Elnora Ferguson (1929-2008)

IssueMay 2009
Comment by Rosemary Bechler

What amazes me, looking back, is how little I knew about Elnora Ferguson’s life in the post-Cold War years when I encountered her as Chair of the National Peace Council.

We were too busy taking advantage of the positive effect she would have on people when she entered the room with her calm but keen-witted sense of enquiry and interest in what was going on and how you all were. People would try a little harder and acquit themselves a little better, and this had more to do with the Lancashire twinkle in her eye than anything judgmental, though no-one doubted that Elnora knew what she thought about whatever was going on. She was one of those people who you felt had seen most things.

But I didn’t know that she had been an activist in the peace movements of South Africa and the US, and banned along with her husband in the former for their stand on equal rights.

I knew that she was a great woman, but not that she had graduated in economics and statistics from Newnham College in Cambridge in the late ’40s, when women were not recognised as members of the university, and had then obtained a masters in social work at the LSE.

It seems entirely fitting that alongside her activity as a teacher of remedial maths when she accompanied her husband abroad in the ’50s and ’60s, she should have found time to help set up one of Nigeria’s first girls’ sixth-form colleges.

The Quaker faith she shared with her husband John Ferguson inspired in Elnora an indefatigable stream of charitable and voluntary work – including her role as chair of the Peace Museum – which lasted until she died last December at the age of 79, having received honorary degrees from Coventry University and the University of Birmingham in recognition of this work.

It is moving to trace in all this not only her lifelong commitment to peacebuilding, conflict resolution and interfaith understanding, but also her longterm loyalty to places, to the local as well as the global.

It was typical of Elnora that when I met her she was chair of the National Peace Council, but also well known locally as the skilful chair of Selly Oak Peace Council, “a very competent, highly knowledgeable figurehead to chair the motley group of Birmingham protesters that centred physically around Birmingham Cathedral” – with the rare ability of pulling them together. She even persuaded the militant left, Baptists, Muslims, pacifists and assorted rainbow coalitions, to come together in a Birmingham Anti-War Campaign, with her characteristic tact, firmness and the judicious and timely offer of a free booking in a Quaker College.

The National Peace Council, founded in 1908, thrived under her chairship as the co-ordinating body for around 200 groups across Britain, united by their interest in peace, human rights, justice and the environment. Elnora was a much-loved and respected “figurehead”: she also knew them all. Elnora’s memorial service is in Birmingham Cathedral at midday, Saturday 27 June.

Topics: Radical lives
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