Few colleagues would have known that Sheila Oakes’ father was lieutenant-general sir Robert Sturges of the royal marines, until Sheila strategically revealed the fact during a TV debate. Her opponent, general sir John Hackett, argued that peace activists were naïve. ‘I’ll have you know I’m the daughter of a general,’ Sheila retorted, and, to their great surprise, her team won the debate.
With her sharp mind, fluent powers of argument and supreme self-confidence, it was better to have Sheila as your pugnacious ally than your adversary.
What drew Sheila into the peace movement? She attributed this to her education. When Brickwall, a progressive boarding school in Sussex, was closed because of the Second World War, Sheila was sent to Long Dene, a newly-opened co-ed school in Jordans, Bucks. During the war, the staff and pupils at Long Dene included refugees from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The maths teacher was a conscientious objector, and other COs worked as gardeners producing organic food.
Leaving school in July 1945, Sheila trained as a violinist, and taught in Hackney, as well as at Trent Park teacher training college and Trinity College of Music in London. She joined an orchestra conducted by an Austrian refugee, Fritz Eichner, to whom she was married for seven years. (He changed his name to Francis Oakes when he was naturalised.)
Sheila joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament in 1958, was elected chair of her local CND group, then took a seat on CND’s national council, which she chaired in 1967-68.
As its general secretary from 1975 to 1986, she ensured the National Peace Council (NPC) adopted a critical, non-aligned stance towards both western and Soviet influences by building a broad-based membership of 189 organisations of all sizes and persuasions.
For more than 20 years, she fulfilled different roles in non-governmental disarmament committees which lobbied the UN in Geneva and New York, in the International Peace Bureau (IPB), and in the International Confederation for Disarmament and Peace (until it merged with the IPB). Sheila became particularly close to the Japanese peace movement, frequently visiting Japan for the World Conferences against A- and H-Bombs.
Extremely capable, energetic and dominant, Sheila was also very kind. Many overseas friends enjoyed her hospitality at home in Belsize Park, London, her tables overflowing with papers, her jaunty sports car parked outside. In 2012, she moved to a care home in Brighton where she died on 21 January.