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‘An eternity in heaven – that would be hell’ remembering activist Barbara Smoker
Barbara Smoker, from Lewisham, who has died aged 96, was president of the National Secular Society (1972–1996), chairwoman of the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society – now known as Dignity in Dying – (1981–1985) and an honorary vice president of the Gay and Lesbian Humanist Association.
Barbara Smoker was born in London in 1923 into a Roman Catholic family and had a convent education. As a young girl Barbara found herself, in her own words, “torn between the ambitions of becoming a nun or a writer.”
She served in the Women’s Royal Naval Service from 1942 to 1945 in Sri Lanka.
But her experience of war nursed deep doubts about her previously cherished beliefs.
Stationed in Ceylon as a wireless telegraphist, her final act had been to put out the radio message which declared that war with Japan was over. She fought with her commanding officer to get that message out sooner than planned. The experience promoted a hatred of war and an anti-establishment vision in her campaigning.
She returned home soon after the war and was soon kicked out of the house when her mother realised she stopped attending mass.
She said the moment at Lewisham Library she realised that her faith was gone, and that a new world of books and humanist ideas was open to her, was “like an orgasm”.
She began volunteering the National Secular Society and in 1957 was one of the principal organisers for the second World Humanist Congress, in London.
She would enter and win a literary competition every week in order to get by and then “make a bit extra on the horses”.
She took odd jobs, mostly secretarial work – her greatest regret was that she could never make a career as a writer.
Barbara Smoker was active in campaigns such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalisation of abortion and for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
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