Peacebuilders: Hilda Murrell

Episode Summary

Hilda Murrell (1906-1984) was a renowned rose grower and anti-nuclear power campaigner.

Episode Notes

Hilda Murrell (1906-1984) was a renowned rose grower and anti-nuclear power campaigner. 

Women’s contributions to peacekeeping efforts are often overlooked, but no more. This month on Womanica we're highlighting women who have spearheaded peacekeeping initiatives all over the world — from India to South Africa to the United States. We cover women like ​​Doria Shafik who led Egypt’s female liberation movement, as well as Coretta Scott King who was a fierce advocate for equality for Black Americans and a leader in the Civil Rights Movement. Tune in to hear the stories of women who were integral to creating peace in their communities. 

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Episode Transcription

Hello! From Wonder Media Network, I’m Meltem Burak. I’m the host and producer of the podcast, Sesta. We aim to harness the power of arts and culture to foster conversation and build peace in Cyprus. I’ll be your guest host for this month of Womanica. 

This month, we’re highlighting Peacebuilders: In times of conflict, these women have stepped in, bringing their creativity and insight to help facilitate peace across the globe. 

Today we’re talking about a renowned rose grower and anti-nuclear power campaigner. Through her denunciation of the nuclear industry, she advocated for the preservation of the environment and the protection of people.

Let’s talk about Hilda Murrell.

Hilda was born on February 3, 1906, in Shrewsbury, England. It was a fortuitous hometown for someone like Hilda, who would become so interested in the environment. About 100 year earlier,  naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin was also born in Shrewsbury. 

The green thumb in the Murrell family ran deep. Hilda came from a family of seedsmen, florists, and nurserymen that dated back to 1837. Founded by her grandfather, the Murrell family ran Portland Nurseries, a family rose nursery and seed shop business that was well-known and well-regarded. Her grandfather ran the business until he died in 1908. He left the business to his sons, Hilda’s father and uncle. 

From a young age, Hilda excelled academically. She was the head girl at the Shrewsbury Girls’ High School. Her success earned her a scholarship to Newnham College in Cambridge. 

In 1928, just a year after Hilda graduated college, she joined the family business – and she was a natural. She had business skills and a deep understanding of horticulture. By 1937, she had become the director of the nursery.  In her new role, Hilda became particularly fascinated by roses. She became an expert and an internationally respected rose grower –  knowledgeable in all aspects including planting, species, and cultivating. 

Under her leadership, the nursery thrived. It won several awards at flower shows around England, and Hilda attracted famous clients including the Queen Mother and the Churchills, as well as Vita Sackville West. 

All of this work is incredibly peaceful. However, Hilda was also actively trying to promote peace outside of horticulture. The same organizational skills that aided her in business also helped in her volunteer work during World War II. Hilda helped care for Jewish refugee children and placed them in foster homes and schools. She also raised money to support their resettlement by organizing recitals that featured world-renowned artists.

After leading the business for more than 30 years, Hilda retired in 1970 and sold the nursery. For years, Hilda had spent her free time walking and wandering around Shrewsbury, the hill country in particular.  In the process, she formed a deep connection with the wildlife and a concern about the countryside’s preservation. Hilda was a founding member of the Shropshire Wildlife Trust and the National Soil Association, which promotes organic horticulture. She was also involved with the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England. 

Hilda’s environmental activism bred her interest in the pollution crisis and the dangers of nuclear energy and weapons. 

Hilda meticulously researched the threats posed by nuclear energy and weapons. She feared the inevitability of nuclear disaster, but… she also thought it was avoidable. Armed with this mindset and her research, she brought her findings to the attention of those in positions of power -- to those with the ability and responsibility to do something about it.

In 1978, she published a paper entitled “What Price Nuclear Power?”. The paper confronted the realities of the economic impact of the civil nuclear industry. Then, the Three Mile Island accident happened in the U.S. An equipment failure caused the nuclear power plant to release radioactive gas into the atmosphere. After that, Hilda shifted her focus  to safety of nuclear power. Hilda believed the disposal of radioactive waste was the crux of the issue with the industry. 

After what happened in the U.S., she wanted to put pressure on Britain’s government and its policies on radioactive waste. Hilda discovered just how difficult radioactive waste was to manage. And with its dangerous and toxic traits, she knew its management was imperative to maintaining a clean and safe environment. 

In 1982, the Department of the Environment published a paper about the British Government’s policy on radioactive waste management. Hilda wasn’t satisfied with it. So she wrote a response, critiquing it and outlining the dangers of radioactive waste. Hilda was scheduled to present it at a public investigation into the Sizewell B nuclear power station in Suffolk.

But before she could, in March 1984, Hilda was burglarized, kidnapped, stabbed, and left to die in a grove near Shrewsbury. It wasn’t until 2003, that the police arrested and charged a man named Andrew George for her murder. 

But some people weren’t convinced. There are many conspiracy theories surrounding Hilda’s murder. Her nephew did not believe that Andrew George was the killer despite his DNA being found at the scene. A Member of Parliament maintained the belief that Hilda’s death was politically motivated. A former cellmate of Andrew George said that George confessed to killing Hilda, but that he did not act alone. The police, meanwhile, remained steadfast in their statement that this was a burglary gone wrong. 

The truth of Hilda’s tragic death remains a mystery. But what is for sure is that Hilda was an environmental champion who was not afraid to challenge authority. In her obituary, her friend Charles Sinker wrote “Her close friends remember her as a fierce but fundamentally gentle warrior, a Bunyan-like soul on a lonely and constant quest for the real path of the spirit. She died in tragic circumstances, alone in the empty countryside. It is an almost intolerable irony that a life so dedicated to peaceful pursuits, and to the pursuit of peace, should have been terminated by an act of mindless violence.”

All month, we’ve honored peacebuilders. Tune in tomorrow for the beginning of a new theme!

For more information, find us on Facebook and Instagram @womanicapodcast. 

Special thanks to co-creators Jenny and Liz Kaplan, for having me as a guest host.