulf Islands. Hilary was the first chair of the trust and was completely dedicated to its aims for several years, travelling around all the islands and living in Victoria while in office. In1976 she returned to Hornby and her ailing husband who died in 1977.
She continued her amazing contact with the world from her beautiful perch at Heron Rocks, hosting educational groups, visiting dignitaries and delegations from everywhere. She was always an engaged and generous host.
Although Hilary came from a long lived family, she and Harrison had no children; she became concerned about future of her beautiful property. She and Harrison had agreed it should never be sold. After much consultation with friends, she created a federal charitable organization, The Heron Rocks Friendship Centre (HRFC) in 1989. HRFC owns her property and manages it with careful stewardship. Her home where she died peacefully in September will become the office and a research facility for HRFC. Over the years the Centre has promoted and intensified Hilary’s commitments, organizing research, talks, nature walks, public meetings, sponsoring students in environmental and social activities, working to preserve both Hilary’s global interests as well as the local community and unique ecosystem it is part of.
When Hilary passed the last days of her life surrounded by people who loved her, she was beside a window onto her garden where her Romneya, a large tree poppy with white blooms still flowered. She named it the ‘peace poppy’ in honour of the women who established the ‘white poppy for peace’ with their aim to work for an end to war.
Hilary was a dear friend and model for me for decades; I will miss her wisdom and her critical mind. I will also continue to be inspired by a woman who lived in a remote rural place who managed, on a small income and no internet, without prestigious position or profession, to be an informed and effective social activist. Connected to a vast network of friends and activists, she integrated people and issues with a consistent, clear and eloquent voice for peace and social justice.
She may best be remembered by friends with donations in her name to: The Heron Rocks Friendship Centre Society, Hornby Island, BC, V0R 1Z0.