Sir Barnett Stross – The Last Years 1960-1967

The health of Dr Stross declined after 1960. He had asthma and bronchitis, was very thin, and was constantly coughing. This was especially because of his lifelong smoking habit; he had spent so much time warning others of the consequences of the addiction that he had neglected to do anything about it himself!

Despite these issues, according to his young relatives, nieces, and nephews, he always remained an educator and was very talkative and interesting company.

As his health failed in 1964, Sir Barnett Stross, the MP, found it difficult to cope with the extra responsibilities the post of Deputy Secretary of Health within Prime Minister Harold Wilson’s Government demanded of him. Stross worked on the left wing of the Labour Party and had become a friend of Wilson thanks to the support of Aneurin Bevan, Minister of Health. But Wilson’s majority in parliament was so slim that even sick people, including Bob, had to be brought into Parliament to vote on crucial matters. But Bob was becoming too frail to fulfil these obligations, and he felt compelled to resign from political life.

Stross had married a family friend and long-term secretary, Gwendoline Chesters, in 1963. They lived together in a flat in London and would spend their free time in Ramsgate, Kent. As both his marriages were childless, Stross enjoyed the company of his nieces, nurturing in them their interests in art, literature, and politics. Olive had been kind but eccentric. Gwen was considerate, tender, and very gentle to Barnett. She cared for him when he was already in poor health. Ian Macilwain states:

“I heard Bob describe how he proposed to Gwen. He did it in a coffee shop and bought some flowers. But the cafe was very crowded, and when Bob asked for her hand, another lady was sitting at the table with them. Bob asked her if she could move, but she refused. So he decided to continue with the marriage proposal anyway! The older lady listened and then said, ‘That’s nice!’”

Barnett Stross received another award from the Czechoslovakian Government on the 4th of September 1963. At a ceremony in Prague, Stross was appointed an Honorary Member of the Czechoslovak Society for International Relations for his work advancing Czechoslovak – British Friendship, alongside Mr Stephen Swingler, MP for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

During Barnett Stross’s final years, he became very ill and aged quickly. Ian has a few memories of visiting the Stross’s apartment in Palace Gate behind Albert Hall, London, and recalls his unusual appetites:

Gwen And Sir Barnett Stross In The Lidice Rose Garden 1964
Gwen and Barnett Stross in the Lidice Rose Garden, c 1963/64

“We visited them several times in their apartment. I remember their apartment as very dark, with a quiet atmosphere and quiet acoustics. On one side of the chaise lounge in the drawing room were the pedestals on which were placed many of Epstein’s bronze statues – heads, which Bob had in his collection. These were accompanied by niches in which numerous were exhibited paintings by Lowry, Sickert and several others…

“I clearly remember Bob and Gwen’s favourite snack—because we, as children, hated it! She served slices of tongue with chicory and chicory salad with monotonous regularity. At first, it was a shock and then terribly bitter! Now, through the wisdom I have gained with the distance of time, I know that their food has been influenced by the Jewish tradition, but we did not perceive these details at that young age.”

Sir Barnett Stross died from a heart attack at University College Hospital, London, on Saturday the 13th of May 1967. Tributes poured in from people from all walks of life, including those who knew him as a politician, doctor, reformer, internationalist, or patron of the arts. Sir Barnett, who was 67 years old, was a Stoke-on-Trent MP for 21 years and served as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health in the Wilson Labour Government. He was knighted in 1964, was a member of Stoke-on-Trent City Council from November 1938 until May 1952, and during this time was an Alderman for 21 years.

The funeral of Sir Barnett Stross took place at Golders’ Green Crematorium, London, on the afternoon of Wednesday the 20th of May 1967. It was preceded by a service in the Liberal Synagogue on the crematorium grounds—right up to the end, he saw past petty political affiliation. Family recollections of the service are that it was secular in nature, with one psalm being read—Psalm 23, which Bob chose himself.

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