Harry Leslie Smith

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Harry Leslie Smith
Born(1923-02-25)25 February 1923
Barnsley, England
Died28 November 2018(2018-11-28) (aged 95)
Belleville, Ontario, Canada
Social activist
Oriental rug importer (retired)
RAF serviceman (formerly)
Notable worksThe Barley Hole Chronicles
The Empress of Australia
1923: A Memoir
Harry's Last Stand
Elfriede Gisela "Friede" Edelmann
(m. 1947; died 1999)
Children3 sons
Military career
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Air Force
Years of service1941–1948[5]

Harry Leslie Smith (25 February 1923 – 28 November 2018)[6][7] was an English writer and political commentator.[1][2][3] He grew up in poverty in Yorkshire, served in the Royal Air Force in the Second World War, and emigrated to Canada in 1953. After retiring, Smith wrote his memoirs and about the social history of 20th-century Britain. Smith wrote five books, about life in the Great Depression, the Second World War, and post-war austerity,[8] and columns for The Guardian, New Statesman, The Daily Mirror, International Business Times, and the Morning Star. He appeared in public at the 2014 Labour Party conference in Manchester, and during the 2015 general election and the 2016 EU membership referendum. In Canada he made a 2015 "Stand Up for Progress" national tour.

Early life[edit]

Smith was born on 25 February 1923, in Barnsley, Yorkshire,[9] the son of Albert Smith (1867–1943), an unemployed coal miner, and Lillian Dean (1894–1978). His eldest sister Marion died of tuberculosis in 1926, aged ten years; as there was no cure for the disease at the time, nor did the family have enough money to see a doctor.[10] After his father became unemployed, the family moved to Bradford, Yorkshire, then to Halifax, West Yorkshire. Smith joined the RAF in 1941 and spent several years in Hamburg, Germany, as part of the Allied occupation force. Whilst serving there, he met his future wife, Friede. The couple returned to the UK after he was demobilised, and he worked at various jobs around the Yorkshire area.[11]

He and Friede emigrated to Canada in November 1953, living in Scarborough (now part of Toronto) and later in Belleville, Ontario,[12] and had three sons: Michael (born 1953), Peter (1959–2009), and John (born 1963).[13] Smith made a career in the Oriental rug trade, as a buyer and salesman for Eaton's,[14] specialising and importing new designs from the Middle East, the former Soviet bloc, and Afghanistan.[15]

Writing and speaking activities[edit]

His wife Friede died in 1999, and his middle son Peter died in 2009. After their deaths, Smith consoled himself by turning to writing.[12] After his retirement he was a writer of memoirs and social history, dividing his time between Ontario and Yorkshire.[12]

Smith wrote regularly for The Guardian, commenting on politics and twentieth-century history.[8] He attracted attention in November 2013, writing that he would not wear the remembrance poppy in future years because he felt the symbol was being used to promote support for present-day conflicts.[16][17] He addressed the September 2014 Labour Party conference, speaking in support of the National Health Service (NHS) and describing how common preventable diseases "snuffed out life like a cold breath on a warm candle flame" prior to the creation of the NHS.[18] He also spoke on BBC Radio[19] and at the Bristol Politics Festival.[20]

Smith said that it was the global financial crisis of 2008 that inspired him to take his "last stand",[11] writing and campaigning on income inequality, public services and what he saw as the diminishing prospects for young people.[12] "I want to use my time and whatever influence I have from the book to get the young in Britain to vote the only way we can: to save our social democratic institutions. I want us to make our last stand at the ballot box".[11]

In July 2015, Smith endorsed Jeremy Corbyn's campaign in the Labour Party leadership election.[21]

In October 2015, Smith appeared on the BBC Three documentary We Want Our Country Back, where he sharply criticised the far-right anti-immigration political movement Britain First.[22]

In 2016, Smith also endorsed Corbyn's re-election campaign at the Labour Party leadership election.[23] In March 2016, he said of Corbyn: "He is a very honest-minded man. He has the desire to change things in Britain. Corbyn will change the world for the better. There is no one else". He added: "He'll learn he has to put some more weight behind it. I am behind him and will work with him".[24]

In August 2016 Smith dismissed the accusations of anti-Semitism that had dogged Corbyn, of whom Smith was a vocal supporter. [25] The Equality and Human Rights Commission later determined that there had been serious failings in leadership and an inadequate process of handling anti-Semitism complaints in the Labour Party during Corbyn's leadership. [26]

In September 2017, Smith released his fifth book Don't Let My Past Be Your Future. It was published by Little Brown.[27]

Smith was also active in support of refugees during the European migrant crisis. In November 2017, he appeared on the Sky One comedy The Russell Howard Hour, where he briefly recalled his trip to the Calais Jungle, discussed his new book and the increasing dependence on food banks in the UK. Smith and Howard also discussed the NHS, with Smith reflecting on the accessibility of medical care with a family story.[28]

Smith wrote of the political situation in 2017:

I am one of the last few remaining voices left from a generation of men and women who built a better society for our children and grandchildren out of the horrors of the second world war, as well as the hunger of the Great Depression. Sadly, that world my generation helped build on a foundation of decency and fair play is being swept away by neoliberalism and the greed of the 1%, which has brought discord around the globe. Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.[29]

Illness and death[edit]

On 20 November 2018, Smith was admitted to Belleville General Hospital in critical condition after contracting pneumonia. His hospital stay prompted an international cyber-vigil on Twitter and an outpouring of support from well-wishers from around the world; including Leader of the Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, of whom Smith was a major supporter.[30][31][32][33] He died on the morning of 28 November 2018.[34]


Self-published autobiographical works;

These two works were also published together as The Barley Hole Chronicles[bibliography 3]

Published by Icon Books and Constable:

  • Harry's Last Stand (2014)[bibliography 5] Reviewers described this last book as "heart-breaking"[11] and "a furious poem dedicated to the preservation of the welfare state",[10] and wrote that "the book... meanders between biography and rage against the system. The biography parts are the most compelling...."[10] Another commentator calls Smith "a fine writer and a logical thinker, even though Harry's Last Stand makes its points early and often and is a bit of a rant at times."[35] It has sold over 18,000 copies.[12]
  • Don't Let My Past Be Your Future (2017) )[bibliography 6]


  1. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (December 2009). Love among the ruins. Barley Hole (ebook format by Kobo). ISBN 9780987842558.
  2. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (August 2010). 1923: A Memoir. iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 9781450254137.
  3. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (December 2009). The Barley Hole Chronicles: From Hell to Hamburg. Barley Hole (ebook format by Kobo). ISBN 9780987842534.
  4. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (March 2013). The Empress of Australia: A Post-War Memoir. Barley Hole (ebook format by Kobo). ISBN 9780987842589.
  5. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (June 2014). Harry's Last Stand. ICON Books. ISBN 9781848317260.
  6. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (2014). Don't Let My Past Be Your Future. Constable. ISBN 9781472123459.


  1. ^ a b "Harry Leslie Smith – 'Don't let the mean streets of my past be our future'". Radio NZ. 25 March 2017.
  2. ^ a b "Writers". New Statesman. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  3. ^ a b Harry Leslie Smith – Don't Let My Past Be Your Future – Little, Brown Book Group. littlebrown.co.uk. 14 September 2017. ISBN 9781472123466. Retrieved 7 May 2017.
  4. ^ Harry Leslie Smith (20 October 2018). "Tweet". @Harryslaststand (confirmed). Twitter. Retrieved 20 November 2018. My wife Elfriede Gisela Edelmann was born on Oct 20, 1928 in Hamburg Germany. She was the illegitimate daughter of a Berlin socialist trade unionist and a Bohemian hotel manager who lived on the outskirts of the Reeperbahn.
  5. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (31 October 2014). ""Hunger, filth, fear and death": remembering life before the NHS". New Statesman. Retrieved 14 March 2015.
  6. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (24 February 2017). "Don't dread old age. I'm 94, and I won't spend my last years in fear of the Tories". The Guardian. Retrieved 13 August 2017.
  7. ^ Davies, Caroline (28 November 2018). "Harry Leslie Smith, vocal critic of austerity, dies aged 95". The Guardian. Retrieved 28 November 2018.
  8. ^ a b "Harry Leslie Smith: profile". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  9. ^ Harry Leslie Smith (25 February 2015). "Tweet". @Harryslaststand (confirmed). Twitter. Retrieved 25 February 2015. On Feb 25,1923, I was born in a gas lit hard scrabble Barnsley where life was tough & short 92 years later I'm on #Twitter Tempus fugit....
  10. ^ a b c Reguly, Eric (5 December 2014). "Veteran RAF warrior takes up old fight to save U.K. health care". The Globe and Mail. Toronto. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  11. ^ a b c d Bermingham, Finbarr (1 August 2014). "Harry Leslie Smith Interview: Meet the Man Who Lived Through WWII, the Great Depression and the 2008 Financial Crisis". International Business Times. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  12. ^ a b c d e Clarke, Katrina (26 September 2014). "Belleville man, 91, shares activist message on book tour". Toronto Star. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  13. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (August 2010). 1923: A Memoir (Acknowledgements). iUniverse, Inc. ISBN 9781450254137. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  14. ^ "Virtual vigil held for 95-year-old war vet and international Twitter sensation". National Post. Canadian Press. 22 November 2018. Retrieved 23 November 2018.
  15. ^ Keyes, Stephanie. "Spring Author Series: Harry Leslie Smith". Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  16. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (8 November 2013). "This year, I will wear a poppy for the last time". The Guardian. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  17. ^ Bond, Louise (23 January 2014). "Hate on War, But Don't Hate on Poppies". The Blog. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  18. ^ "Harry Leslie Smith: The NHS is turning into a two-tier health care system". Channel 5 Broadcasting Ltd. Channel 5 News. 5 December 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  19. ^ "Labour's Harry Leslie Smith: I didn't have a childhood". BBC News. 7 October 2014. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  20. ^ "Politics Festival 2014: Harry Leslie Smith". Bristol Festival of Ideas. Archived from the original on 2 January 2015. Retrieved 2 January 2015.
  21. ^ Smith, Harry Leslie (26 July 2015). "I back #JeremyCorbyn b/c I want my grandchildren's generation to have a fighting chance for a decent and meaningful life free of austerity". Twitter. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  22. ^ York, Chris (18 September 2015). "WWII RAF Veteran Epically Shoots Down 'Racist' Moaning About Refugees". The Huffington Post.
  23. ^ Wilkinson, Michael (23 August 2016). "Bernie Sanders 'backs Jeremy Corbyn' in Labour leadership race". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 3 August 2017.
  24. ^ Wilkinson, Michael (6 March 2016). "Harry Leslie Smith: Second World War veteran says politicians should get to grips with UK poverty". The Independent. Archived from the original on 9 May 2022. Retrieved 15 July 2017.
  25. ^ Harry Leslie Smith (4 August 2016). "Tweet". @Harryslaststand (confirmed). Twitter. Retrieved 4 August 2016. The idea being floated by some that Corbyn and his followers brought anti-Semitism into the Labour Party is repugnant. #LabourLeadership
  26. ^ "A guide to Labour Party anti-Semitism claims". BBC News. 18 November 2020. Retrieved 31 January 2022.
  27. ^ Harry Leslie Smith (14 September 2017). Don't Let My Past Be Your Future. Little, Brown Book Group. ISBN 978-1-4721-2346-6.
  28. ^ "Harry Leslie Smith on the importance of the NHS". YouTube. Retrieved 9 October 2018.
  29. ^ Harry Leslie Smith, vocal critic of austerity, dies aged 95 The Guardian
  30. ^ "Supporters say #IStandWithHarry as WW II veteran-turned-activist Harry Leslie Smith battles illness | CBC News".
  31. ^ "Harry Leslie Smith, 'world's oldest rebel,' hospitalized in Belleville. 'I did something that mattered, didn't I?' | the Star". Toronto Star. 21 November 2018.
  32. ^ "Thousands send support to ill war veteran". BBC News. 21 November 2018.
  33. ^ Greenfield, Patrick (21 November 2018). "Outpouring of support for critically ill activist Harry Leslie Smith". The Guardian.
  34. ^ Jones, Owen (28 November 2018). "Harry Leslie Smith obituary". The Guardian.
  35. ^ LS (2 August 2014). "Harry's Last Stand: Harry Leslie Smith". The Saturday Paper – books. Retrieved 2 January 2015.

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