A photo of slain MP Jo Cox and her husband outside the British Prime Minister's residence lies amid floral tributes in Birstall, the northern English town where she was killed.
Tributes honor Jo Cox
01:02 - Source: CNN
Birstall, UK CNN  — 

Nobody is shopping in the supermarket. The cafes are empty of customers. And the library is even quieter than normal.

This is Market Street in Birstall, northern England; until two days ago, it was just another ordinary small street, in an ordinary small town — one of hundreds of unassuming spots just like it.

British MP Jo Cox killed

Now, with a police officer on guard, copious amounts of blue and white crime scene tape strung across the road, and the world’s media camped out around the corner, it is anything but.

Messages from British Prime Minister David Cameron and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in a book of condolence at St. Peter's Church.

What happened here on Thursday afternoon, as shoppers wandered among the market stalls nearby, shocked the country, halted campaigning in the European Union referendum, and led to claims that democracy itself is under attack.

Local Member of Parliament Jo Cox was set upon – shot and stabbed – as she left a meeting in Market Street’s modern redbrick library. Cox, a 41-year-old former aid worker and mother-of-two was gravely wounded, and died a short time later.

It is hard to overstate the impact her death has had. It is the first killing of a politician in the UK in a generation – the last, in 1990, was carried out by the IRA.

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In the quarter of a century since, Britons have come to believe that while public shootings occur so often in the United States and politicians’ lives are routinely threatened elsewhere in the world, such things simply do not happen here.

This is Britain, home of civility and the stiff upper lip.

But it has happened here. Just there, down the road. Outside that library.

A woman lays flowers at a memorial to MP Jo Cox in Birstall.


Open meetings or “constituency surgeries” like the one Cox was holding just before she was attacked are the bread and butter of life for British MPs and the people they serve – regular opportunities for anyone to turn up and ask for help or air a grievance. Subjects range from neighborly arguments over the height of a fence to major geopolitical issues.

By their very nature, these meetings are public, and well publicized, and there is rarely any security . They also allow voters to get to know their representatives.

Hairdresser Claire Saville met Cox at one of her surgeries last year when she was in need of advice.

“I was quite emotional, and she was very reassuring, she and her colleague made me a drink, and she was very helpful,” Saville remembers. “I thought by going to her it would help, and it really did.”

Hairdresser Claire Saville said whoever takes over from Jo Cox as the town's MP will have 'massive shoes to fill'

“Everybody has a perception about MPs, but they’re just doing a job,” says Saville. “That’s what she was doing, helping people out, going about her daily business and this happens. I can’t get my head around it. I won’t ever be able to walk down that street again without thinking about her.”

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Altat Patel, who works in the local kebab shop says Cox offered him support at a difficult time.

“She helped me with some family problems,” he explains. “She was a lovely lady – very helpful to anybody and everybody. You’d never have thought something like this would happen in a million years.”

Malazan Hussein and Altat Patel both knew Jo Cox; "We campaigned together for the election," says Hussein. "It is so sad -- 41 is too young!"


In her maiden speech in the House of Commons, a little over a year ago, Jo Cox spoke of her “joy” at being elected to represent the “diverse community” of Batley and Spen where she grew up. “I’m Batley and Spen born and bred, and I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

The area from which she came was, she explained, “a gathering of typically independent, no-nonsense, proud Yorkshire towns and villages,” which had been “deeply enhanced by immigration” from Ireland, India and Pakistan.

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“The thing that surprises me, time and time again as I travel around, is that we are far more united and have far more in common than that which divides us.”

Cox’s affection for her multicultural hometown is echoed in the affection those of all backgrounds feel for her. “She was a lovely lady,” says Manni Singh, helping out behind the counter at the Shop Locally convenience store.

“She cared a lot about people, it didn’t matter what race – black, white or Asian like myself – she treated everybody the same.”

This is a solid Labour constituency, but there is still a Conservative club here; it sits side by side with the Bangla curry restaurant and takeaway, sharing a building whose Union flag currently flies at half-staff.


Birstall is an old mill town that grew prosperous thanks to the woolen industry, and even provided some of the settings for novels by the Bronte sisters, though nowadays it is better known it for the IKEA store that sits between here and the M62 motorway.

Pretty stone cottages and workers’ terraces sit alongside council houses, and it feels well-cared for: empty lots and abandoned verges have been turned into gardens, old tires painted and “upcycled” into flowerbeds planted by volunteers as part of the Birstall in Bloom scheme.

In the market, its few empty yellow and blue-roofed stalls providing journalists with some shelter from the rain, mother and daughter Dawn and Gemma Sykes are watching as their town is turned into a media circus.

“This is Birstall,” says Gemma, gesturing to the shops lining the square. “This is it. All it’s got is a Co-op (supermarket), hairdressers and takeaways.”

Mother and daughter Dawn and Gemma Sykes; "Who will we get now? Who's going to be as caring and thorough and kind?" asks Gemma.

“It’s a quiet place,” says Dawn. “Everything happens but nothing happens, if you know what I mean.

“You get people walking past each other, giving a polite smile or a nod. People get on with their own day-to-day business, with their own lives, but they look out for each other too.”

Looking out for others, taking care of them and advocating on their behalf was Jo Cox’s life’s work – both as an aid agency staffer whose work took her to a succession of war zones and back home in the area where she grew up, and where she became the MP.

At St. Peter’s Church, British flag bunting is strung up around the churchyard, left over from the royal tea party held here to mark the Queen’s 90th birthday last weekend. On Thursday night, celebrations gave way to commemorations, as Cox was remembered by a crowd of hundreds of people at a vigil.

It was standing room only, says local vicar Paul Knight, as he battles to post an update about Prime Minister David Cameron’s visit to the church’s Facebook page via a phone that has barely stopped ringing since Cox’s death.

“Jo was brought up in the area and was passionate about it; as a local girl, she wanted to improve the lives of the people here,” he says. “She was fiery, and she was determined to make a difference.”

Local vicar Paul Knight says Jo Cox was "fiery, and she was determined to make a difference."


Throughout the day, a makeshift shrine of cards, candles, photographs and flowers grows beneath the statue of local scientist Joseph Priestley, who discovered oxygen.

From elaborate rose wreaths to cut-price bunches of tulips, it’s the sort of memorial we’ve grown used to seeing – in Orlando, in Paris – but even those adding offerings of their own look somewhat alarmed to see it sprouting on their own street.

Satellite trucks line up outside the Kwik-Save, while local residents, bemused to suddenly find their hometown in the full glare of the world’s media, look on from the steps outside the Birstall Sports and Social Club.

Bishops Bakery, its windows full of ceramic cakes, is doing a roaring trade, selling rolls and buns to the crowds of journalists, but many of the other shops and businesses around the town center have been shuttered for the day.

Down the road, the butcher and one of the village’s many hairdressers have notes on their doors explaining that they have closed “as a mark of respect” and “due to the horrific and tragic events.”


Laura Woodbridge and her daughter Lyla came to leave flowers at the makeshift memorial to Jo Cox.

Laura Woodbridge told CNN she’d come to lay flowers “for someone truly remarkable” at the memorial with her daughter Lyla.

“It’s such an easy time to scapegoat people, and Jo never did that,” she said. “What she fought for – not just us here, but for the people in Syria and everywhere else, she did because she believed in it, it was just who she was.”

“She was an absolutely dedicated bundle of energy,” says local Labour Party activist Peter Brierley. “She was constantly working. It didn’t matter what the problem was, she’d make time to talk to you — she had time for everybody, and she made a massive impact on Batley and Spen.”

Brierley said Cox’s sudden death had left him with a particular regret: “We had some differences of opinion, but she’d never hold them against you. Sadly, the last time I saw her, I called her a ‘disgrace,’ and because of what happened, I can never withdraw that comment.

“We didn’t always agree, but I was looking forward to working with her for the next four years. She’d done so much in such a short time, but there was the potential for her to do massive things.”

Like many others, Gemma Sykes is struck by the sheer unfairness of what happened to Cox: “She went all the way to Afghanistan and was fine, and then came to Birstall and got killed here.”

And, like others, she’s left wondering who will pick up the baton and carry on the much-loved MP’s work: “Who will we get now? Who’s going to be as caring and thorough and kind? Whoever it is they won’t be Jo Cox.”

“It will be very hard to find someone of Jo’s caliber, with her passion and her devotion to the people of this area,” says Paul Knight.

Claire Saville agrees: “She was a tiny, petite lady, but whoever takes her place has massive shoes to fill.”