Aileen Hammond, rebel without a faction who did what felt right to save our libraries
'She was fun to be with, and never boring, with all sorts of insights into life'
Thursday, 25th February 2021 — By Judith Gubbay John Saynor and Phil Turner
Aileen Hammond was a councillor in Belsize
AILEEN Hammond, who has died aged 82, was a force of nature, a passionate believer in social justice who was never afraid to speak out or take practical action.
A feisty former Belsize ward councillor, Aileen worked tirelessly for the Labour Party, of which she was a lifelong member, and for the Co-operative Party, as well as energetically involving herself with other local organisations, including the Camden Civic Society, the Safer Neighbourhoods Panel and the Belsize Society.
“Aileen was not an ambitious person,” said John Saynor, a friend and comrade.
“She was not aligned with one faction or another, but was just someone who wanted to make her area a better and fairer place, making use of her skills as a transport economist.”
To this end, she decided to stand for Labour in Belsize in the 1988 Camden Council elections. Belsize was then a strong Conservative area, but Aileen succeeded in winning a seat for Labour with a majority of only six votes.
She was the most energetic campaigner at election time, pounding the streets night after night to canvass residents, with whom she was popular.
With typical generosity, she frequently offered her flat for election campaigning for many years even when she wasn’t a candidate.
Aileen always did what she thought was right, and never shied away from telling the truth, even where it was inconvenient.
She found herself in controversy when the council proposed to close two small libraries, including the much-loved Belsize Library.
She joined forces with other “library rebels” and voted against the proposed closures. This meant defying the party whip, but she survived to continue fighting for her constituents.
“Aileen and the rebels were right and I was wrong” said Phil Turner, a member of the council’s leadership at the time. Both libraries survived.
Her exceptional integrity was exemplified when the next election came round in 2002, and she declined suggestions to leave Belsize and stand in a safer seat elsewhere.
The ward boundaries had changed, making it harder for Labour to win, and she did indeed lose, but her personal vote was evident in the results. Camden Council had lost a really superb councillor.
In recent years, her belief in the vital importance of education led Aileen to initiate and run for 10 years an imaginative and very successful Children’s Competition on behalf of the Camden Civic Society, in which local primary schools competed with ideas for improving the local environment.
At the Safer Neighbourhoods Board she spoke against some of the more arbitrary aspects of policing in the borough and was an advocate of fairness in the application of the Stop and Search policies.
Aileen was an active and effective member of Camden Co-operative Party for many years and it is a measure of the high regard with which she was held that, only two days before her death, she was re-elected as chair in her absence because of her illness, a post she had held since 2015.
She was an exemplary chair, intent on giving everybody a fair hearing and yet moving the agenda on to a clear decision if that was what was required.
The values and principles of the Co-op Party – based on the need to support co-operation locally, nationally and worldwide as an alternative to competition as a driving force of society – were central to Aileen’s beliefs, and her awareness of the threat posed by global warming and environmental degradation ran throughout her politics.
At bottom she wanted to make people’s lives better, particularly the dispossessed, the poor and the oppressed – and even more particularly children. She will be irreplaceable to the party but we will go on, remembering her leadership, her kindliness and her humanity. Hers was without any doubt “a life well lived”.
Proud of her south London working-class roots (her father, a Second World War Burma veteran, had been a bus conductor in Catford and worked for London Transport for 43 years), Aileen transplanted herself to Belsize Park after gaining her degree in economics and philosophy from Bristol University.
Her career as an economist took her around Britain and further afield, to Luxembourg, Nigeria and Indonesia.
She made lasting friendships wherever she went. Aileen’s pleasures were many, from tramping over Hampstead Heath to evenings at the Proms followed by good food and lively talk.
She loved to entertain, often hosting local groups in her energetically dug and planted garden.
One friend recalls accompanying her on numerous outings, to the theatre, the opera and to lectures at the Royal Institution and similar societies, together illustrating the breadth of her cultural and intellectual interests.
“Aileen was fun to be with, and never boring, with all sorts of insights into life,” said fellow Bristol student Vivien Benjamin.
Aileen died peacefully on February 19 in University College Hospital from the cancer and complications that she first faced 25 years ago, which had returned and spread in the past three years.
She will be missed by untold colleagues, friends and fellow campaigners for a better-run world, both in Camden and farther afield. “She faced her illness with bravery and spirit under the difficult present conditions, and I will miss her greatly”, wrote friend and fellow economist Jeremy Berkoff.
She is survived by two cousins, David Harrison and Gill Ereira, neither of whom live in London.
“I hadn’t spent much time with her since childhood, but when I did, I could see how intelligent she was,’ said David. “She had a forceful personality, but could engage anyone in conversation and find subjects in common with them.”