Obituary: Jess Rogan, former Labour councillor

Jess Rogan: Former Labour councillor who was a passionate defender of public services
Jess Rogan: Former Labour councillor who was a passionate defender of public services
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Born: 24 November, 1919, in Edinburgh. Died: 1 September 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 95

Jess Rogan was a Labour member of the former Lothian Regional Council during a period in which the local authority became embroiled in a long-running battle with the Conservative government over spending cuts.

Already active in the Labour Party, she was elected regional councillor for the Edinburgh division of Alnwickhill/Kaimes in 1978 and immediately joined committees responsible for education, social work, recreation and leisure.

Following the election of the Thatcher government a year later, the council was faced with unprecedented spending cuts. A defiant Labour administration refused to implement these.

The conflict between Lothian and the then Scottish secretary, George Younger, came to a head in 1981 and attracted national publicity. At one stage, the council was warned by a senior official that it was in danger of “slipping into illegality”.

A strong defender of public services, Jess supported her Labour leadership overall though she was always a free thinker and, if she felt it necessary, was prepared to stand her ground against the majority view of her colleagues.

She stood against them on the recreation and leisure committee when she championed the development of sailing facilities and marina at Port Edgar, and played a leading role in saving the Playhouse Theatre in the capital from threatened closure by setting up the Playhouse Trust.

Some of her comrades were opposed to what they saw as subsidising upper-class activities such as yachting, and going to the opera and ballet. Jess argued successfully that what was good enough for the upper classes was certainly good enough for ordinary working-class people.

Born on the southside of the city, she was one of a family of ten children, only one of her siblings, the youngest, being a boy. She spent her childhood bursting with the kind of curiosity, activity and physical energy that she carried through into the whole of her life.

Poverty forced her to leave school at 14 and start work, first at a local paper and print works and then at a souvenir shop on Princes Street which she loved because she could interact with the public.

When the Second World War started she joined the Women’s’ Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), leaving with the rank of corporal after almost five years’ service. She was a WAAF driver and drove everything from cars, buses and ambulances to two-ton trucks.

A big part of her enjoyment of wartime was being a dancer, singer, and entertainer at camp shows. Like all her sisters she had a good voice, was a great dancer and loved a good party. She carried that through until her 90th birthday, leading a chorus of Stardust with the family.

It wasn’t long after she was demobbed from the WAAF that Jess met Pat. They were married in 1946. Also deeply committed to the ideals of the Labour Party, Pat went on to become a leading councillor in the then Edinburgh Town Council.

Elected the first Labour Party chairman of the city’s housing committee in 1962 he was credited with inspiring a huge programme of slum clearance in the capital.

When the couple divorced in 1973, Jess sold the dress shop she had set up in the city’s Prestonfield area and went to work for the classified advertising department of The Scotsman Publications.

Never content only to do one job, when she could do two, she soon became Mother of the Chapel for her trade union and organised the women she worked with into a formidable unit, often taking on the somewhat entrenched views of the men working in the print room.

Her interest in politics and involvement in the Labour Party, which she had joined in 1947, led to her decision to stand for Lothian Regional Council. She served between 1978 and 1982 when the Conservatives became a minority administration.

When Jess finally retired, she turned her hand to writing poetry and short stories, to drawing and painting, and to travelling to the US and Australia to visit daughter Pauline and son Brendan. She also took up golf, continuing to play until she was 85.

Towards the end of her life, and before she was struck down by the cruelty of Alzheimer’s, Jess used to say to her family how little she had done with her life, and how, if only she had had an education, she could have made something of herself. She was certainly wrong on the first part of that, but probably right on the second.

A fitting example of one of her many achievements and of her desire to help local people seems well illustrated in a tribute posted on The Scotsman obituaries website.

It recalls that Jess, along with Phyllis Herriot, another energetic councillor and tireless campaigner, fought successfully to enable local people in the Prestonfield area to have a community centre.

This led to the development of Prestonfield Neighbourhood Project, which continues to provide services for people in the area and the surrounding communities. “Jess’s legacy lives on…she will not be forgotten,” the tribute states.