Penny Walker obituary

Other lives: Peace activist who began the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre and worked tirelessly to make the city a welcoming place

My friend Penny Walker, who has died aged 70 of cancer, was a campaigner for non-violence who in 1998 set up the housing co-operative Coventry Peace House. Over the years its activities expanded to include an education trust; a bike centre teaching bike mending and selling recycled bikes; and a community space with a night shelter for destitute refugees, which often welcomed 20 people.

Penny’s work included liaising with Coventry council, police and health services – she was widely known and respected, in spite of being part of a small organisation. I met her through my work as a member of the Coventry lord mayor’s peace committee.

In 1998 Penny began the Coventry Refugee and Migrant Centre with a clothes exchange that last year helped 4,000 individuals. She truly lived out her values, with compassion, positivity, energy and commitment. She helped Coventry to become a welcoming city for refugees and asylum seekers.

Born in Hadleigh, Suffolk, Penny grew up in the village of Lindsey. Her father, James Thoroughgood, was a teacher who had been a wartime conscientious objector, and her mother, Elsie, was a secretary. On leaving Sudbury girls’ school, Penny was expected to go to university but decided that she wanted to help people. To avoid university, at the age of 17 she went to Gretna Green with a friend, Philip Walker, and they got married, so that she could not be made to go home.

Over the years, as well as bringing up their two children, Penny worked as an occupational therapist and a house parent at a residential school, and gained a diploma in counselling. She was an activist with the Green party and the whole family travelled overland to India for nine months in the 1970s. Penny and Philip later separated.

Penny spent some time studying the idea of community, and in 1997 she lived for a year in a caravan in the peace camp beside the Alvis tank factory in Coventry. The following year, with colleagues, she set up Coventry Peace House in a row of empty houses in the city as a more permanent base to work for peace.

After her “retirement” in 2011, Penny settled in Leicester, where she wrote about her neighbourhood of South Highfields and the history of the peace movement, in books including We Are South Highfields (2012), and leaflets on statelessness, Highfields in the first world war, and conscientious objectors. She organised the laying of a stone and the burying of a casket as a memorial for conscientious objectors. Penny also chaired East Midlands CND; and she was arrested demonstrating in Leicester against drone bombing in Afghanistan.

Penny had many good ideas and was creative in her activist thinking, but she also made all these events actually happen, sometimes by raising money, but always by enthusing and co-ordinating and encouraging others, by leading from the front.

Philip predeceased her. She is survived by her children, Mel and Charlie, and grandchildren, Brooke and Lilly.

David Fish

The GuardianTramp

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