Peace and human rights campaigner, poet and much loved woman

Jenny Engledow is a Peace Campaigner and Secretary of the Brighton, Hove and District Branch of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom and a member of the UK executive. She spent a considerable time at the Greenham Common Womens Peace Camp where she met Hazel, and also at the Aldermaston Womens Peace Camp in the 1980s, 90s and early 2000s. In recent years, she has turned her attention to working locally with WILPF on the same issues. Jenny is a banner maker, working on political banners which included working with, www.remakingpicassosguernica.

Eighty-eight years ago Hazel Rennie was born in West Yorkshire into a mill working family. She was the last child, had four older sisters and a brother, and spent her young years surrounded mostly by adult relatives, who shared their little house with Hazel’s family. When she was fourteen she left school and worked in a munitions factory, and I recall her talking about the experience of working underground and feeling like a mole.

Hazel was a secret poet from a young age and loved to walk on the moors in all weathers writing poetry in her head, sometimes instead of attending school. Her skills with words grew and as she learned of the injustices of the world, her poetry took on a fire and passion that made use of her analytical mind and her humour, which she used to convey the stupidity of war, inequality and injustice.

Hazel joined the Women’s Royal Air Force and met Jock, whom she married, and together they had four children, Katie, John, Ruth and Robbie. They travelled to many countries such as Sri Lanka, Cyprus, Singapore and Bahrain due to Jock’s RAF postings. Hazel found herself in the company of women of different cultures and religions. This was an extraordinary opportunity and experience for this energetic and passionate woman from a Yorkshire village. She and Jock liked to read the newspapers together and he cared for and looked after Hazel throughout the last year of her declining health, particularly the final few months, when she was unable to do many of the things she wanted to but he managed to keep her spirits buoyant.

Whilst Hazel worked in Hove Hospital in the 1940’s she wrote and performed plays with her friend Katie Brodbin. They enjoyed the opportunity to use comedy to convey her message, as the plays poked fun at the hierarchy within the hospital, the National Health and the government and included songs they wrote together. These were much appreciated by the staff who watched them, which was mostly at Christmas time I believe.

Hazel was always motivated to act against injustice, with passion and determination to put right the wrongs she saw everywhere. Her first experience of going to Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp, where nuclear weapons were stored in readiness to use against the USSR, was one Christmas when she looked around her at the glitter and sparkle and temptations to overindulge in the shops and decided that it would be more important for her and better use of her time to go and join the women protesting against the insanity of nuclear weapons. And that’s where she stayed on and off for years, meeting all the women who arrived to protest, some for the day and some to stay, all motivated by the lunacy that took place inside the base.

She had many friends at the camp and was often to be found welcoming all who came, making them feel needed, introducing them to how things worked there [food, toilets/pit, answering mail from well-wishers, keeping a watchful eye on what was happening in the base and much more] helping them overcome shyness and enabling them to feel comfortable. We all learnt about ourselves and our capabilities at camp. Just as with any new job or shared experience it was a testing and re-establishing of ourselves. Hazel facilitated this with her enthusiasm, curiosity and interest about the women’s lives, encouraging and enjoying discussion on all topical issues and delighting in their shared motivations. This was a space where women faced their fears and found out about their competences and strengths. But alongside this there was the over-reaction of the police and the whole force of the militaries UK and the US militaries with their hostility and anger at our presence there. Because of her positive enthusiasm when she was at Greenham and later Aldermaston Peace Camp, she created a warmth and feeling of belonging for many women that brought them back again and again. Hazel would be bouncing with rage at wrong-doing and this would often prompt her to write a poems, many of which have been published in booklets over the years.

There were several gates around the base and therefore several camps to keep a watch on who and what went in and out in order to follow and make sense of proceedings as much as possible. At one time she and a friend were badly beaten up by two men whilst at a remote camp away from the road and out of sight and she was hospitalised for a while suffering some broken bones. This didn’t put her off going, even though she must have been very frightened at the time. That particular gate/camp had to close for no one could feel safe there.

There were lots of fun times too, dressing up in old clothes that had been left in the van where we stored our essentials and acting out some scenario inside the base. There were also serious breaks into the base of course, and Hazel took part in all types of actions, or she kept the fire burning and kettle on and maintained a presence, as was needed when women were involved in some activity inside the Greenham base. Sometimes in the winter months Hazel would need to wear seven or eight layers of clothing to keep warm. and she was often to be found layered up sitting close to the bonfire, cup of coffee in one hand and cigarette in the other, listening, laughing and storytelling with friends around her.

Hazel also served time in prison for her beliefs on four occasions, a time that she found to be very interesting as she knew that most of the women in prison were serving time for crimes relating to poverty. It was clear to her that many of those women would not have been jailed for their crimes if they had been men, as they were sentenced for trivial misdemeanours. For some time after this period of her life Hazel devoted time to fighting the cause of women in prisone who would rarely see their children and who suffered great anxiety, depression and distress. Many of these women had been abused as children and some were still in abusive relationships. Often women would lose their home and children whilst they served their time in prison, because if the children’s father, or other relative or friend were unable or unwilling to look after them, they would be taken into care. If the rent on the home was unpaid the landlord would end the tenancy, so on release the woman would find it hard to rent another property and therefore could not get her children back, at least until she could provide a home. These appalling circumstances rarely apply to imprisoned men, as usually there is a woman in the home to look after the children.

Hazel belonged to the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, a campaigning organisation working for equality for all, justice, peace and an end to militarism and nuclear weapons. WILPF analyses political events and strategies nationally and internationally from a female perspective. WILPF began during the first World War and currently has sections in some 35 countries. Hazel introduced several of us at Greenham and Aldermaston to WILPF, and several of us remain members to this day. She went on the ‘WILPF Great Peace Journey’ in 1983, which went to Sweden amongst other countries, where she spoke with animation and passion to large audiences, taking courage to overcome her feelings of reticence to public speaking. The trip made a deep impression on her, meeting many people seeking the same humane and just world without fear, war or poverty. In 1987 Hazel was UK president of WILPF and she remained a member to the end of her life, writing letters to Prime Ministers and Presidents on the shocking treatment of fellow human beings in Guantanimo, writing about injustice, exploitation, poverty, warfare, the selling of arms and many other issues.

Worthing branch of WILPF created an exhibition showing our Government’s lack of commitment to equality in women’s lives, as had been promised at a world conference 10 years earlier, to be followed-up in Beijing. We took the exhibition to several universities talking about injustice, peace, women’s rights, equality for all and of course WILPF. We had a good but tiring week, and although not many women joined, at least they had now heard about WILPF. As Hazel said, she always wanted to extend WILPF’s membership and expand its influence.

There were other areas of peace and justice work that Hazel got involved in at her home in Worthing. She helped out at a centre for mothers experiencing difficulties, making tea and listening and chatting to the mums, and each Christmas she put together boxes of little gifts for the families. She was very active in the local Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and was often down in the town on demonstrations or with her table handing out leaflets and trying to get people to sign petitions. She was in the Labour Party and worked specifically with the women members on different issues, particularly trying to get the local party to help stop Tony Blair’s wars. She wrote a humorous play entitled ‘Putting Tony Blair on Trial’ which was performed at the Friend’s Meeting House in Worthing in 2003 in which she acted as the judge.

Her ability to tell a story was captivating, which is why her personal history stories have stuck with her friends almost as well as knowing their own histories.

Hazel joined a poetry club and after initial shyness she overcame her feelings that her poetry was just a ‘ditty’ and gained confidence. She had often recited her poems to friends and possibly family too but performing to strangers was a different matter. She was very excited when she went to a week of poetry study with workshops and lots of poetry writing. She worked very hard and felt she had gained a lot from attending and being surrounded by others working on their poems.

She was indeed a dangerous woman, seeking peace, and challenging the war-mongers with her actions, poems and words.