A tribute to Joan Court

Posted on the 2nd December 2016

Joan Court’s life as an animal and human rights activist was so extraordinary, so full of colour, daring and accomplishment, that many of us who knew her over the years almost began to think that it was a life that couldn’t be extinguished.

But on Thursday December 1st she died at her Joan CourtCambridge home surrounded by her beloved, aged cats. She was 97 years old.

Joan was driven, as you would expect, by a powerful impulse to expose and remedy injustice and cruelty. But that wouldn’t explain the woman she became. She told me many years ago that she was a born sensualist, her tastes ran to strong colours, perfumes and ‘exciting action’. It was these qualities, allied to her desire to (let’s be old-fashioned) do good in the world, that set her off on so many extraordinary adventures.

Her start was dramatic; her father being a solicitor who committed suicide, and her mother an alcoholic. She left school at the age of 12 but went on to qualify as a social worker helping damaged children, and as a nurse-midwife. She took these skills to impoverished regions of Turkey, India and the Appalachian Mountains of Eastern North America.

In 1946, she was organising midwifery services in the slums of Kolkata, when she got caught up in pre-independence riots and met Mahatma Gandhi. The Indian spiritual leader became the most important influence in her life, although at various times she was also taken by Quakerism, Buddhism and, as she put it, the ‘direct action of Jesus’.

Animal Aid had a large hand in helping her find her way to animal rights activism. She was given a leaflet, probably by our founder Jean Pink, advertising an anti-vivisection march due to be held in the city. The year was 1978. The next day Joan founded a new local group, which was soon undertaking all-night vigils in opposition to the use of animals in laboratory research. She went on to involve herself in every imaginable animal related issue – whether live exports, hunting, shooting, whaling and, of course, the meat and dairy industry. She was, as you would expect and as the Daily Express might put it, a militant vegan.

Joan CourtHer specialty was attention grabbing stunts, which were made all the more irresistible to the media because of her age. Her animal campaigning didn’t start until she was nearly 60 but there were frequent banner hangs from high places, public hunger strikes, sit-downs in inconvenient places, and she would make speeches and give interviews in which she refused to apologise for radical direct action or for those who carried them out – although she was opposed to violence.

Joan would prepare herself for, and then execute the most dramatic actions, quietly and methodically. Equally impressive was the way she allied her cerebral, intellectual qualities to her taste for drama and a love of attention.

She was someone who would not go quietly. At the age of 85, she joined the Sea Shepherd Flagship, Farley Mowat on a hunt for illegal fishing vessels in the South Atlantic. Out at sea, she busied herself mending nets, keeping watch and making tea.

Was she perfect? No, she was not. She could be self-absorbed, cantankerous, bossy and infuriating. But her friends were friends for life. I told her once how much she was respected and she said it wasn’t respect she wanted it was love. I told her she had that too.

Andrew Tyler, on behalf of Animal Aid

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