30th Anniversary of the Hotel Fire in Nicaragua that killed Margaret Roff

On 18th October 2017 [source] it will be 30th anniversary of the death, in a hotel fire in Nicaragua, of Margaret Roff, a Manchester City Councillor from 1982 to 1987. She was there on a fact finding visit and to hand over funds raised by people of Manchester. But who was Margaret Roff? And how did this close connection between the industrial city in the North of England and the small coastal town of Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua come about?

The power of the internet

I previously wrote a blog post asking questions about Margaret Roff. On a LGBT History in Manchester timeline she is mentioned in 1985 as being significant for being nominated as “UK’s first openly gay mayor candidate”. I wasn’t sure that was quite an accurate portrayal, according to Kath’s account, which suggests she wasn’t openly gay when chosen as the mayor candidate and it was the Manchester Evening News (MEN) that outed her after that nomination.

The issue about Margaret Roff’s nomination for Lord Mayor is covered in chapter 3. I felt the account was confusing because it says Margaret’s outing in the MEN on 19th November 1985 was the first her parents knew about her sexuality, but on 23rd December there is reference to the recent deaths of her parents. I felt there was more to that aspect of the story.

Because of the blog post I was contacted by Margaret’s nephew, Alan Watson via the facebook page, and, following some email correspondence, then received some papers by post from Margaret’s sister Janet Watson, prepared with the assistance of her son Alan and husband Colin. The following information is based on those papers. Janet says,

“She was much loved by her parents, brothers, niece, nephews, sister-in-law, brother-in-law, me and many friends. Margaret and I shared a flat together before I was married and were very close. Our father died in October 1984 and our mother died in October 1985. They did not know she was a lesbian. When she was nominated to become Mayor of Manchester she had not come out as openly gay. It was the Manchester Evening News that announced that she was the first openly gay Mayoral candidate which was a cruel thing to write. She was really affected by our parents’ deaths as she often stayed with them for bank holidays. Their deaths had more impact on her as we had families to rely on and she felt bereft. This is one of the reasons she withdrew from the nomination to be Mayor”

About Margaret Roff

Margaret Roff was born in September 1941 and was 46 when in 1987 she tragically lost her life in the hotel fire whilst on a fact finding visit to Manchester’s sister-city of Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua.

Margaret grew up in Sussex and graduated from Sheffield University in Sociology. After graduating she worked for two years for Christian Aid in London. She then trained as a librarian through a scheme offered by Lewisham Council, which involved a period of practical training and then support to study a year’s post-graduate course at library school on full pay.

Her first post as a qualified librarian was with Lewisham Council in a hospital library, then she joined the staff of a large lending library in the borough. From there she was seconded on to a research project for the Department of Education and Science for 18 months on staffing needs of public libraries.

She visited libraries all over the country, with the research team, finding out exactly what work was done by members of staff, how long it took them to do different tasks, and trying to work out what levels of staff were needed to provide an acceptable service.

Her next job was liaison and training officer at the College of Librarianship in Aberystwyth, and it was there that she started learning Welsh to get the best out of living in a Welsh Community.

In August 1975 she took charge of Oswestry library and in that role was interviewed by the local paper which is the source of the information in this section. (The full article, which talks also about the library in Oswestry, is further down this blog post).

At that time she was continuing with Welsh lessons at the College of Further Education and was involved with the town’s Aelwyd (Welsh Youth Group), and already involved in local politics as chair of the local Labour Party and on the executive committees of the constituency and county Labour groups.

After five years in Wales, Margaret decided to give up librarianship and move to Manchester (in 1980) to work for a co-operative distributing radical and alternative publications.

In 1982 Margaret was elected as Labour Councillor for the Rusholme ward (more detail about this in the previous blog post about her).

In the 7 years that she was in Manchester before her untimely death, she supported many groups and individuals campaigning on issues, including women’s rights, anti-deportation campaigns, the fight against racism and for lesbian and gay rights. She was always committed to the struggle to improve the situation of low paid workers’ rights and in the last year of her life she took a job with the Low Pay Unit. She also became involved with Twin Sisters, a group of women supporting other women in Nicaragua.

Letters of Condolence

Section from Letter of Condolence from Councillor Eileen Kelly, Chair of the Council, 27th October 1987:

“Margaret’s warm hearted approach to all her duties and her kindness of character will be greatly missed by all who knew her. I want you to know how much we appreciated her contribution to the life of our Community. Margaret’s work and service will long be remembered. She gave of her time and helped countless people and organisations.”

Enclosed was a letter from Levenshulme High School dated 20th October 1987 signed by the headteacher, Dr R G Kirby, and Chairman of the Governors, Mr R M Nicholson. This letter says that

“Margaret was a member of the Levenshulme High School’s governing body from the time of its establishment, and had served at different times as both chair and vice-chair. She had, therefore, worked for many years in support of the school and to promote its success. We shall miss her a great deal.”

Another handwritten letter from the Greater Manchester Low Pay Unit, dated 17th November 1987 and signed by Sarah Clarke, Christine Jones and Appiah Kafuor says:

“We are writing to tell you how deeply saddened we are at the death of our friend and colleague, Margaret, in Puerto Cabazas. We will miss Margaret very much, Margaret often spoke to us about her family, we know she cared for you all very much, therefore we feel we can share our feelings with you.

Margaret worked with us at the Low Pay Unit from June 1986, and made a vital contribution to the work of the Unit. She had a very real commitment to campaigning against low pay, and discrimination at the work-place, and this was carried through into her daily work.

Margaret was, however, also a very dear friend. She was a great listener, as well as being open and honest about her feelings, she was able to understand and share our worries and problems. Margaret had a great sense of humour (something that’s often needed at the Low Pay Unity), so we all felt we could talk freely to her, sometimes it was a struggle to stop talking and start working!

None of us knew Margaret well before she started work at the Low Pay Unit. Although we were only able to have her friendship for a year, we all felt that her influence on us is deep and long lasting, as a friend whom we have a tremendous love and admiration for, and a great pride in.”

Friendship agreement between Manchester and Puerto Cabezas

In Chapter 2, Campaigning (and not Setting a Rate) it says:

“at the September 1984 Policy Committee meeting, it was decided to establish a friendship agreement with a town in Nicaragua (see Appendix 2C) – Puerto Cabezas. At the following Council meeting, 19 of the Labour Right voted against this, but the decision was carried. When the formal agreement with Puerto Cabezas was signed, Graham Stringer was quoted in the Manchester Magazine as follows:

Our primary purpose is to show our support for the people of Nicaragua and to draw public attention to what is going on in that country. We want to discourage other states from interfering in the internal affairs of Nicaragua. We want Nicaragua to be free to make progress under its democratically-elected Sandinista government.

A number of Labour Party activists became very involved with this ‘twinning’ arrangement by making visits to Puerto Cabezas and contributing to development projects (eg health provision). They also organised socials, concerts and festivals in Manchester”

Photo of articleIn a clipping from the Daily Mail, Tuesday October 20, 1987 (click on image to enlarge) in the papers from Janet Watson it says:

“Labour councillor Dave Lunts, who visited Puerto Cabezas last year, said: ‘It is tragic news. Maggie and Margaret were on a general tour of Nicaragua, but Margaret made a special trip to Puerto Cabazas because of Manchester’s connection with it.”

Dave Lunts is mentioned a lot in Manchester 1984, so I thought I would try and track him down to see if he could add any further information about the connection between Puerto Cabazas and Manchester. I managed to contact him through Linked In. He is now Executive Director, Housing and Land, for the Greater London Authority and he has filled in some gaps about the friendship agreement.

Puerto Cabezas is one of the few towns on Nicaragua’s Pacific coast. David Lunts explained that this was part of an initiative of a number of ‘new left’ and other Labour local authorities who were working with the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (NSC) to support the elected Sandinista government who were struggling with the US armed Contra guerrillas in many parts of the country. The idea was to get each of Nicaragua’s main towns and cities teamed up with a UK ‘sister city’ in a co-ordinated effort to provide political support and lobbying together with practical help in terms of advice and money.

In November 1986 David Lunts was part of a formal civic delegation (the first and only one) to Puerto Cabazas. Other members were Paul Clarke (then the chair of Social Services), Rob Lambourne (then assistant director of Environmental Health) and Chris Jones (representing the local NSC). He says:

“The idea was to show both political solidarity but also to offer practical advice and support to the authorities in Puerto Cabazas, which was (probably still is) a very poor settlement facing major health and infrastructure challenges. This was the reason why Rob was with us but rather ironically, he went down with amoebic dysentery almost immediately and was out of action most of the visit, eventually returning home a week before our three week stay was due to end.”

“The trip was pretty controversial at the time and I remember we held a large press conference at Manchester Airport the morning we flew out and much of the national press and TV turned up. We responded by bringing in a class of Hulme school children who had been working on a project about their sister city, which was a useful distraction but it didn’t stop the Mail (I think) running the headline “War trip on the rates”. I remember this bit well as the local school teacher in charge of the kids became my wife!”

“Another thing I remember well is that I lost all the hundreds of photographs from the visit as the rolls of film came back ruined – I think because of the security screening at the airport. This was massively frustrating and to this day it still makes me cross!”

“To be honest, I’m not sure that there was ever much of a formal follow up to the visit, although a number of local NSC supporters did get over to Nicaragua. Puerto Cabazas was always very hard to get to as it is a considerable distance from the more developed western side of the country and at the time it could be unsafe because of Contra attacks. Margaret’s visit was one such trip…”

“The Nicaragua link waned from 1987 as the new left local government network frayed following the 1987 general election and as Manchester’s Labour group realigned around a ‘dented shield’ approach to managing cuts and focussing on staying in office.”

David Lunts has also clarified that

“the Manchester-Puerto Cabezas connection was managed via the Direct Links group and not directly via the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign (which was a national umbrella organisation).”

And he confirmed that there was

“a legal issue with the City Council being unable to offer any direct financial support to Puerto Cabezas and this is why we channelled some modest contribution into the Direct Links organisation – I recall the Council offering free use of rooms, a contribution towards events such as the carnival and it also employed a very good direct links officer, Carrie Pester.”

Remembering Margaret Roff in Puerto Cabezas

In the documents from Janet Watson there is something that looks like a Press Release (undated with the letterhead Manchester Puerto Cabezas Direct Links Group) and titled “Margaret Roff Honoured in Puerto Cabezas“. (PDF scan of document). The following is a transcription of that document.

“Former Manchester City Councillor Margaret Roff who tragically died in 1987 in a hotel fire whilst on a fact finding visit to Manchester’s sister-city of Puerto Cabezas in Nicaragua has had a new extension at the Bilwi Health Clinic there named in her honour.

Margaret Roff a Labour Member of the Manchester City Council from 1982 to 1987, was well known in many communities in Manchester for her campaigning work especially on the issues of low pay and equal opportunities. She travelled to Nicaragua in Autumn of 1987 in the company of another Manchester resident, Maggie Walker. Their final destination was Puerto Cabezas on the Atlantic Coast which has been twinned with Manchester since 1985. The purpose of their visit was to further develop the links between the two cities and in particular to visit the various projects supported by money raised at the Carnival Masquerade held annually in Manchester Town Hall.

During the course of their visit, a fire broke out in their hotel resulting in the death of nine people including Margaret Roff. Since then, Margaret has been commemorated in Puerto Cabezas every November 2nd – the Day of Rememberance in Nicaragua.

This year The Bilwi Clinic opened a new extension which has been built entirely with money raised at the Carnival Masquerade. The health authorities have named the new extension THE MARGARET ROFF BUILDING in honour of her memory and to thank the people of Manchester for their generous support over the past ten years. A commemorative plaque, commissioned by her friends in Manchester and made by the Chorlton Pottery, adorns the entrance hall.

The next Carnival Masquerade will be held in Manchester Town Hall on Saturday February 10th. All proceeds will be sent to the Bilwi Clinic to buy equipment for THE MARGARET ROFF BUILDING.”

A Lady Full of Surprises…

Newspaper headline and photo of Margaret Roff reaching for a book

Full transcribed text from a photocopy of newspaper article – undated and no attributed to which newspaper (possibly the Oswestry Advertizer?). Image of the article below the text.

If a Welsh-speaking book borrower wants to ask for advice in his native tongue at Oswestry branch library, he or she asks for the librarian – Miss Margaret Roff.

For although she comes from Sussex and has lived in Wales for a very short time, Miss Roff has taken the trouble to learn Welsh and, since taking charge at Oswestry, in August, 1975, she has progressed sufficiently to hold a conversation in the language quite well.

In fact, she’s a lady full of surprises. For this graduate in Sociology at Sheffield University, with a research project behind her, confesses that one of her favourite relaxations is to flop in front of a television screen and soak up the programmes as they come along.

“My work is quite demanding and I find watching TV very useful to help me unwind,” she said with refreshing candour.

She has many other interests, too. Not so surprisingly, she is dead keen on books and decided to go in for libarary work because of this and because she likes working with the public. She plays the piano for her own amusement and likes to go to concerts and the theatre with the local Recorded Music Society.

Welsh lessons at the College of Further Education and membership of the town’s Aelwyd, which is the Welsh Youth Group, take up some of her spare time and her interest in politics takes up most of what is left. She is chairman of the local Labour Party and is on the executive committees of the constituency and county Labour committees.

Because she selects the books for the library she is careful not to colour her choice with her own political preferences.

“There isn’t a great deal of demand for political reading here, so we just make sure that certain key items are represented. After that we rely on borrowing from other libraries as requests are made.”

‘Good’

Miss Roff worked for two years for Christian Aid in London, after graduating, and then decided it was time to obtain some kind of professional qualification.

“The subject of librarianship was suggested to me by someone I disliked very much, but this did not put me off – it still seemed like a good idea” said Miss Roff.

She approached the two London boroughs nearest to her, and, just by chance, one of them, Lewisham, had a trainee scheme for librarians.

She obtained a place in the scheme which involved a period of practical training and being sent to library school on full pay.

After a year’s post-graduate course at the school, Miss Roff went back to Lewisham Council and worked in a hospital library which was a new service for medical staff and patients. Afterwards she joined the staff of a large lending library and was then seconded to a research project for the Department of Education and Science for 18 months on staffing needs of public libraries.

She visited libraries all over the country, with the research team, finding out exactly what work was done by members of staff, how long it took them to do different tasks, and trying to work out what levels of staff were needed to provide an acceptable service.

“It gave me a chance to see a wide variety of library systems in operation” said Miss Roff. She came to Oswestry during the survey when the library was being altered in 1973 and, later on when she was looking for jobs and was offered the post of librarian for Oswestry, she accepted.

“I had formed quite a favourable impression of the library service in Shropshire, and this was one of the factors which drew me here. I also liked the look of the countryside inspite of the fact that we came here in February.”

Her interest in the Welsh language was stirred when she went to the College of Librarianship in Wales, in Aberystwyth, as liaison and training officer, after completing the research project. This work was concerned with the practical content of the courses and also with maintaining a link between the college and the profession.

“I felt that to get the best out of living in a Welsh community, I should learn the language,” said Miss Roff.

After being outside the regular library situation for three years, Miss Roff says she has enjoyed renewing her contact with books. She is happy in Oswestry at the moment but has made no plans for the future.

Looking around the library with Miss Roff was quite an education. The work of a public library has progressed far beyond the initial service of books.

There’s a telex information service; the county library catalogue to choose from; collections of books in specialised subjects; large print books for readers with sight problems and books for adults with reading difficulties.

There’s the impressive Welsh collection; the local history reference department; the record and language cassette lending clubs and copies of the Advertizer on microfilm.

There is space to exhibit the work of local artists and educational establishments and a well-stocked children’s library with its reading well for story-time sessions.

I asked Miss Roff about a few items of historial interest displayed at the library.

‘Quickly’

“These should really be in a town museum. There is no-one here with any experience of museum work and there is very little space to display things.

“The collection we have here is minimal because many items have been lost or broken during various library moves and alterations. If Oswestry had a separate museum people would come forward with exhibits and the collection would grow quite quickly,” she said.

There is no doubt she is 100 per cent right on this and one can only hope that the move in Oswestry to establish a museum comes to fruition before too long.

Image of text transcribed above

Other information about Manchester’s link with Puerto Cabezas

The extract below from Community Development: A Critical Approach By Margaret Ledwith, gives some context for Margaret’s trip Nicaragua (read more on Google Books):

“Participatory democracy in Nicaragua captured the hearts of those everywhere who campaigned for a just and peaceful world. The Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign was central to my life. In Nicaragua, in 1985, staying with the people of Puerto Cabezas in particular helped me to experience participatory democracy in action under the Sandinistas, advised by Paulo Freire. Literacy and health campaigns swept the country led by young people, filling this tiny country with hope. As part of a twinning campaign between Manchester and Puerto Cabezas, we organised for John McDonald, the well-respected adult educator, to go to Puerto Cabezas to develop a health centre. He wrote saying. ‘How could you do this to me?’. Even for someone like John, with many years’ experience in Africa, Puerto Caezas was at the edge of the world – all those who could get out had left, and the town was under constant threat. Frequent attacks were made by sea from Honduras and overland routes were landmined by the Contra. This little country, striving to achieve true participation, was perceived as such a threat to the USA that sonic booms were heard every day over Managua, creating fear in the minds of everyone. On a bus trip to Bluefields, we were almost swept up into a Contra raid – attacks like this were commonplace. It was terrifying! We worked to support workshops for those disabled as a result of the war, to twin schools with those in Manchester, to set up women’s sewing projects as local economies with the support of women’s groups in the UK, and to support a community artist to use wall murals with local people as a way of telling their stories.”

Links for further information

30th Anniversary of the Hotel Fire in Nicaragua that killed Margaret Roff Part 2  http://manchester1984.uk/30th-anniversary-hotel-fire-nicaragua-margaret-roff-part-2/ This gives more context about why the Left was so interested in Nicaragua and about Margaret Roff and Maggie Walker’s trip to Puerto Cabezas.

Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/

UK twinning links with towns, communities, schools and universities in Nicaragua http://www.nicaraguasc.org.uk/solidarity/twin-towns/

Benefit Event for Nicaragua Hurricane Appeal 11 October 2007 https://www.indymedia.org.uk/en/regions/manchester/2007/10/383394.html

Community Development: A Critical Approach By Margaret Ledwith on Google Books and on Amazon.

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