South London Memories: ‘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

She was active in campaigns such as the abolition of the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, legalisation of abortion and for the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.

She claimed to have financed the manufacture of the first Make Love, Not War badges that were popular in Britain during the 1960s.

She was a founder member of the South East London Humanist Group at Catford in 1960. She was its chairwoman from 1973 to 2003.

She also officiated at non-religious funerals, wedding ceremonies, gay and lesbian commitments, and baby-namings, and trained other secular humanists to do so.

In 1984, she undertook a five weeks’ speaking tour of the United states, and in 1990 a similar tour of India; and, in 1998 visited India again to inaugurate a mass atheist rally.

When asked about Jesus’s second coming she said: “What Second Coming? Didn’t he do enough damage the first time?”

Ms Smoker wrote at the time of the death of Pope John Paul II to Lewisham Mayor Steve Bullock, who had said people of all faiths and none felt a void in their lives at the time.

She said Pope John Paul had offended many through his views on contraception, condom use, women, and gay rights.

She said: “If he had applied for a post at Lewisham council, and indicated these views, it is doubtful if he would have been accepted.”

Sir Steve said it was one of the most unpleasant letters he had ever received.

Her books include Humanism, probably her most influential contribution to the movement, first published in 1973 and still in print today.

She also published a book of satirical verse, Good God! (1977); and a collection of her articles, Freethoughts (2002). She also wrote on euthanasia and scripted a playlet, Atheism on a Soap-Box (1985).

In 1977, she joined the campaign to defend Gay News when it was sued for blasphemy by Mary Whitehouse.

Her pamphlet Eggs Are Not People was distributed to all MPs in 1985 to dissuade them from voting for a ban on embryo research; and in 1986 a letter she wrote of the dangers of segregating children in religious schools. The letter was endorsed by 22 distinguished signatories.

On May 27, 1989, standing with a homemade banner proclaiming “Free Speech” beside the route of a Muslim march demanding the death of author Salman Rushdie, she was assaulted by a surge of demonstrators.

She featured in the BBC1 TV documentary Living With the Enemy in 1999, spending a week with a group of fundamentalist Christians.

She threatened the BBC with legal action over the continued discrimination against humanists on Thought for the Day in 2002; her local humanist group in South-east London continues be very active campaigning on that issue.

The International Humanist and Ethical Union honoured her in the Sorbonne in July 2005 with a lifetime achievement award for Distinguished Services to Humanism.

Her autobiography, My Godforsaken Life was published in 2018.

Denis Cobell, of Ravensbourne Park, honorary secretary of the Lewisham Humanist Group from 1974-2014, said: “I knew Barbara very well, for 50 years. She was born and lived in Lewisham borough all her life apart from some wartime service as a Wren.

“She was often very outspoken. The South East London Humanist Group sought, successfully, to get a large wall mounted cross replaced with a small brass cross which could be easily removed, for humanist or non-Christian funerals at Hither Green Crematorium in the 1980s.”

Humanists UK chief executive and president of Humanists International Andrew Copson said: “Barbara was a fearless campaigner whose life story should inspire us all today.

“She led a long and exuberant life of activism, and was never afraid to ruffle feathers as she worked for what she saw as positive changes in our society. To the very end, she was someone who kept me on my toes and could be counted on to give frank and honest advice, and I will miss her letters and emails and regular questions.

“We at Humanists UK like many others will be telling stories about her life and the remarkable things she did for years to come. She was one of a generation of iconoclastic and progressive activists that will never be forgotten.”

She had survived a bout of scarlet fever; amoebic dysentery – the treatment involved doses of arsenic – accidentally burning her own house to the ground; and being run over by a car on at least two occasions.

But she died after a battle with cancer in Lewisham Hospital on April 7, 2020.

She said: “Death doesn’t worry me and I’ve always thought about it. If I get no worse than I am now then I am happy to go on living.

“If I follow the same pattern [as my mother] then I shan’t. It’s fear of death which is the main reason for becoming religious.

“They want an afterlife! It would be terrible – an eternity in heaven – that would be hell.”


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