Remembering a Sunderland trade unionist who dedicated her life to helping others

SPEAKER: Harriet pictured speaking at an engineering workers' conference in Eastbourne in 1970.
SPEAKER: Harriet pictured speaking at an engineering workers' conference in Eastbourne in 1970.
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Today we remember a Wearside woman who dedicated her life to helping others. Sarah Stoner reports.

TRIBUTES were today paid following the death of a Wearside trade unionist who defied disability to fight for women’s equality rights for more than half-a-century.

PLESSEY MARCH: One of the marches Harriet organised in the 1970s in protest at redundancies at Plessey.

PLESSEY MARCH: One of the marches Harriet organised in the 1970s in protest at redundancies at Plessey.

Harriet Vyse, better known as Harriet Hopper, was on first name terms with Prime Ministers and trade union barons in her heyday - winning the Woman of the Year award in 1973.

She was even the first woman on the national executive of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering and Foundry Workers (AEF) - despite suffering life-long pain from curvature of the spine.

In later years Harriet raised money for cancer charities too, after treatment for breast cancer. She died on March 7 - just short of her 85th birthday. Her funeral will be held on March 16.

“She was strapped to a hospital bed for years as a child, in an attempt to correct curvature of the spine,” said Carol Roberton, a former Echo journalist and a long-time friend of Harriet.

PLESSEY SIEGE: Protests outside the Southwick factory of Plessey Telecommunications, where Harriet led a women's sit-in in 1977.

PLESSEY SIEGE: Protests outside the Southwick factory of Plessey Telecommunications, where Harriet led a women's sit-in in 1977.

“But, once she learnt to walk again, there was no stopping her - and for the rest of her life she ignored her disability and pain and revelled in challenges.”

Harriet was born in Wear Street, in Sunderland’s East End, on March 26, 1930 - the ninth of 13 children born to labourer John Hopper and his wife Minnie.

Times were tough and jobs were hard to find during the Great Depression, especially for John - who had lost his left arm in an accident at work in a ropery at the age of only 14.

The family struggled along, however, with John picking up light labouring jobs when he could get them. But in 1932, when Harriet was just 18 months old, tragedy struck.

TODDLER: Harriet dressed up for her picture.

TODDLER: Harriet dressed up for her picture.

A tumble down the stairs left the toddler with an injured back, and initially she was treated for rickets. Then came the devastating diagnosis of tuberculosis of the spine.

Admittance to Grindon Hall Hospital swiftly followed, where she wore surgical corsets and was strapped to a bed by doctors for seven years - in the hope it would straighten the curvature in her spine.

She said later: “I hated hospital. That’s why I like to be on the go all the time. The day war broke out I was in seventh heaven as we were sent home. I’ve hated inactivity ever since.”

First, at the age of nine, she had to learn to walk again. Her sister Lily Barber – who was later treated at Grindon Hall for TB as well - watched her fall over repeatedly, but never give up. Then came the great day she learnt how to skip - followed by the chance to go to school. After completing her education at Havelock, Harriet found her first job at Hills bookshop.

EARLY DAYS: Harriet with her parents Minnie and John Hopper.

EARLY DAYS: Harriet with her parents Minnie and John Hopper.

A rare legacy of £10 was spent on night classes in typing and shorthand at this point and, when she discovered factories paid more money than shops, Harriet moved to radio valve firm Cosmos.

The 4ft 6ins power-house went on to sign up as a member of the AEF’s Women Conference in 1956; remaining a union member as it changed names over the decades. Her coffin is to be draped in the union flag.

“I joined the union because women had to put their hands up, like schoolchildren, when they wanted to go to the toilet,” Harriet later recalled. She quickly became a shop steward.

When Cosmos finally closed, Harriet went on to work at Southwick-based Ericssons - later Plessey Telecommunications. It was there, during the 1970s, that she became a household name.

“As convenor for the whole factory – with a workforce of more than 2,000 - she organised a series of protests against redundancies,” said Carol.

Such was her passion for union work that, in 1973, Harriet was named as Woman of the Year and awarded a ‘distinguished achievement’ certificate by the World Who’s Who of Women at an International Women’s Day lunch in London.

FAMILY GROUP: Harriet was the ninth of 13 children. She is pictured centre with her younger siblings, Pat, Ernie, Tommy and Lily.

FAMILY GROUP: Harriet was the ninth of 13 children. She is pictured centre with her younger siblings, Pat, Ernie, Tommy and Lily.

But, although Women’s Lib was hitting the headlines - and pictures of bra-burning ceremonies featured prominently in the tabloids - a determined Harriet would have “none of it”.

“I don’t understand what they’re doing, though I’m in favour of anyone who wants to further the cause of women,” she said at the time.

“But my way of changing things is through the workplace. Using women as cheap labour is no good for men either. We have to make conditions fair for all workers.”

Harriet continued her union activities throughout the 1970s, joining forces with other staff to put up a brave fight against closure plans later that decade - and even organising a sit-in.

“I was sent to report on the protest and was directed round the back of the factory, where Harriet was on the other side of the fence,” said Carol.

“I was very dubious about trying to climb over the fence, but Harriet brooked no argument. Inside, the women taking part on the sit-in had everything AND the kitchen sink.

“At that time, you couldn’t get on a bus without hearing someone talking about ‘that great little woman at Plessey’. But, despite enlisting the help of MPs, the protest was to no avail.”

The factory finally closed in 1977 and, unable to get another job, Harriet worked in a charity shop - where she met Bob Vyse, a former Army dispatch rider, who was also unemployed.

They married in 1980, after a whirlwind courtship, and lived happily until Bob’s death from motor neurone disease.

“Later that decade, when Pallion residents took over a disused tailoring factory, Harriet was in there with them, running a disabled workers’ co-op delivering secretarial and office services,” said Carol.

“In her seventies she entered a women’s driving challenge and drove both a fire engine and an articulated lorry. As she was only 4ft 6ins, she had to be helped up into the cab.

“Also in her seventies, after having treatment for breast cancer, she raised money for cancer charities. She continued with her Labour Party and trade union activities until the end as well.”

•Harriet spent the last year of her life in Ashton Grange Care Home, Pallion. Her funeral will take place on Monday, March 16 at 10.15 am in St Luke’s Church, Pallion. All welcome.

Fearless, kind and supportive

•Julie Elliott, MP for Sunderland Central, said: “When I first encountered Harriet at meetings more than 20 years ago, I thought she was quite a formidable lady, for she was never afraid to speak her mind.

“When I got to know her better, I discovered what a kind and supportive person she was and she certainly encouraged me as she did so many other women over the years.

“She will be a huge miss to me and to all her friends in the Labour Party in Sunderland. She never wavered from her principles. We still benefit today from the rights Harriet campaigned for half a century ago.”

•Dave Allan, chairman of Harriet’s union branch – which she still attended – said: “Our members are looking for a way in which we can commemorate Harriet’s life and tremendous contribution to trade unionism.”

•Len McCluskey, General Secretary of the union Unite, said: “I am extremely sad to hear of the passing of Harriet. After giving nearly 60 years of tireless active service to the members of Unite and its predecessor unions, she deserves the thanks and memories of us all.

“Harriet joined the AEF on 25th May 1956, became a shop steward at Cosmos and later convenor at the Sunderland Plessey factory and remained a regular attender of branch meetings until her death. She was the first woman ever to be elected to the Union’s National Committee.

“I personally thanked Harriet, in Durham last year, for handing over to myself and other trade unionists, workplaces where ordinary people could work with dignity.”

CONFERENCE SPEAKER: Harriet in 1973, watched by General Secretary Hugh Scanlon on the right, speaking at the national conference of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

CONFERENCE SPEAKER: Harriet in 1973, watched by General Secretary Hugh Scanlon on the right, speaking at the national conference of the Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers.

HAPPY DAY: Harriet pictured with her husband Bob Vyse in Mowbray Park after their wedding in 1980.

HAPPY DAY: Harriet pictured with her husband Bob Vyse in Mowbray Park after their wedding in 1980.

RECOGNITION: Harriet being presented with a Labour long-service award by Julie Elliott MP last year - her last picture.

RECOGNITION: Harriet being presented with a Labour long-service award by Julie Elliott MP last year - her last picture.

FIRE CHALLENGE: Harriet grabbed the chance to achieve her ambition to drive a fire engine ' in her seventies, at a driving challenge event.

FIRE CHALLENGE: Harriet grabbed the chance to achieve her ambition to drive a fire engine ' in her seventies, at a driving challenge event.