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Baroness Hollis’ journey from a slum to the House of Lords

PUBLISHED: 16:47 15 October 2018 | UPDATED: 17:19 15 October 2018

Baroness Patricia Hollis in the Council Chamber at City Hall after she was presented with the Freedom of the City award.
Photo: Denise Bradley

Baroness Patricia Hollis in the Council Chamber at City Hall after she was presented with the Freedom of the City award. Photo: Denise Bradley

Archant © 2007

Baroness Hollis was a colossus of Norfolk politics. Political Editor RICHARD PORRITT looks back on a life fighting injustice

Labour supporters get their local election campaign on the move, on board the party's double-decker bus in south London in April 1987. Persuading Londoners to vote Labour are Dr John Cunningham (right), Shadow Environment Minister; Patricia Hollis, leader of Norwich Council and Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn.
Picture: PA Archive/PA ImagesLabour supporters get their local election campaign on the move, on board the party's double-decker bus in south London in April 1987. Persuading Londoners to vote Labour are Dr John Cunningham (right), Shadow Environment Minister; Patricia Hollis, leader of Norwich Council and Jack Straw, MP for Blackburn. Picture: PA Archive/PA Images

Back in the slum cottage where young Pat – as she was affectionately known – grew up in south Devon she was shocked to hear of her father’s dismissal from his job on a nearby farm. He was arguing for a pay rise for his fellow workers.

That sense of injustice burned bright in everything she did from that day on. As the tidal wave of tributes since her death was announced prove, it was for the working man and woman that Baroness Hollis fought hardest.

MORE: ‘Champion of Norwich’ and Labour peer dies aged 77

It became her vocation to give those people unlucky enough to be on the very bottom rung of society a voice. Baroness Hollis was determined everyone should be offered the opportunity to improve their lot.

Baroness Patricia Hollis receiving a Channel 4 Political Award for campaigning politician.Baroness Patricia Hollis receiving a Channel 4 Political Award for campaigning politician.

Her first big opportunity – and perhaps the one with the most lasting impact – came when she was still a girl and her parents moved the family to nearby Plymouth. Here Baroness Hollis discovered the library.

Her eyes were opened and much of her teenage years were spent buried in books. This thirst for learning, coupled with obvious natural ability, opened doors and she was soon studying history at Girton College, Cambridge.

But she was not swept up by the privilege of many of her peers. Instead her working class roots and hatred of inequality became even more entrenched.

After university she spent time in the United States but this was not a gap year travelling tourist hotspots.

Baroness Patricia Hollis speaks in the Council Chamber at City Hall after she was presented with the Freedom of the City award.
Photo: Denise BradleyBaroness Patricia Hollis speaks in the Council Chamber at City Hall after she was presented with the Freedom of the City award. Photo: Denise Bradley

Baroness Hollis arrived amid great civil unrest and embraced the plight of those demanding equal rights for black people.

The brutal repression of black people at that time saw those who were found to be agitating for the vote denied food vouchers. Baroness Hollis refused to stand by and ignore their plight.

The inequality those black people were suffering sparked once more the anger from her childhood and, without any thought for her own safety, she began a campaign to persuade shops and businesses to donate food. It is impossible to know how many people she helped during her time in the US, but what is not in doubt is the difference she made to those families.

It was luck that when she finally came back to England she ended up settling down in Norwich and into a life of academia.

“We applied separately for jobs in Norwich, Canterbury and Southampton and we were offered all of them, so we chose Norwich,” she told this paper in 2008. “I wanted a city with a Labour history, somewhere I could also put down roots and bring up a family. We came to Norwich and fell in love with it.”

She began teaching at the UEA in the late 1960s and started a family. In 1988 she remembered the period as one of hope: “People had a spring in their step. There was a feeling that anything was possible. It was a time for youth.”

That optimism – mixed with her fervent activism – meant when Labour lost overall control of the city council and began looking for new candidates her interest was piqued. She stood in Heigham ward in 1968 and would, 22 years later, become Baroness Hollis of Heigham.

But first she would climb to the top of local politics leading Norwich City Council through the turbulent 1980s. And it was during this period that current Norwich South MP Clive Lewis believes one of her greatest legacies lies.

“In Norwich we were one of the last cities to defy Right to Buy,” he said. “She understood very early on what this would mean for the housing stock of the city.

“People often ask why there are such long waiting lists. Well, it would be a hell of a lot worse if it hadn’t been for the leadership of Patricia Hollis.

“The City Council was taken to court by Michael Heseltine who was pushing through Right to Buy. We knew the housing would be gone for good. Norwich City Council saw that council housing was such an integral part of what the city was about.

“We now have one of the largest stocks for a city of our size in the country as a result. Some people won’t agree with that but a lot of people now in this city in desperate need of decent housing either have it because of Patricia Hollis or would be in a far worse situation if it wasn’t for her.

“Her legacy will continue. She is a huge lose.”

Baroness Hollis leaves two sons – Simon and Matthew – from her marriage to UEA philosophy professor Martin Hollis who died in 1998. She died, aged 77, surrounded by her family.

Of all the tributes her partner Alan Howarth, Lord Howarth of Newport, made the most poignant: “We are hugely proud of Patricia, both as a person and as a politician. Her commitment to serving the interests of the poor and disadvantaged was unwavering and powerfully effective. And she was a great champion of Norwich, the city she led and loved.”

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