A brief history of Giles Hart

Citizen Giles:

An Appreciation by Karen Blick

Giles Hart was a tireless campaigner for liberty and human rights. However he will be best remembered as a prominent supporter of the Solidarity movement in Poland throughout the 1980s and especially when Poland was placed under Martial Law. For over 10 years he held leading posts in the Polish Solidarity Campaign, serving at different times as treasurer, secretary and chairman. 

Amongst his many achievements his miraculous membership drive and fund-raising efforts stand out. When by happy chance a photo of the late Eric Heffer MP, wearing a Solidarnosc T-shirt, appeared in the Daily Mirror, Giles seized the opportunity to establish a hugely successful fund-raising mail order T-shirt business, raising £22,000 in 18 months. While other leading members faded away, Giles stuck doggedly to the cause, organizing meetings, demonstrations and other activities. Lech Walesa saluted his enormous contribution when he visited Britain in December 1989 as a guest of the TUC and met Giles at a reception arranged at POSK, the Polish Cultural Centre in Hammersmith.

 

       

Giles with Lech Walesa and Riszard Stepan (a former chair of PSC)

After the legalization of Solidarnosc in 1989 Giles continued to document, preserve and celebrate the history of Solidarnosc support in Britain, establishing a historical archive at the Polish Centre and editing a book For Your Freedom and Ours (1995), a compilation of individual members' accounts of the history of PSC. This archive was used by British university academics to prepare contributions for a 2005 conference in Belgium examining the varying attitudes of European trade unions to Solidarity.

On the evening of July 6th 2005 Giles was at my house in Ealing, west London, to discuss the organization of a conference the following autumn to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the formation of Solidarity. Characteristically, he brought with him not only copious details of the work he had already undertaken for this project but also a very large bottle of wine. The next morning, having been diverted from Kings Cross station, he boarded the fateful number 30 bus and met his death in Tavistock Square, one of the 52 victims of the 7.7 bombing outrage. On August 31st 2005, at the 25th anniversary celebrations in Gdansk, which ironically he did not live to attend, Giles was posthumously honoured by the Polish President, Aleksander Kwasniewski, with the Knight's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Polish Republic. Representing Britain at the event, the then Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott paid tribute to his endeavours.

Giles Vernon Hart was born in 1949 in Khartoum, where his father was Head of English at Gordon College. The family returned to England when he was a small child and he was educated at Woodhouse Grammar School, in Friern Barnet, north London and at Royal Holloway College, London University, where he read Mathematics. For many years he was an executive officer at the lighthouse authority Trinity House, where he got into trouble for his union activities. Latterly he was an office-based engineer with British Telecom. 

I first remember meeting Giles in September 1980 in a rather dingy room above a Baker Street pub called appropriately "The Volunteer", where in its early days the Polish Solidarity Campaign met. I cannot but reflect on how the world was to change in the following 25 years and how Giles had been an active participant in those changes.

But what I want to convey is a picture of Giles as a person.

What motivated Giles, very much an Englishman and non party-political, to devote such energy to the Polish cause? Although his wife Danusia is Polish his PSC activities predated his marriage. He in fact met her through his PSC activities. I think all of us who knew him would agree that Giles was not an average run-of-the-mill person. We remember his transparent honesty, his bulldog tenacity, his complete disregard for personal gain and his lack of deference to "higher" authority, either natural or supernatural. He was wont to challenge or question anyone - from the celebrated historian Norman Davies, to the eastern European expert Timothy Garton Ash to the Solidarnosc leader Bogdan Lis. But he did so in such a way as not to give offence.

I like to think of Giles as a descendant of the English Enlightenment, a rationalist and a secularist, who believed in the universal nature of "The Rights of Man". No wonder that he was vice-chairman, later chairman, of the local Havering branch of the Humanist Society, chairman of the HG Wells Society, active in the east London branch of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture and a supporter of the Anti Slavery Society. He was also at one time a parent governor of his children's primary school where, in characteristic style, he challenged the latest fads of excessive political correctness.

His love of freedom and hatred of oppression in general could and did lead him to support these many causes, so why did he focus so tenaciously on Poland? I believe he was drawn to the Polish cause at first because of that country's stance in the Second World War when it stood up (initially alone) to the twin attacks of Germany and the Soviet Union. He saw it as a huge betrayal that at the end of the war the Western powers consigned Poland to Soviet domination. In addition his experience as a trade union activist at Trinity House no doubt led him to value free trade unions as a basic universal human right.

  

 Giles and Danusia at a PSC stall with T-shirts, 1980s

Giles' activities and energy extended far beyond the field of politics and human rights. As already mentioned, his father was a Reader in English at Gordon College, Khartoum, and Giles had strong literary and intellectual interests. An insatiable reader, his favourite writers were unsurprisingly Orwell, Koestler and Solzhenitsyn. On the day of his death he was due to give the Havering humanists a talk on the lesser known works of Lewis Carroll. He was extremely knowledgeable about cinema and a regular patron of the National Film Theatre. From his early days he was also passionate about music. His versatility and encyclopaedic knowledge were summed up by a friend who wrote in the Book of Tributes, "Who will now be 'Phone a friend' if we ever get on 'Who wants to be a Millionaire?'"

But as well as being active in so many fields Giles was very much a family man, devoted to his wife Danusia, his children Maryla and Martin and his mother Elsie. His children's interests, education and future were always at the forefront of his mind. He was a great friend to many people. I remember him at many social gatherings, including his own 50th birthday party, held at POSK. He was also the leading spirit behind the PSC picnics held annually, first in Battersea Park and later in Ravenscourt Park, to commemorate the founding of Solidarnosc.

When I heard that Giles had not arrived at work on that Thursday in July and was missing, I realized I am sure like many of us how much a fixture he had become in our lives, the regular phone calls urging us to action or chiding us gently for undone things. But the Tavistock Square bomb outrage was not to be the last chapter in his life. On the suggestion of a former Solidarity activist Tytus Czartoryski the Giles Hart Memorial Committee was established and, thanks above all to the efforts of Wiktor Moszczynski, raised almost £11,000 for a memorial stone. 

The slab of granite, shipped from Strzegom in Silesia, was unveiled on July 5th 2008 in Ravenscourt Park, close to POSK and the scene of our PSC picnics. Present at the ceremony were Janusz Sniadek, the current chairman of Solidarity, Barbara Tuge-Erecinska, the Polish Ambassador, two MPs, Greg Hands and Andrew Slaughter, and the Mayor of Hammersmith, along with representatives of the TUC, Giles' family and former colleagues. The stone inscription included a quote from Mahatma Gandhi: "Be the change you want to see in the world." Giles' daughter Maryla echoed this sentiment in saying

We feel deeply honoured that my father's work is being recognised by the international community in this splendid permanent monument. We hope the message it carries will inspire others to be the change they want to see in the world.

Wiktor Moszcsynski, a former chairman of PSC, placed Giles in the context of the setting.

The Memorial is a very fitting place - somewhere to go for quiet contemplation. It is discreet, under the shade of the trees, and will not necessarily be noticed. It's much like Giles, who played a key part in history and in the fight for social rights but never sought the limelight. He was happier being in the background.