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A life purposefully lived

DAVID HORSLEY recalls the dedication and activism of dedicated communist militant Win Langton

IN 1983, Dang Nghien Bai, the ambassador of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, stayed for several days at a council house in Ulverston, Cumbria.

His host was a life long black communist Win Langton, secretary of South Cumbrian Medical Aid for Vietnam who had raised money over many years for that cause.

Recognition for her work had resulted in her being invited to Vietnam in 1980 for the opening of a British hospital there and led to the visit of the ambassador in gratitude for the work of Win Langton and her colleagues in Ulverston.

Her dedication to help the people of Vietnam was only one of many causes she espoused but it epitomised the spirit of internationalism that came from her parents and her upbringing.

Her mother Adelaide Knight despite being  seriously disabled was a militant suffragette as well as being a foundation member of the Communist Party of Great Britain.

Donald Brown, her father, the child of a freed slave in British Guiana (now Guyana) was an active trade unionist in Woolwich, south London, who unusually for that period took his wife's surname and cared lovingly for her, enabling her to write and encourage activists; and was a most loving father.

Born on May 20 1909,  Winifred, always known as Win, grew up in this caring, politically active working-class family who embraced socialist ideals and the feeling of internationalism.  

In the early 1920s, she enthusiastically sold the communist papers, The Communist and then the Weekly Worker and helped out at meetings. Once on a poster parade the police tried to arrest her for taking part. A furious Adelaide in a wheelchair forced her release.

In 1925, she marched with many workers to Wandsworth Prison to protest at the imprisonment of the communist leaders held there. During the general strike, she delivered messages on her bicycle for strike committees and the Communist Party.

Young Win had gained a scholarship to a grammar school but encountered discrimination and snobbish behaviour from both girls and staff. The last straw came when she was reprimanded for being friendly with the cleaners at the school, so she left to do a variety of jobs.

As a member of the Young Communist League, she was always active and met her first husband, also a YCLer. Although the marriage did not last, she became a mother and pushed the baby in her pram to support hunger marchers arriving in London, often helping with food and bathing the men’s blistered feet.

In 1936, Win Langton was at Cable Street opposing the fascist Oswald Mosley and his Blackshirts and when the Spanish Civil War began, she was heavily involved with the Aid to Spain movement

WWII saw her becoming a motor mechanic as well as caring for her parents. She gained a grade A in nursing after the war and married Harry, a hospital porter.

Their house was always open to anyone with difficulties including an unemployed miner and a particular friend of Harry who stayed with them long-term.

With her nursing knowledge she helped deliver babies and for five years fostered the baby of Lorna a Jamaican woman. On Easter 1959, she took part in the Aldermaston march with her daughter and became active in CND .

This became a lifelong activity with Win Langton organising an annual vigil in Ulverston, where she had moved, on the anniversary of the destruction of Hiroshima which attracted great support in the area.

She demonstrated at Sellafield against the nuclear industry and was at Greenham Common where she celebrated her 79th birthday.

At the same time, she joined in the  fight against apartheid in South Africa, and once, observing a territorial army parade in the town,  marched in front carrying her Boycott South African Goods banner. 

Always an activist , she supported socialist Cuba and was a tireless defender of pensioners rights. During the 1970s and 1980s, she visited the Soviet Union and the German Democratic Republic.

In Australia, she met family members and learned of the struggle of the indigenous people against oppression and for their rights.

A journey to the US resulted in her meeting after many years Lorna, the Jamaican woman whose child she had fostered after WWII. On her 90th birthday, over 100 people from all over the world, including Lorna from the US, celebrated that occasion with her in Ulverston.

There were representatives from the peace movement, Medical Aid for Vietnam, Anti Apartheid, the Co-op, the pensioners’ movement and the Communist Party.

For decades, wherever she lived in Britain, she regularly sold first the Daily Worker and then the Morning Star.

When she died on March 7 2003, the local newspaper wrote “She fought for almost every cause under the sun.” Win Langton’s life was almost a history of the Communist Party from its formation , one that she served so selflessly.

Her biographer, Bernard Barry, summed up Win’s life. “Not a leader but as a grassroots worker, never courting the limelight for the causes she brought to life with her ceaseless campaigning. With her deep and selfless love of humanity she inspired and smilingly radiated warmth, love and compassion, her dedication to building a more just humane world was, thanks to her parents’ inspiration, the only way she knew how to live. She was a fully rounded human being.”

The information here comes from Bernard Barry’s biographical essay on the amazing online communist biographies of the late Graham Stevenson.



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