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On April 27, 2013, BBC2 aired a 90-minute documentary on Margaret Thatcher’s early years, Young Margaret.
The programme content was based largely on the many letters the future (late?) Prime Minister exchanged with her sister Muriel, four years older.
It is still difficult for people to imagine that Margaret Thatcher was ever a youngster — or human. The debate goes on in our own home. SpouseMouse maintains she ‘ruined Britain forever’. I say she was preferable to James Callaghan or Neil Kinnock. My better half replies, ‘She killed off our society. End of’.
Anyway, onto the programme, which I found fascinating. I touched on some of these topics after Lady Thatcher died several weeks ago. Young Margaret elaborated more on them.
The Methodist Church
Alf and Beatrice Roberts were faithful Methodists.
Alf did not allow Sunday newspapers in the house. He did not find them suitable Sabbath reading material.
For Alf, the Methodist Church was the only church. He was dismissive of other Protestant denominations and had a particular distrust of the Catholic Church. He became concerned when Margaret made friends with one of her schoolmates, Mary. Alf feared that Mary would lead Margaret to Catholicism.
Alf was a lay minister. As such, the Roberts family attended church services three times on Sunday. Alf preached at many of these. Margaret absorbed these sermons, which in many ways, defined her spiritual and temporal values.
Although Margaret later attended more Anglican services as an adult, she and her husband Denis (Anglican) were married in the Wesleyan Chapel in City Road, London.
High fashion and impeccable appearance
Alf and Beatrice raised their two daughters above Alf’s corner grocery in Grantham, Lincolnshire.
Beatrice preferred to stay in the background, and it does not appear as if the girls were particularly close to her. That said, Beatrice was a seamstress and the girls absorbed their knowledge of fabric and fashion from her. Beatrice made items of clothing for Margaret, including lingerie. Beatrice also sewed a variety of items for the home, including curtains.
As an aside, anyone who has had a tailor or seamstress in the family cannot help but be interested in good taste with regard to clothes and appearance. Some readers might wonder why I place such value on aesthetics. It is because my paternal great-grandfather (whom I never met) was a tailor. Like Beatrice Roberts, he made many outfits — including coats — for his daughters, among them my grandmother. My grandmother took all of this on board, and what she couldn’t sew for my late father and aunt when they were young, she bought with a particular eye for fabric and cut, even during the Great Depression. My aunt didn’t sew too much but always bought stylish suits and skirts. Similarly, my father was very careful in choosing his attire. My mother also had an eye for clothes — quite possibly because my maternal grandmother spent hours at the sewing machine for her daughters. Along with attention to clothes goes hair and accessories. Dad had two or three pair of high-quality cufflinks which he wore; he was particular. The women in the family chose jewellery with care and their hair was immaculate.
So it was with the Roberts girls, Margaret in particular. Although Alf did not allow his daughters to go to dances until they had finished secondary school, both had fashion sense. When Muriel was away in Birmingham studying physiotherapy, Margaret would write her asking if she could borrow a strand of pearls for social events.
In an interview from 1982, Mrs Thatcher (as she was then) explained why she enjoyed wearing pearls:
They give the face a little lift.
She also advised:
Never press a hem. If you want to let the skirt down, you won’t be able to [because of the crease].
In letters to Muriel, Margaret described in great detail what she wore to dances and, once she went up to Oxford, dates with her beaux.
In fact, even one of Margaret’s boyfriends from Oxford — Tony Bray — could recall years later what she wore when they once went out for a country pub lunch. It was a fetching blue dress with matching coat. Bray said his date looked stunning.
Incidentally, the programme revealed that it was Tony Bray who, years later, mooted the idea of council tenants purchasing their own flats and homes. He and Margaret — then Prime Minister — discussed the plan privately at his suggestion.
Margaret also illustrated her letters with new additions to her wardrobe, including lingerie. She was particularly delighted when another suitor, Willie Cullen (more about whom later), gave her a beautiful black leather handbag with a monogram on the flap: MR. She wrote Muriel saying that, although she had no intention of marrying Willie, she was duty bound to continue dating him now that he had given her such a lovely gift.
Margaret also went into great detail about every meal she had, including drinks. She described the restaurant or ballroom decor in a way that must have made Muriel feel she was there with her.
Mark Thatcher — her son — told the interviewer that he rarely saw his mother in trousers. She wore them only when instructed to for certain official visits (e.g. military).
Home life in Grantham
Alf ran the corner shop, conveniently placed right at the dividing line between the middle and working class neighbourhoods of Grantham. By all accounts, he was a good grocer.
Conversation at home revolved around either the church or politics. In later years, Alf became mayor of Grantham and an alderman.
Therefore, it is no wonder that Margaret became politically active as an adult.
Alf was conscious that he was providing Muriel and Margaret with advantages that few of their contemporaries had. He later wrote Muriel about this, lamenting that Margaret did not seem very appreciative of the sacrifices and trail blazing he had done on their behalf.
He was right. My late mother-in-law was about the same age as Margaret Thatcher. She desperately wanted to go to university, but her father — an executive — said that girls were unsuited to higher education. My mother-in-law waited until she was married to pursue her interest in painting and art history. As a young mother, she also earned her City and Guilds certification in tailoring. She sewed many of her own outfits as well as items for the home: curtains, silk lampshades and cushions.
Schooldays and a love of America
Margaret was a diligent student and won a scholarship to Kesteven & Grantham Girls’ School, which describes itself as ‘a specialist science school’.
Note that she later took the title Baroness Thatcher of Kestaven (pron. ‘KESS-tuh-vun’), not Grantham!
It was at this time that she and Muriel began many years of correspondence. Margaret wrote of teachers she disliked, students whom she considered academic deadbeats and her own detailed school reports.
Margaret became a prefect and, in 1943, head girl. Her classmates remember her as a young woman with presence who was self-contained, mature beyond her years. One said that most were ‘impressed’ and ‘in awe of her’.
In her free time, Margaret enjoyed going to the State cinema in Grantham. She wrote Muriel about the films she and Beatrice saw. The same year she became head girl also saw the arrival of the United States Air Force at a base near Grantham.
The combination of American films at the State and American military in her town started her lifelong love affair with the United States. Thatcher biographer, journalist Charles Moore, explained that Margaret would have known of Ronald Reagan from the movies she saw and that he represented the American man she knew from the Second World War. Therefore, it was normal that the two would create or cement ‘the special relationship’ between the two countries in the 1980s.
Somerville College, Oxford
When Margaret went up to Oxford to read Chemistry at Somerville College, her life and connection with Grantham ended.
Again, Alf deserves much credit, especially for encouraging Margaret to apply to Oxford. Many fathers would not have done so. In fact, as Kesteven & Grantham Girls’ School did not offer Latin, Alf hired a a local schoolteacher to tutor Margaret in Latin so that she could pass the entrance exam.
Oxford students were encouraged to do their part for the war effort and Margaret, not surprisingly, joined the committee which provided entertainment for American troops stationed nearby.
It took Margaret time to settle in to life in college. She wasn’t close with the other girls at Somerville. Some of her contemporaries interviewed said this was because Somerville was known for being left-wing. However, I think Margaret had the outlet for her feelings and experiences in her correspondence with Muriel, so that need was already answered. It is also worth noting that both young women had similar forthright and feisty personalities.
The other girls, those interviewed said, noticed that Margaret was self-contained and had an intellectual curiosity.
It wasn’t long then before she needed an outlet for this. She joined the Oxford University Conservative Association. One of her contemporaries was the Duke of Buccleuch (pron. ‘Bookh-lew’). (The Duke, incidentally, is probably the most qualified by heritage to be our monarch.) He described Margaret Roberts as
very focussed — she knew what she was doing.
These qualities impressed not only the Duke but also the other members of the aristocracy who belonged to the university’s Conservative Association. In fact, the Duke once organised a whipround for Margaret when she was low on funds. Other members donated gladly.
Margaret’s social life largely involved around parties and dances with Conservative Association members. They frequently met at the city’s iconic Randolph Hotel, which features in a number of Morse episodes.
So esteemed was Margaret that the Conservative Association elected her president.
She earned a Second Class degree in Chemistry in 1947.
The world of work — and courtship
As is common for many university graduates, the real world is a letdown. Margaret had the same experience as she interviewed for her first job.
She also had the handicap of being a woman who was forthright and knew her own mind — qualities which, even today, are valued in men but not the ‘fairer sex’. One ICI interviewer wrote that she was too overbearing to ever have a career there. This may go some way towards explaining why there is no ICI today.
Margaret was hired by a plastics firm in Manningtree, Essex, on the River Stour. Manningtree was close enough to London, which pleased her as she had hoped to enrol in law school. However, letters to Muriel reveal that Margaret found the work tedious and, contrary to what she had thought, the post to which she was assigned offered no advancement to management.
Still, work, as we know, pays the bills and finances social activities. Margaret missed her sparkling Oxford social life and decided to join the Colchester (Essex) Young Conservatives.
Another aside here. In the years following the Second World War, the Young Conservative associations were a gateway to courtship and marriage. My mother- and father-in-law met through the Young Conservatives as did their closest friends, with whom they maintained lifelong contact. Friendships and marriages formed there were strong and, from what I understand, the enthusiasm was infectious not only on the hustings but at social gatherings.
Margaret briefly dated a fellow Young Conservative, Brian Harrison, who had recently graduated from Cambridge. He remembers her as being a very good dancer.
In October 1948, Margaret was part of Oxford’s graduate delegation attending the Conservative Party conference that year. It was through that meeting that she met the people who would later propose her in 1950 as Conservative candidate for Parliament in Dartford, Kent — a safe Labour seat. One Dartford Conservative described her enthusiasm:
Hearing her speak was exciting!
Margaret began dating a farmer, Willie Cullen, aged 35 — the man who would later buy her the monogrammed handbag. Margaret seemed to find out all sorts of financial details about Willie and described his situation to Muriel. Whilst he seemed to fit the bill, she was unsure whether she could live as a farmer’s wife. She also wrote Muriel about a dinner party he had where the other farmers’ wives went off to the sitting room afterward. Margaret stayed with the men to talk politics, which was not well received by some of the farmers. One leapt to her defence saying that there was no way the women would be discussing politics. Margaret was allowed to remain with the men.
Margaret enjoyed being with men a few years older than she. Those who were interviewed for the programme suggested that she actively sought them out. In the latter days of her relationship with Willie, she also met 36-year old Denis Thatcher and 47-year old Dr Robert Henderson. Thatcher, divorced, owned his own business. Henderson, never married, was the inventor of the British version of the iron lung. He worked at a hospital in Dartford.
In 1950, Margaret was the Conservative candidate for MP of Dartford. At a local civic event, her Labour opponent expressed his fascination with her and asked her to dance. Although Margaret later lost the election, she was able to increase the number of Conservative votes by several thousand.
It was at this time when Margaret was seeing more of the doctor and less of Willie. She felt obliged to make the break as painless as possible for Willie. In a letter to Muriel, she effectively handed the farmer over to her sister, provided she was in agreement. Muriel met Willie and within several weeks they were engaged. Margaret was maid of honour at their wedding. Muriel settled in to farming life easily and the couple raised three children. One of them, Andrew, was interviewed for the programme. Muriel bequeathed her letter collection to him.
Meanwhile, Margaret had concerns about Dr Henderson, despite her great admiration for him. She was aware that they had come from different social classes and feared he would marry someone else. She believed it was only a matter of time.
Life in London — and marriage
In 1951, Margaret moved to London. She worked hard to fix up her own flat with some assistance from decorators. Denis Thatcher proved a welcome distraction from hours spent on DIY.
Three months after moving into the flat, Margaret broke off her relationship with Dr Henderson. However, she seems to have remained friends with him as evidenced by a medical question she put to him some years later when her son Mark was born.
Although Margaret was not keen on Denis when she first dated him — prior to moving to London — he grew on her and they enjoyed each other’s company. Alf also gave his stamp of approval to the relationship.
Later that year, Margaret ran again as Conservative candidate for Parliament for Dartford. Again, she lost to her Labour opponent but continued to build on the Conservative votes from the preceding year. Denis helped to campaign for her but they kept their engagement a secret; as Denis was divorced, it would not have looked good for her. Recall that, two years later, Princess Margaret was forced to break off her relationship with Group Captain Peter Townsend for the same reason. It would not have reflected well on the Royal Family, especially the young Queen.
This [marriage] was the biggest thing in life!
The couple spent their wedding night at the Savoy before flying to Madeira for their honeymoon.
And so it proved an enduring, loving union. Denis was a reliable and unfailing source of support for his wife. He was happy to remain in the background, offering advice in private. He also acknowledged that he didn’t care much for meeting people, although he did meet many. He had a close circle of loyal friends. Private Eye parodied these friendships whilst Margaret was Prime Minister in the series Dear Bill, a collection of fictional and witty letters from Denis to one of his friends.
The Thatchers lived in Denis’s home in London’s fashionable Chelsea, where they often entertained their friends.
It wasn’t long afterward that Margaret began studying law. As if this were not enough, she applied to Conservative Central office in June of 1952, asking them to put her forward as a Parliamentary candidate. Even then, the Conservatives were looking for more female candidates — this is nothing new. Yet, this proved difficult. Margaret’s forthright personality did not always gel with the local Conservative associations. Central Office made other excuses: she didn’t understand farming; industrial constituencies needed men, not women.
In August 1953, Margaret gave birth prematurely to fraternal twins Mark and Carol. Denis, who hadn’t expected his wife to go into labour so early, was at a test match at the Oval at the time.
Five months later, Margaret passed her law exam. A nanny minded the babies, but Margaret wrote Muriel that she was conscious that the nanny also needed her rest, so she shared night duty with her. To give her more time at home, Margaret decided to specialise in tax law.
It was around this time that Margaret and Muriel wrote each other less. Each had their own lives by now. Muriel was on the farm in Essex and Margaret was still eyeing a political career. However, the families still visited each other, which continued even when Margaret spent prime ministerial weekends at Chequers.
Andrew Cullen said that Margaret Thatcher — one of the most famous women in the world for over a decade — was an affectionate aunt, ‘like anyone else’s aunt’. He added that she remembered the Cullen children’s birthdays and big occasions. He described their parents and the Thatchers as
all good friends.
Life in politics
In 1958, Margaret was selected as candidate for Finchley and won the seat in 1959 with a majority of 16,000 votes. One of her constituents at the time said:
We were lucky to have her!
At last, Margaret Thatcher was able to take her place as a Member of Parliament.
Alf was ‘proud as punch’ to see Margaret in the House of Commons. He died in 1970, so never saw her become Britain’s first Prime Minister in 1978.
Once she became an MP, Margaret’s correspondence with Alf became rarer and rarer. Alf wrote Muriel with his concerns. Muriel’s contact with her sister was somewhat more sustained.
All credit to Alf and Denis
Mrs Thatcher was careful to credit Alf with her success.
Indeed, it could be Methodism’s prominent placement of women as church leaders which influenced Alf in ensuring his daughters were well educated. He also had no objection to Margaret’s entering politics.
John and Charles Wesley’s mother Susanna was a powerful influence not only in the home but during Mr Wesley’s absences. Susanna, a lay preacher told me, used to lead prayer meetings in the family home whilst Wesley was in London.
John Wesley granted a licence to preach to six women, the first being Sarah Crosby in 1761. It seems unlikely that these women softened the church. As he was such a keen evangelist, I doubt he would have chosen women who were seen to dilute the Methodist message.
This is what Wesley had to say in a sermon of his from 1786, ‘On Visiting the Sick’. He, like I, believed that keeping women submissive is Islamic (emphases mine):
It has long passed for a maxim with many that “women are only to be seen but not heard.” And accordingly many of them are brought up in such a manner as if they were only designed for agreeable playthings! No, it is the deepest unkindness; it is horrid cruelty; it is mere Turkish barbarity. And I know not how any women of sense and spirit can submit to it.
It is heartbreaking to read today of ‘Christian’ men — Catholic and Protestant — who want to restrict women in society.
My Catholic maternal grandfather was guilty of this around the time when Alf was encouraging his girls to fly the coop. My mother, Lady Thatcher’s age, was forbidden to move out of the house until she married. My mum — gifted, responsible and diligent — dreamed of moving to the big city and pursuing her own career, but he said no. My mother did not marry until she was 35. She had a long wait. Even then, she was handed over to my dad. She never had any independence in between. Yet, her Catholic friends from childhood did; by the time my mother got married, her girlfriends had been living on their own for years.
Therefore, finding out more about Alf’s fatherly example is important to me. We need good models of manhood, fathers who do not fear or denigrate women.
Denis Thatcher falls into this category, too.
Again, it is soul-destroying to read about Catholics and Protestant husbands who think it’s all right to beat their wives into submission.
I give Denis full credit for being such a wonderful husband and support to his wife. Her ambitions were not his, yet he was there for her. He was his wife’s confidant. They were best friends as well as a married couple.
I would ask all men to reflect carefully on their attitudes towards women. Some are angry at them. Some love them as long as they are subjugated. Some fathers have a really unhealthy relationship with their daughters (purity rituals). Some husbands have a pathological and abusive relationship with their wives.
To those men, my message is to look at the example of Alf and Denis and to learn well from it.
It doesn’t matter what we think of Margaret Thatcher’s politics. What does matter is that she had a father who raised her to lead and a husband who faithfully encouraged that leadership.
As Easter Monday is a bank holiday in the UK, perhaps my British readers will watch a film sometime during the next 24 hours. It might even be a J Arthur Rank film, introduced by the famous gong, pictured at left.
On November 21, 2010, the BBC devoted its Sunday evening Songs of Praise to J Arthur Rank, film industry mogul and philanthropist.
Not many people today know that the 1st (and only) Baron Rank (pictured, right) was also a practising Methodist. He was born in Kingston upon Hull 1888, the seventh and last child of a wealthy flour mill owner and philanthropist, Joseph Rank. Incidentally, the business — Joseph Rank Limited — later became part of two other well-known flour companies, Hovis and McDougall. Combined, the concern was known as Rank Hovis McDougall and was part of the Premier Foods conglomerate until 2007. Joseph Rank’s name lives on in an eponymous trust, about which you can see more on its home page and blog.
What follows is a synopsis of the programme and other sources as cited. Pam Rhodes is the Songs of Praise presenter. I’m sorry to say that her supercilious smirking got on my nerves. She did not appear to take the subject matter too seriously, although, I must admit this is the only time I have ever seen the programme.
Joseph Rank was a keen competitor in the milling business, even travelling to the United States in 1902, to discover how to beat the Americans at their own flour processing. (Photo at left courtesy of the Joseph Rank Trust.) However, he was also deeply devoted to Jesus Christ and to Methodism. He wrote a letter to Arthur and another son in which he said (emphasis mine):
God can help you if only you seek him in sincerity and truth.
Having said that, he was a stern taskmaster and had the respectful obedience of his children as well as the admiration of his friends and associates.
Arthur Rank followed in the family footsteps at the mill. In his spare time, he taught Sunday School. By the 1930s, he illustrated his lessons with the new medium of film. The use of religious and moral short features, some of which he had made himself, spread to other churches. Consequently, he founded the Religious Film Society. Rank’s first film was called Mastership, which featured a well-known Methodist minister, the Revd W H Lax. The film showed a story of workmen falling prey to drink, with one of them landing in jail. Mr Lax asks the man whether he will choose God or drink. Mr Lax also delivers a sermon in the film.
Although Arthur Rank wanted to show the films to a wider audience, he had no takers. Around this time, film was thought to lead people into bad ways. The Methodist Times complained about this, to which the London Evening News replied that the Methodist Church should look for a solution. Rank stepped up to the challenge and founded the British National Films Company.
As his great-nephew, Colin Rank, said of Rank’s unintentional transition from flour to film, ‘God took him along a road’. This road led Rank to hold interests in British film studios and other media concerns. By 1937, his company became known as the Rank Organisation, which, even today, sounds rather grand, indeed.
The Rank Organisation had its headquarters in Soho’s Wardour Street, which was at the time, where British film companies had their offices. By 1940, Rank owned five film studios, two newsreel companies and 650 cinemas. In 1945, he said he wished to open up the world to British films:
if they are good enough and entertaining enough.
His biographer, fellow Methodist Michael Wakelin, said that Rank had hoped
the country and the world would be a better place wherever Rank films are shown.
Wakelin developed his interest in Rank from an early age. His mother used to take him to the cinema where, as the gong sounded, she would whisper to him
He’s one of us, you know — a Methodist!
Ironically, when Arthur was younger, his father Joseph saw little to commend him. Yet, as Rank moved towards middle age, he exhibited — out of all his brothers — his father’s gritty, steely determination. By 1943, he dominated the British film industry and would continue to do so for the next 20 years.
Yet, Rank was not without his critics. Some Britons took him at his word when he said that he would show films with good moral messages. Yet, as any classic filmwatcher today will see, the Rank Organisation produced a variety of films, including The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus and The Wicked Lady. Although we see them shown on afternoon television now, some were intended at the time for adult viewing only. The Wicked Lady was a case in point. However, Rank thought that even racy stories could carry a powerful message for adults. In the case of The Wicked Lady, good wins out in the end, which illustrates his point. He wanted to reach as many possible audiences as he could.
Someone in Songs of Praise compared Rank to John Wesley in that they both had an easily-accessible, popular style of evangelising. Wesley was known for his outdoor sermons in the public square and for really reaching people wherever they were at that moment. Similarly, Rank’s films touched cinemagoers in much the same way. Films can tap into the places a sermon cannot.
Although Rank had amassed a spectacular fortune, he never lost sight of God. He started a mobile cinema which would stop at churches to show religious films. One of these was about John Bunyan. The mobile cinema was another useful method of evangelisation for all ages, particularly young people. At home, Rank’s wife Nell helped him keep his feet firmly on the ground. He relied on her as an informal advisor, often asking whether certain ideas and plans were worth following through. It was not unusual for her to say no!
J Arthur Rank was made a life peer in 1957. Both Lord and Lady Rank wished to give something back to society, specifically Hull and the surrounding countryside. Lord Rank created the Arthur Rank Centre, which puts the Church at the heart of its endeavours. The centre provides training for clergy entering rural ministry and runs the Rural Stress Helpline for those in rural areas in need of encouragement and help. A farmer’s lot is not an easy one these days. The Revd Dr Gordon Gatward is the current centre director. He says that he often feels the presence of Lord Rank when he has decisions to make! Lord Rank also instituted Arthur Rank Training which works with 200-300 youths, providing them with useful and relevant machine and manual skills for employment.
Lord and Lady Rank had two daughters — Shelagh and Ursula. Shortly before he died in 1972, aged 83, Lord Rank wrote a family member:
You have big tasks before you — but the Power available is tremendous.
It was intimated in the programme that ‘Power’ meant the Holy Trinity.
Songs of Praise read out his personal daily prayer, which is as follows:
Dear Heavenly Father, You always loved me. I ask in Jesus’s name for strong, active and continuous faith that I may always be conscious that the Holy Spirit lives in me.
What follows are a selection of his favourite hymns, which came live from the congregation of Carshalton Methodist Church (Surrey) in the programme. I’m sorry that those are unavailable to share with you, so I have selected representative YouTube videos from other churches.
It’s worth noting that Lord Rank’s favourite hymn was ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ (hooray!):
He also liked ‘Love Divine’ (Blaenwern):
‘O Jesus, I Have Promised (Day of Rest):
and ‘Lead Us, Heavenly Father, Lead Us’ (Mannheim):