Words by Ed King / Pics by Mohammad Ashraf, Ed King, and WLCA
On Saturday 14 January, a memorial service for Erdington’s late MP Jack Dromey and Stockland Green Councillor Penny Holbrook was held at Six Ways Baptist Church.
Organised one year and one week after Jack Dromey death, the remembrance event was attended by community representatives, political peers, and members of the public – alongside friends and family of the two “titans” of local politics.
Hosted by Reverend Gerard Goshawk, minister at Six Ways Baptist Church, the first tribute was spoken by Erdington’s current MP Paulette Hamilton, who began by saying: “Before you go forward you have to look back and give honour.”
Ms Hamilton was a long standing friend and political colleague of both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, recanting the last time she spent with the former – walking dogs around Brookvale Park, an area in the late councillor’s Ward of Stockland Green she had championed and helped regenerate.
“I told her, look at all you’ve done here – look at the swans, the trees, the bushes,” continued Hamilton. “Our last conversation was so positive. As we go forward, she (Penny Holbrook) has left her own footprints for us to follow.”
Ms Hamilton continued to celebrate the life of Jack Dromey, a man she “absolutely adored” and would not “pretend to say I can walk in that man’s shoes. Jack was a doer, he brought people together. You could not tell Jack ‘you can’t do that’.”
Her final words were “honouring” both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, saying: “thank you for your hard work and rest in peace.”
Ifor Jones, Head of Partnerships for The Pioneer Group, was next up to speak – praising the “strong champion” he had first “crossed paths” with whilst fighting to save the Jaguar Land Rover Castle Bromwich plant.
Mr Jones continued to celebrate the once union man turned politician, using an aphorism those that knew Jack Dromey would have heard him say many times before: “nothing short of remarkable.”
Celebrating the life and work of the well loved and long serving Stockland Green Councillor, Jones surmised the “privilege” of working with Penny Holbrook by stating: “Penny was a force to be reckoned with.” A sentiment echoed throughout the service and by many who knew her.
Recently elected Castle Vale Councillor Ray Goodwin, who had a “good and firm friendship” with the “double act” of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, humoured about the first time he met the former and how “she put the fear of the man upstairs in me… she absolutely knew what she wanted.”
Then erstwhile Stockland Green Councillor Josh Jones, who represented the Ward alongside Penny Holbrook and worked closely with Jack Dromey, talked about the loss of “two people very close to me,” recanting stories from the campaign trail and how both would “go out of their way to help you.”
Next was a tribute from Abdul Latifin, who was rescued from Afghanistan by Jack Dromey and his office after the Taliban took control back of the war torn the country in 2021.
Mr Latifin paid his respects to his “close friend” and “global figure”, before celebrating the impact made by the “two great personalities” being remembered.
Local virtuoso Jobe Baker Sullivan, who runs Erdington Arts Forum, then performed the specially written ‘Jack Dromey Jig’ which had been penned for the MP’s memorial a year ago – joined by an ensemble of musicians.
Next to speak was Andy Winmill, current Director of Urban Devotion – a local faith based charity who work with young people across Perry Common and the Erdington constituency.
Mr Winmill joked that whilst “politicians aren’t always the most popular people”, over a year later there was still the desire and support to celebrate Cllr Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey MP.
He continued by praising the “tender-hearted” Holbrook and how neither prominent political figure were “defined by their politics.”
In one of the most touching moments in the service, Mr Winmill reminded those present how Jack Dromey would call truce on the political battle and “collaborate to get things done” – possibly best represented by his de facto leadership of the the Covid 19 Task Force during the coronavirus pandemic.
“How we are going to honour their (Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey) legacy,” continued Winmill, “is to build something together for Erdington,” ending his tribute to a heartfelt applause from the mixed faith congregation.
In an almost perfect representation of this bi-partisan sentiment, Birmingham Conservative Leader and Erdington Councillor Robert Alden stood up next to speak – a man who was often at the opposing end of the political spectrum to both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey but vocalised how “tragic” it was to “lose two titans of local politics.”
Mr Alden then celebrated the “passion Penny felt” which “came across in every conversation” he had with the late councillor, who was one vote away from becoming Council Leader in 2015.
“It was always about ‘what can we do to help’,” continued Alden, “what was best for local residents. Politics never came into it… she is so sorely missed.”
Turning his attention to Jack Dromey, perhaps Alden’s most immediate political rival for many years, the Birmingham Conservative Leader praised “his passion, fighting for worker’s rights” and how “Jack always put solidarity of workers first.”
Mr Alden, who had politically walked into the lion’s den to pay his respects – alongside his fellow Erdington Councillor Garth Moore – ended by saying: “to the family and friends (of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey), God bless you and God bless Erdington.”
Crossing back over the aisle, further respects were paid by current Stockland Green Councillors Amar Khan and Jane Jones – with the former remembering how Penny Holbrook would often “pop in” to his home and became “a good family friend.”
“It is a great honour and privilege to say a few words,” continued Cllr Khan. “Both will be forever missed and I know they are both watching from heaven. God bless their souls.”
Cllr Jane Jones then remembered how “Jack never, ever stopped”, even checking in with his constituency office whilst sunbathing on holiday in Sicily, and how “Penny was totally dedicated… so kind and generous.”
The final words of remembrance came from Linda Hines and Afzal Hussain, respectively Resident Director and Chief Officer of Witton Lodge Community Association (WLCA) – a Perry Common born organisation with a longstanding relationship with both Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey.
After an anecdote about the first time she met Jack Dromey, whilst standing in for a sick Father Christmas at Perry Common Community Hall, Linda Hines – who had not scripted or prepared her tribute – told: “I’m five foot, but I loved standing next to them (Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey) because they made me feel 6 foot tall.”
Hines continued to remember “my friend” Penny Holbrook and the dog walks they too would go on around Brookvale Park. “We put the world to rights,” told Hines, “and everyone we passed would say ‘hello Penny.”
Recognition was then given to the late and well loved Perry Common resident and community activist Mary Harvey, who passed away in 2022 aged 100 years old and who knew both local politicians well. “She’s with them now,” quipped Hines, “telling them what to do.”
Closing the personal tributes to Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, Afzal Hussain expressed the widely felt “deep, deep sadness they’re not here” and how “there is still that sense of loss” over a year after both had passed.
“They created relationships,” continued Hussain, “they brought people together.
“They genuinely would make a difference. When you talked to them you felt they were really listening to you; you felt special and you could take on the world.”
Hines and Hussain then announced a new bursary for young people in Erdington called Ladders of Opportunity – set up in memory of Penny Holbrook and Jack Dromey, through equal investment from Witton Lodge Community Association and The Pioneer Group.
The memorial service was then brought to a close with a prayer from Reverend David King, minister at New Life Church in Erdington, who praised the “passion and diligence” of the remembered public servants.
Penny Holbrook was found dead at her Abbey Road home on Sunday 21 November 2021, aged 43.
Jack Dromey was found dead at his Erdington residence on Friday 7 January, aged 73.
Both will long be remembered for their kindness, compassion, and unflinching dedication to the people of Erdington. Rest in peace.