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Obituary for Cecil Fowler (29 June 1921 – 19 July 2014) + Memorial Meeting

Cecil Fowler with Bill Willmott, at 60th Anniversary National Society Conference, Auckland 2012
Cecil Fowler with Bill Willmott, at 60th Anniversary National Society Conference, Auckland 2012

Beloved Auckland member and Life Member of the New Zealand China Friendship Society, Cecil Fowler, died recently of cancer aged 93.  Not only Auckland branch, but the whole of the Society will mourn her passing as she epitomised all the values that the Society stands for – hard work, charitable assistance for the unfortunate and an innate compassion for those in trouble. 

Marjory Cecil Crompton was born into a middle class family in Leicestershire in England, the youngest of five children to Doctor and Mrs Crompton.  Named after her father’s best friend, Cecil, who was killed in World War, she insisted on being called Cecil rather than Marjory from an early age. Boys had more freedom than girls and she wasn’t interested in following the usual dictates of normal middle class society and staying at home sewing.  She felt there was more to life and as early as 8 years of age, she read the Times newspaper, becoming converted to “home rule” for India. 

Her family emigrated to New Zealand in 1932, living first in Lower Hutt and then Havelock North on a large property.  Cecil loved the freedom, but from her secure middle-class life, she saw the 30s depression at close-hand and helped to raise funds for the unemployed. 

She attended Iona College, becoming a keen violinist, actor, debater and sportswoman, although she was often out of step with authority.  In 1939, she attended Auckland University and completed a BA, enjoying the social life, and playing in the University orchestra.

She began to look at the life of the oppressed and looked for a philosophy which reflected her striving for fairness and equality, becoming a strong advocate of women’s equality.

When World War II came, Cecil was a messenger for Wellington ‘Home Guard’.  She learned to cook and became a key fundraiser for the Patriotic Fund eventually joining the Communist Party, which was strong at that time.   

She met her husband-to-be, Kemp Fowler, then and they eventually married, moving to Dunedin where Kemp became a bio-physicist.  They had son Rewi there, before moving to Brisbane where, in 1950, Anna was born.  During their stay there, the Communist Party was banned and discrimination rife against people with left-wing political beliefs.  As a result, Kemp’s job with Brisbane Hospital was terminated due to pressure from the intelligence services.  However, he gained a scholarship to London University and Cecil worked in the office of the Federation of Scientific Workers.  She was one of the initiators of the London movement to save the Rosenbergs, an American couple charged with espionage and sentenced to death (they were executed in 1953, still declaring their innocence).

In 1953, Cecil joined the NZ delegation to the Fourth World Festival of Youth and Students in Bucharest – the theme was “Peace and Friendship”. She also joined the Communist Party and some time during the 50s she joined the UK China Friendship Society [Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding], later meeting Rewi Alley when she returned to New Zealand. 

In 1954, the couple separated and Cecil returned to New Zealand and lived in Havelock North where she became a teacher.  Completing her BA, the family moved to Taupo where she taught.  Times were hard however, as women only received 60% of the wages of their male counterparts and housing was expensive. 

Poverty was rife in Taupo, making a lasting influence on her.About this time, the NZ Security Intelligence Service tracked her to Taupo, having kept her under surveillance since her university days and subsequently visited her school principal.  No action was taken however.

Eventually the family moved to Auckland where she taught at several schools and eventually purchased a section and had a house built there.  She joined the local branch of the Communist Party and this is when she joined the Auckland branch of the NZ China Friendship Society.  Her political activity embodied her beliefs of liberty, racial equality, and equal distribution of wealth and she urged the return to the Maoris of their land confiscated in the last century.  Whilst teaching and bringing up her children, she completed an MA, which helped her gain a promotion to Senior Mistress at James Cook High School. 

She was deputy leader of a Teachers Delegation to China in 1974, and visiting China many times in the following years.  She was arrested at Bastion Point during the occupation but the charges were later dropped.  The ‘Stop the 1981 Springbok Tour’ was also part of her protests and which prompted her to learn Te Reo Maori.

Cecil later made many overseas trips, throughout Europe, Cuba and Central America and at 83 she visited Greece with Michele, wife of Keith Locke.  China was the destination for many of her visits and her last trip was in 2012 at the age of 91when she enjoyed visiting the co-operatives connected to the NZCFS.

Cecil was made a life member of the Society in 2002.  She served on National Executive over a number of years, including two years as National Secretary from 1987-9, and one year as North Island Vice President.  In the 1990s and 2000s she served as Auckland Branch President at different periods, and on the Auckland Guangzhou Sister City Committee for its duration, until it was disbanded this year.

Latterly, Cecil was a stalwart of Auckland branch providing hot suppers at their meetings.  She also welcomed, on behalf of the Society, a number of Chinese delegations to New Zealand in her home. 

Diagnosed with cancer in late December 2012, Cecil nevertheless continued her active political life helping people and participating in meetings and events.

People like Cecil are very rare – they are a driving force in the circles that they inhabit, spurring people on who would otherwise not feel the need to help others. Her whole life was spent caring or fighting for the rights of the underprivileged and she will leave a large gap in Society’s future work.

Meeting to celebrate Cecil’s life

On Sunday, 17th August, the Auckland branch held a meeting to celebrate Cecil’s life and about 20 of her friends turned up to talk of their memories of her. They are as follows:

President of Auckland branch, Murray Hoare, opened the meeting, describing Cecil as a staunch member of the branch who was always there to give advice. He said that he had learned much more about her at her funeral, when people spoke of her contribution to the Society and the many diversified interests that she took part in during her long life, including unlikely subjects such as King Cobras and Birth Control advisory boards. He said that she would be sorely missed.

Fay Hobday:

“I was introduced to Cecil by Doreen Wong who had had an arranged marriage. She was also a founder member of Eden Gardens along with Neville Joyce, distinguished plantsman and landscape architect and a devoted longtime member of the Society.  It was an enormous privilege to know her and one occasion stands out in my memory. I had a young Chinese friend who produced meals and garden parties and Cecil was so encouraging, helping my friend to get to know others and passing on her business knowledge. I am very fortunate to have known Cecil.”

Jimmy Lum

“I have known Cecil for a very long time. She, along with Tom Newnham, has spent her life helping China and its people.”

Duncan France

“Marie Greetham [one-time President of Auckland branch and Hibiscus Coast branch President, now deceased] introduced me to Cecil when I first came to New Zealand.  Marie and I were instrumental in forming the first HBC branch and Cecil often gave good advice. She had a modesty and an inborn strength that stood her in good stead. I remember her saying that in the early days, it was not uncommon for 200 people to attend meetings in Auckland, people often coming from as far away as Hamilton and Taupo. She was reliable and responsible and contributed much to the Society.”

Ken Liu

“I have known Cecil for over 4 years but it was not until her funeral, that I learned how much she had contributed to the Society. She was a great lady and did a great job, something I can only dream about. She did much to help China, including in recent years, Trade Aid. She was approachable and always helpful. I feel that as I had no family here in NZ, she was part of my new family and thinking of her immense hard work, we need to look forward and try and follow her example. When she spoke of singing Communist-inspired songs, it reminded me of home again and took me back to my childhood. We shall all miss her.

Estella Lee

“We are eating cooked meat tonight which we went out and purchased before the meeting. Cecil, however, could be counted on to provide everything for each meeting. No-one told her to do it, and she received no credit for it, and she didn’t expect any. That was the measure of her reliance on herself. She backpacked well into her 70s and 80s, travelling to South America and many other distant countries. She also welcomed Chinese delegates into her home and when two Chinese people came to see the Godwits at Miranda, she happily took them in and fed and housed them during their stay. That was her way. Her funeral was very touching when I had to say farewell. She was a great little lady.”

Paul Sisson

“A giant Totara has fallen with the passing of Cecil. Sunlight has shone through the gap she made and we must ensure that the work continue that she started. When she was a teenager, she already showed what she was made of, stating her ideals from a young age. She never complained and her love for people showed even in her final days when she was in hospital. When friends and family visited her, she would cheerfully say”, See you next time”. Even though was becoming more and more unlikely. However, the final time they visited, she simply smiled knowing that her time was coming to an end.  She was a great lady.”

Lu Bo

“I knew Cecil for 23 years. She had a warm heart and when her grandchildren had a party, it was understood that my grandchildren were also invited. She organised many people to contribute to helping less fortunate people and family and friends were all drawn in to sew purses to sell to help poor women in less fortunate countries. She always attended any Chinese functions and always kept an open home for Chinese visitors. Her home was comfortable and there was always food on the table. Unfortunately, some of her long time friends were unable to attend the funeral but wished to be remembered. Jenevere Foreman, Margaret Cooper, George Andrews, Ian Howat and many more left tributes.”

Margaret Cooper left this tribute:

“We met late in the 1990s and often had Chinese meals together. She was granted Life Membership which is only bestowed on a few members who have made significant contributions to the Society, such as those who strengthen ties between China and NZ. Cecil was such a person. I hosted a delegation recently and although she was in a wheelchair, Cecil was busy organising fish and chips for everyone. They often had debates about current affairs and the Shandan Bailie School was often in their thoughts. She visited there 7 times. Rewi Alley was a long-time friend of Cecil’s and she often provided funds for his work in China. I shall miss her smiling face.”

Anna Lee

Anna, Cecil’s daughter was invited to the meeting also, and had much to say about Cecil’s childhood and life.

“Thank you for inviting Barry and I to talk here tonight. My mother gave me inspiration and we have received many tributes about her busy life when she spent much of her time spreading peace and friendship around the world. She had many wonderful friends and gave them her inspiration to help others. She loved young people and they gave her hope for the future. Born ahead of her time, she was a woman of action.”

Anna was also touched by Consul Niu’s speech at Cecil’s funeral when the Chinese people present sang an old Chinese folk song, specially prepared for the funeral.

Several visitors then spoke of their wish to help the Society and these included Robin who was in his last year at AUT, Sammy who has just graduated and is working in finance and Edward who said he needed contact details of the members to put them on the website.

Murray Hoare (President, Auckland branch) rose to close the meeting thanking everyone for coming and asking them to increase their efforts to find new members and get more people involved in the good work that Cecil began.