Barbara Smoker (1923 – 2020)

Our President Barbara Smoker dies at age of 96

We are very sad to report that our President, the veteran thinker and campaigner Barbara Smoker, died at the age of 96, on Tuesday 7th April. She was a founder member of the South East London Humanist Group in 1960 and its Chair for many years. She was also President of the Bromley Humanists.

Barbara had a remarkable career as a secularist and humanist. She was chair of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (now Dignity in Dying), President of the National Secular Society for 25 years and a Vice Chair of Humanists UK. She was a passionate anti-war activist, champion of LGBT rights, knew Bertrand Russell, was a friend of Harold Blackham and wrote a book called Humanism which has been in print for nearly 50 years.

She was so clever she managed to support herself financially through winning literary competitions and betting on the horses. 

Denis Cobell, a fellow activist who was also President of the National Secular Society, for 10 years, and Secretary of South East London Humanist Group (SELHuG) for 40 years, said: 

I have known Barbara Smoker for over 50 years. She was Editor of the Conway Hall Ethical Society when I wrote for their journal Ethical Record in the 1960s.

When I moved to SE London, with Bronwen my wife, we attended SELHuG at a meeting in 1973 which Barbara organised after the Group had been re-formed. I was involved in her with various campaigns. Of local interest, she and I visited Hither Green Crematorium Manager, to request a removable cross for Humanist funerals. This was eventually successful. 

She initiated my co-option on to the Council of Management of the National Secular Society in the 1970s. I later succeeded as President NSS. As Secretary of SELHuG I had been asked to conduct Humanist namings and weddings, then later funerals. Barbara was in practice my ‘mentor’, though this was not to the extent of modern mentoring. 

Barbara was a lively, sometimes controversial, woman; I always enjoyed visiting her and having a good ‘chat’. Her lack of respect for many ‘establishment’ views appealed to my own anarchic personality.

James Dobson, former Chair of SELHUG, said:

After a number of years as Chair of SELHuG, Barbara sort of adopted me, and we became firm friends. Having encouraged her to write her autobiography, I ended up acting as her secretary and typing the whole manuscript and amendments many times over, as well as her last couple of ‘Egotistical Annual Newsletters’.  As a writer she was a perfectionist and has a very clear, honest and no nonsense style, incurring frequent re-writes and a lot of patience; very occasionally and only after a very convincing argument would she accept any suggested amendments. 

With an IQ of 156 Barbara was a very incisive thinker, and was both mentally and physically courageous. She used to say ‘Old age isn’t for wimps’. On discovering a lump in her breast a couple of years ago she was determined not to have any extensive therapy and despite my protestations, decided not even to have a lumpectomy. Eventually the lump became large and uncomfortable and on learning the ending prognosis of ulceration, decided at last to have a mastectomy. I took her to lunch on her 96th birthday and the very next day she had her operation. Two days later in a nursing home she was giving the staff a right earful over being woken frequently for observations. She eventually demanded and signed a waiver in order to be left alone to sleep and recover. Within a month she was back to her old self. 

A few months ago she told me of her latest diagnosis of having both liver and lung cancer and was soon laughing it off as being described as ‘the full English’, and did say she wasn’t in any more pain then usual. Despite her advanced years and failing health, she remained self-sufficient and entirely lucid until about two weeks before she died and only accepted carers on the insistence of her family.”

Asad Abbas, Secretary of the Bromley Humanists, said:

Coming across Barbara proved to be a turning point in my life. The first talk by her I attended, she gave to the Bromley Humanist Group in 2003. She had just turned eighty. She talked about her life and the various areas she had contributed to and in which she had been active. From what she said I became convinced that humankind needed secularism and humanism. It led me to become active in the organisations which promote these ideologies and which I was already a member of. Thus, thanks to Barbara, the course of my life changed.

Roy Brown, Former President of International Humanist & Ethical Union (now Humanists International) said:

She was an inspiration to me, as I know she was to thousands of others. I was privileged to present her with the Distinguished Services to Humanism Award at the World Humanist Congress in Paris in 2005. I bought two dozen of her book Humanism to distribute to people who had expressed interest in the subject: a brilliant book, easy to read but getting to the heart of the ethical issues surrounding religious certainty and freedom of inquiry. One of the all-time greatest Humanists.

SELHuG Chair Hester Brown said:

Barbara was a remarkable person who inspired others with her clear thinking, her humanist ideals and her activism. She was witty and a good story-teller. She continued to support SELHuG to the end, including attending our Thought for the Day demo and handing in a letter to the BBC. On behalf of the committee and members of SELHuG, I would like to say that we are indebted to Barbara for leading and building a humanist community in our part of London, as well as leading the way in so many areas of human rights and social justice.

You can read a full tribute to Barbara on the Humanists UK website.