Obituary: Phyllis Herriot MBE, councillor and campaigner

Phyllis Herriot, tireless councillor, community campaigner and enemy of inequality everywhere. Picture: Contributed

Phyllis Herriot, tireless councillor, community campaigner and enemy of inequality everywhere. Picture: Contributed

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Born: 5 april, 1926, in Edinburgh. Died: 13 May, 2015, in Edinburgh, aged 89

Phyllis herriot first railed against what she saw as injustice when she was still in school uniform. The issue that infuriated her was the 11-plus exam and the subsequent segrega-tion of those who did well, or otherwise.

A few years later her hopes of going to university were thwarted by her father, who believed that education was wasted on women, another view that exasperated her.

Then, having left school at 15 and proven herself a most able and competent worker, she was livid when her chance of promotion was scuppered – because she was “a woman”.

By then a union representative, she fought the case, eventually forcing her employer to demonstrate that women were being promoted. it was not too long before she took public duty a step further, be-coming a councillor and indefatigable campaigner.

But she maintained that the way she felt about life had been firmly shaped by what had so enraged her as a schoolgirl, a powerful emo-tion that she harnessed so productively to enhance the lives of countless others down the ensuing decades.

Born prematurely in 1926, into what she described as a slum property in Edinburgh’s East Thomas street, then known as Chinatown, her father, James Taylor, was a labourer who had been invalided out of the army during the Great War. her mother Mary, who had attended Suffragette meetings as a young woman, cleaned a baker’s shop and campaigned for a national health service.

Young Phyllis, the youngest of their family of five, was educated at Leith Walk school before sitting her 11-plus and becoming one of only three out of her class to go to the city’s Broughton High School on a bursary. The rest went to a junior secondary modern and that infuriated her – she strongly disagreed with the notion of singling out and labelling children at that age and would fight endlessly for a good comprehensive education.

While she had once expected to go to university, she left school at 15 after her father made his views very clear: girls were not expected to work after marriage so education was a bit of a waste.

But the advent of the Second World War changed that, when women did the jobs of men, and her father spent the rest of his life apologising to her. Phyllis, who initially worked in W & AK Johnston printers in Easter Road, had moved to a manufacturing chemist, JF MacFarlan, by the time war broke out and, though she wanted to serve her country, her work was deemed a reserved profession, essential to the war effort.

Phyllis did, however, do her duty, as a firewatcher but her diary recorded an otherwise fairly mundane routine of knitting, ironing and visits to the cinema – apart from Vic-tory in Japan Day – “what a hulaballoo” – and the following day when she witnessed “great rejoicing in Princes street”.

She met her husband, Archie, during the war and they married in 1949. A few years later she joined the Gas Board, working in their show-rooms for the next 30 years. in tandem with her day job she served, during the 1950s

and 1960s as a member of Ed-inburgh Royal infirmary and Associated hospitals Board of Management.

In the mid-1960s, Phyllis was elected as an Edinburgh City councillor, representing Craigentinny, Lochend, Willowbrae and Northfield. She worked firstly for the town, and then the regional, council, from 1967 to 1982. she was the social work committee convener for a decade, sat on the education and transport com-mittees and was the labour group leader on lothian Re-gional Council for three years.

A staunch socialist, her time on the council spanned some of the Thatcherite years and the local authority went head to head with the Gov-ernment in opposing Thatch-er’s policy on public expendi-ture.

Phyllis – as determined and single-minded as the Prime Minister herself– was in the thick of it.

Former Lord Provost and convener of Lothian Region Eric Milligan said: “you could never ignore Phyllis, she was larger than life, always had a lot to say and was bubbly and warm. Her personality was such that everyone got to know who Phyllis herriot was.”

She retired from the council in 1982, the year after her husband died aged just 59, and was particularly proud of her achievements in im-proving conditions in schools and helping to bring in the concessionary bus pass for older people. Four years later she left the Gas Board but, far from taking it easy, she began working for the community. She had been a baillie and magistrate for Edinburgh Town Council and contin-ued as a Justice of the Peace until 2008. She also chaired Lothian health Council, the Edinburgh committee of the Scottish Association for the Care and Resettlement of Offenders, Lochend Neighbourhood Centre, the Moira Park Sheltered Housing Tenants’ Association and, for more

than 20 years, Craigentinny Community Centre.

In addition, Phyllis served on several Scottish Parliament committees representing vul-nerable members of society, was a director of Edinburgh’s Council for Voluntary Service, a member of Capability Scotland, Lothian Children’s Hearings Committee and an executive committee member of the Scottish Pensioners’ Forum and Edinburgh Council’s Older People’s Equality Forum.

Treasurer of East Edinburgh Crime Prevention Panel, a keen Hibs supporter and member of the save Meadowbank Committee – a group that campaigned to prevent the stadium being sold off to a housing developer – she was made an MBE in 2009 for her services to the community. Phyllis was also honoured with the Lothian Award as Edinburgh’s Citizen of the year.

Latterly, she became disillusioned with Labour under Tony Blair’s leadership and quit the party over its stance on the Iraq war, backing the SNP’s Kenny MacAskill in the 2011 Holyrood elections instead.

To mark the Millennium, Phyllis was one of the people featured in Colin Bell’s BBC series and book, Scotland’s Century: An Autobiography of the Nation, in which she looked back over her life and concluded that the biggest changes she had seen were in housing, equal wages and op-portunities for women and the NHS – all issues that had been close to her heart all her life.

She and Archie had no children but she is survived by five nieces and nephews and her extended family, to whom she was a much loved great, great, great aunt.

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