Harry Leslie Smith: Activist and World War Two veteran who grew up in Calderdale dies at 95

Harry Leslie Smith speaks as junior doctors and medical students protest against the proposed changes to their contracts during a rally in Victoria Gardens, Leeds.Picture: Anna Gowthorpe
Harry Leslie Smith speaks as junior doctors and medical students protest against the proposed changes to their contracts during a rally in Victoria Gardens, Leeds.Picture: Anna Gowthorpe

Second World War pilot and political activist Harry Leslie Smith who grew up in Calderdale has died at the age of 95.

The death of Mr Smith was announced on Twitter just before 9am.

The message read: “At 3:39 this morning, my dad Harry Leslie Smith died. I am an orphan. #istandwithharry”

Mr Smith, who was born in Barnsley, South Yorkshire, in 1923, is believed to have fallen ill while visiting Canada last week.

Mr Smith moved to Boothtown in 1937 and spent his teenage years in Halifax. Calderdale Councillors are now calling for a blue plaque to be placed where he lived.

His son, John, had said his father was “not in a good way” and had been rushed to A&E.

He had reportedly struggled with health complications in the months leading up to being admitted to hospital.

Left-wing activist

Jeremy Corbyn was among the thousands of well-wishers when the news of Mr Smith’s illness was made public.

The Labour leader said: “Very sorry to hear this. Please pass on my best to Harry. We need him to get well soon as the National Health Service, and our movement, needs him.”

Overnight, Mr Smith’s son John kept vigil, he updated followers on the veteran’s condition on Twitter.

Tributes poured in.

Actor Mia Farrow, who encountered him through their work with refugees, said: “Please give Harry my respect and love. He has been an inspiration. I’m so very grateful to him.”

Robert Lindsay, who played the firebrand Wolfie Smith in Citizen Smith, wrote: 2Harry is a true father figure to all of us.”

Just weeks ago, Mr Smith, who called himself the “world’s oldest rebel”, was preparing to travel the world to carry on raising awareness about the world’s refugee crisis.

He became a passionate activist for refugees after witnessing one of the world’s biggest refugee crises as the Second World War came to an end.

Speaking in a video shared by the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, he said: “I think there are many things that we can do if we put our minds to it, and we shouldn’t be leaving anyone out, not matter what their nationality, colour or traits are.”

As well as the rights of refugees, Mr Smith dedicated his last years to fighting for social equality and against the indignity of Conservative austerity. But he soared to global fame after speaking at the Labour Party Conference in 2014.

There, he gave an emotional speech in support of the NHS, moving delegates to tears as he described how hospitals and medicine used to be reserved for “the privileged few, because they were run by profit.”

He spoke of the loss of his sister, Marion, to tuberculosis when she was just ten-years-old because his family couldn’t afford a doctor.

YORKSHIRE

“My memories stretch back almost a hundred years, and if I close my eyes, I can smell the poverty that oozes from the dusty tenement streets of my boyhood,” he said.

Indeed, it was Harry’s name junior doctors were shouting when he addressed the doctor’s strike in Liverpool in 2015.

Mr Smith served in the RAF in the Second World War between 1941-48. He later emigrated to Canada aboard the Empress of Australia in 1953. Mr Smith, a son of an unemployed coal miner, grew up in poverty, and went on to become one of the leading left-wing campaigners of recent years. #

He wrote five books about life in Britain during the Great Depression and on post-war austerity, and has written for national newspapers and magazines including the Guardian and New Statesman.