Brenda June Hilditch was born in June 1939. She trained as a nurse, rising to the position of nursing sister in a Tameside hospital. She later told disabled colleagues that it was “my devastation” that brought her nursing career to a sudden end, after which she became very involved in campaigning for the rights of disabled people.
Audrey Stanton added: When Brenda was a Nursing Sister at Tameside Hospital I was on her ward… she use to take orders for fish and chips and got them for us when the Matron was off duty. Boy did we party when Brenda was on shift… lovely memories.
In the 1990s Brenda became involved as a campaigning member of the Greater Manchester Coalition of Disabled People (GMCDP). She became a Director on 3 December 1994, a position she held the rest of her life.
Brenda was a member of the Labour Party and in 1995 she became an elected councillor at the Tameside metropolitan borough council, on the eastern side of Greater Manchester. A close friend of hers was Margaret Downs; they shared an interest in the community and voluntary sector as well as being fellow councillors.
However, Brenda did not always follow the local party line. She got in trouble with her local Labour Party for voting against the whip on proposed boundary changes. The proposals included removing Hooley Hill from her Audenshaw ward (constituency) which Brenda protested had been part of Audenshaw since the 1600s.
Brenda also got in trouble in the 1990s over a major new development being built on greenfield land next to the extended motorway. It was known as Kingswater and later as Waterside Park, a massive industrial and retail park around the M60 Denton interchange. The local Labour Party, and the Council, supported this controversial development, but it was resisted by a few members including Brenda and two local Members of Parliament.
Martin Pagel said: Brenda was suspended for refusing to follow the whip at least twice! I was also a Labour councillor, myself in the nearby Manchester city council, and one time I had a phone call from the Labour whips office in Tameside, asking me “how do you handle Brenda?“!
Brenda worked for GMCDP as an adminisrative worker for at least two projects: probably the Independent Living Skills (ILS) and Disability Action Training (DAT) projects before retiring due to ill health.
On the front cover of his book published in 1992, The Creatures Time Forgot – Disability and Photography, David Hevey uses an energetic image of his making of disabled people protesting in front of an inaccessible bus, taken in the street outside Owens Park student halls of residence in south Manchester during a protest training session being run by visiting speakers from the ADAPT organisation for civil rights for disabled people in the USA. One of the disabled people featured in the cover photograph was Brenda. She later said that she had argued with David Hevey on his choice of words in the title of his book, which she felt served as a caption to the photograph beneath and therefore to herself being labelled as ‘a creature’.
Brian Hilton recalls that one of his first memories of Brenda was at the 1992 Block Telethon demo in London. Brenda and Imogen Whetton briefed the Manchester contingent travelling there before he and others got off the coach. The two of them were probably the designated stewards and told everyone what to do and say if they were blocked or confronted by the police. They were the ‘go to’ people, as for many of the protesters like Brian this was their first ever demo. However, Brenda ended her briefing by saying that they shouldn’t count on her being around throughout the day as there was a pretty good chance that she’d be getting arrested! That was Brenda, said Brian – whilst others were happy to be on the sidelines, Brenda was always, always front and centre, not out of vanity, that just how she expressed her commitment to the cause.
On 15 June 1995 Brenda attended the Buses for All Europe conference held in Manchester at the GMex Centre, and later she took a leading part in a street protest that stopped inaccessible buses in the road next to Albert Square, where she was featured on regional TV news as well as in campaign photographs.
Brenda became very active in the national grassroots campaign by disabled people for full civil rights, known as DAN the disabled people’s non-violent Direct Action Network which organised surprise street protests around England. Brenda was very often there, on her scooter and in loud voice, immobilising an inaccessible bus by handcuffing herself to its wiper blades, stopping the traffic and getting good media coverage.
Alan Holdsworth added: Brenda loved to sing my song but kinda forgot the words pretty soon, sort of – choices and rights, choices and rights, that’s what are we fighting for, we want … She also feigned heart attacks on DAN actions just to freak out the cops – I loved her for that. In Nottingham in 1996 we didn’t get to eat much so after it was over I challenged her to an eating competition which I won on the ice cream. lol. Brenda understood that is you dress kinda weird you get attention. I remember the dafodills in Cardiff! And the witches hat!
Brenda was somewhat notorious on her scooter. One day she was at the GMCDP office in Manchester and volunteered to take the mail to the post office. When she returned her brand new scooter had its front basket caved in – the post office door was not quite as wide as she had thought.
Brenda also had friends in Malta, flying out to visit them when she could, and welcoming them to the UK when they visited in return.
In 1998 Brenda was appointed by the government to the Peak District National Park Authority. When she retired from this role in March 2004 she was publicly thanked for her contributions, and especially for her specialist knowledge on access for disabled people.
Brenda also served on the Tameside and Glossop Community Heath Council.
In 1999 Brenda was elected to the position of GMCDP’s Company Secretary for three years, from 18 January 1999 to 7 February 2002.
One of Brenda’s local campaigns was to improve a derelict Victorian electricity transformer, which had become neglected and covered with graffiti. It was renovated and became a landmark gateway feature for Audenshaw at Manchester Road, even with its light working again. The favourable coverage in the Manchester Evening News with her picture included puns on the area being transformed and regenerated.
Brenda lived for many years in Denton at 17 Stanhope Close, and she died in early 2005 (19 January?). At her funeral, she had an old-style hearse drawn by dark, plumed horses, along with one of her flamboyant hats in the carriage.
On 2 February 2005 at the next meeting of the Denton and Audenshaw District Assembly, Cllr Margaret Downs paid tribute to Brenda’s dedication, followed by a minute of silence, and there were suggestions for a permanent memorial.
Later, the Capriole Academy of Dance in Audenshaw on Stamford Road invited Andrew Gwynne MP to open their new Brenda Hilditch Studio.
Maggie Griffiths recalled: Back in 2013 when the Cornwall Councillor hit the headlines for saying disabled people should be put down, I remember seeing this tweet from Andrew Gwynne MP – “I only wish Cllr Brenda Hilditch was still alive. She’d have gone to Cornwall to pay him a visit! 🙂”
Brenda is in this Desperate Dan video, Part One, link below. Skip to 7.21 minutes, and she makes an appearance in other clips as well.