Authors: Charles Moore
Tags: #Non-Fiction, #Biography, #Politics
Margaret was not considered an intellectual genius, but she was right at the top of the class, and consistently got good reports and good results. As early as Christmas 1936 she is recorded as having ‘worked steadily and well throughout the term. She has definite ability, and her cheeriness makes her a very pleasant member of her form. Her behaviour is excellent.’
Even after promotion to the A Stream, Margaret continued to come top every year except one, in which she came second, and reports commended her for virtues like ‘care and thoroughness’. Words like ‘very satisfactory’, ‘thoughtful and helpful’ and ‘keenly interested’ abound. Her ‘power of sustained interest’ was noted. When Margaret applied to Oxford, Miss Gillies, who, as we shall see, had a scratchy relationship with her pupil, nevertheless noted, in her reference, that ‘she is a very logical thinker’ and ‘has a very clear mind’.
Miss Gillies’s final report had a touch of coolness in its praise: ‘Margaret is ambitious and deserves to do well. She has shown herself capable of a very thorough mastery of facts and is, I consider, now ready for the experience of wider scholarship which a University education can offer.’
Margaret accepted and admired the ethos of KGGS. Although, as education secretary from 1970 to 1974, she found herself landed with the task of permitting the closure of grammar schools if local authorities demanded it, and thus closed more than anyone in her position before or since, the process made her miserable. She loved grammar schools, which she regarded as the ladder of opportunity for able children from unprivileged
families. When she visited KGGS in 1986 to open the Roberts Hall in memory of her father, who had been, for almost forty years, first a governor and then chairman of the Governors, she declared: ‘I would not have been in No. 10 but for this school.’
And, after an earlier visit, as leader of the Opposition in 1977, she wrote, in her letter of thanks to the then headmistress, ‘For me, the school’s motto has always been particularly true.’
The motto is
Veras hinc ducere voces
– ‘To lead true voices from here’ (a quotation from Horace’s
) – and it is fair to say that, despite all the evasions that politics requires, Margaret Thatcher was always exceptionally concerned to tell the truth as she saw it. When she accepted a peerage, she took her title from her school, not from her town, becoming Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven. Replying to a letter of congratulation from Shirley Ellis, she said: ‘I am glad our KGGS friends like the title.’
It is probably the case, however, that Margaret’s relationship with her school, as with Grantham itself, was slightly more ambiguous than she would have allowed. Local feeling that she could have done more to use her fame to promote the school’s interests may perhaps be discounted – she did keep well in touch with the school and she did, after all, have other things to do – but what is more significant is the conflict Margaret encountered as a pupil when she decided to try for Oxford to read chemistry, a subject in which she was particularly strong, and whose teacher, Miss Kay, she greatly respected.
It related to the character of the headmistress. When Margaret first arrived at KGGS, the headmistress was Miss Gladys Williams, who had held her position from the founding of the school in 1910. Margaret loved Miss Williams: she was always much influenced in her feelings about women (and, indeed, about men) by their manners, appearance and demeanour, and Miss Williams impressed her for these reasons.
Her ‘quiet authority … dominated everything’, she records in her memoirs. ‘I greatly admired the special outfits Miss Williams used to wear on important days … when she appeared in beautiful silk, softly tailored, looking supremely elegant.’ With this elegance, though, she combined another virtue high in Margaret’s pantheon: ‘she was very practical. The advice to us was never to buy a low-quality silk when the same amount of money would purchase a very good-quality cotton … The rule was always to go for
quality within your own income.’
Despite proving to be the most successful career woman in the whole of British history, Mrs Thatcher liked the display of lady-like qualities and traditionally female accomplishments. She notes approvingly that Miss Williams made all girls ‘however academic’ take domestic science for four years,
and she records without complaint, though she herself studied the subject, that Miss Williams had in her day discouraged maths in the sixth form, because it was considered so difficult for the girls.
Jean Farmer had similar impressions of Miss Williams as ‘a tiny person, beautifully dressed, looks could quell, not a hair out of place’.
So did Rita Hind, who found her ‘elegant, stately and white-haired … her expectations were high. She was compassionate but distant.’
In 1939, Miss Williams retired. Her successor, Miss Dorothy Gillies, was very different. More of a scholar than Miss Williams, she also had much more of a temper. ‘She was a fiery Scot,’ said Rita Hind,
and she once threw her shoe at someone. Madeline Edwards remembers her hurling books and shouting at the girls, ‘You’re all suet puddings.’ Even the official school history implies some abrasions, saying that Miss Gillies was ‘misunderstood’ and comparing her with Goldsmith’s village schoolmaster: ‘ “If severe in aught, the love he bore to learning was at fault. Yet he was kind …” ’
It should be remembered, as a huge extenuation of Miss Gillies’s conduct that, unlike Miss Williams, she had to deal with the difficulties of a school in wartime. These included the facts that Camden School for Girls was evacuated to the KGGS premises for five terms until late 1941, forcing all the KGGS classes to take place in the morning only, and that the right staff were scarce. Worse, there was always the prospect of bombing. Grantham suffered twenty-one raids between September 1940 and October 1942, and in that final and most severe attack thirty-two people were killed. No one at the school was hurt in raids, but the tennis courts were all dug up to build air-raid shelters, and the burden of disruption and of responsibility that war put upon the headmistress was heavy indeed.
Perhaps because Miss Gillies was not Miss Williams, she and Margaret did not get on. Margaret considered her ungracious. Miss Gillies thought that Margaret needed taking down a peg. Their main disagreement concerned Margaret’s application for Oxford. By the time of School Certificate, Margaret expected to go to university, though she recognized that she might not be able to afford to do so without a scholarship. With her customary care, she began to make plans, choosing science as her likely university subject because ‘Science was the way of the future.’
She declared to Muriel that she would drop maths because ‘I couldn’t get on with Grumpy Grin [Miss Grindley, the maths teacher]: her explanations were as clear as mud.’
Again, she consulted Mr Marks, and followed his suggestion of switching to geography. She buckled down also to biology (‘I never dreamt there was so much inside a worm before. One of the toughest jobs is to find the ovary …’) and announced, ‘I have decided to take Latin to help with Biology, and also because you must have it for entrance to most universities.’
It is not true, then, as some biographers have asserted, that Miss Gillies, who was herself a classicist, forbade Margaret to learn Latin at the school. Her studies continued to go well and in 1942, before she had taken Higher Certificate (the equivalent of the modern A Level), she was offered places at Nottingham University, the nearest university to Grantham, and Bedford College, London. But the idea of Oxford grew in the minds of Margaret and her father, and was resisted by Miss Gillies along with the extra Latin teaching required, allegedly provoking Margaret to say, ‘You’re thwarting my ambition.’
According to Muriel, Margaret told Miss Gillies that she wanted to go to Oxford and Miss Gillies said: ‘ “I’m afraid you can’t. You haven’t got Latin.” She said, “I’ll get it,” and so she went to the Latin master of the boys’ school
and she got her Latin [meaning her Latin School Certificate] in a year and she got in.’
Margaret never forgot what she considered to have been Miss Gillies’s obstruction, though she does record that the head lent her Latin textbooks, including one written by her father.
In later years, she paid fulsome tribute to Miss Williams and none to Miss Gillies. Most KGGS old girls of that era remember the occasion in 1960 when Margaret, returning for the school’s speech day as a newly elected MP and the guest of honour, actually corrected Miss Gillies on the Latin she had used in her introduction. Lorna Smith wrote, ‘The audience was overcome with embarrassment; it was well known that the Head had taught Margaret every Latin word she knew!’
This was far from the case, but Margaret’s rudeness is still remarkable.
Part of the problem that worried Miss Gillies was haste. Margaret eventually took her Oxford entrance when she was only seventeen, hoping to go up the following autumn, almost exactly on her eighteenth birthday in 1943. This hurry was not solely the result of Margaret’s drive and ambition: there was a special wartime reason for it. All girls not already in further education by the time they were eighteen were liable for call-up to the services, and so most of them, anxious to get on with their education, made sure they got in early. Women did not take part in combat, and, it seems, there was no stigma of draft-dodging against girls in this situation.
Indeed, the Grantham dentist’s daughter Mary Wallace was proud of the precedent she established by persuading Oxford to take her in the Hilary (summer) term of 1943 solely so that she could avoid call-up.
The Grantham grocer’s daughter, however, was a little more uneasy. ‘I felt a little bit guilty,’ she recalled, ‘but that’s the way my birthday came up.’
If, as Miss Gillies had suggested, Margaret had waited for another year, she would probably have been forced to serve.
This is very nearly what happened. Part of the problem about the Latin was the need to mug it up so fast, and there were other weaknesses, too, which Margaret needed to remedy. Although her science was strong, her wider education was considered less assured, and it was for this reason that her father went to Canon Goodrich
and got him to coach her for the Oxford general paper. When she did sit the scholarship for Somerville College, Oxford, she narrowly failed to achieve it. Instead, she was offered an ordinary place for the autumn of 1944, which involved returning to KGGS for an extra year to avoid the call-up that would follow her eighteenth birthday on 13 October 1943. This she did, but still facing the probability that her arrival at Oxford would be further delayed by the call-up, or that her degree would be shortened to two years so that she could do National Service afterwards.
The Michaelmas term at KGGS began that year in August because of the need for a longer break in October to help with the wartime potato harvest. For the first time in its history, the school had two head girls – Madeline Edwards and Margaret Roberts, polar opposites in interests and style, but each having a forceful personality. It is alleged by some of Margaret’s contemporaries that she was given the post through the influence of her father as chairman of the Governors, but this is anachronistic: Alfred Roberts did not become chairman until after the war. Madeline and Margaret were the only obvious candidates. Indeed, they were the only two remaining girls who had taken their Higher Certificates. It is not clear why both were offered the post: perhaps it was considered invidious to appoint one and exclude the other.
In any event, Margaret’s first taste of supreme authority did not last long. Three weeks into the school term, a girl who had a Somerville place dropped out and the college offered an immediate place to Margaret. She accepted, and vaulted suddenly into another world.
Margaret was apprehensive about Oxford. She had never been away from home for more than a few days before, and wartime made the separation greater. The gulf between Grantham and Oxford, however, was more one of milieu than of distance. She was the first woman in her family to go to university, and the first of either sex to go to Oxford. The only people she knew there were Mary Wallace and Margaret Goodrich, neither of whom was at her college, and both of whom came from a more educated social background. She consulted them.
Mary Wallace, who remembered that Margaret’s entry to Oxford ‘created quite a stir’ in Grantham, received Margaret in her parents’ house in the High Street in September 1943, where she found her ‘very earnest’. ‘She was very keen to do the right thing,’ and, as so often in her later career, expressed this in an anxiety about ‘what sort of clothes to wear’.
In Margaret Goodrich’s view, ‘Oxford was a big jump for her, not for us [that is, her sister Joan and herself] because the clergy had a certain status.’ She recorded that when she and her father first visited Margaret in her rooms in Somerville, they found her lonely and disconsolate, toasting a teacake by a fire that was rationed to one scuttle of coal per week.
Margaret herself admitted that she felt ‘shy and ill-at-ease’.
She sometimes walked alone round Christ Church Meadows and into Addison’s Walk in Magdalen. In doing so, she felt she was fulfilling C. S. Lewis’s injunction in
(1944) to set aside time for solitary thought,
but one may guess that her isolation was not entirely voluntary.
One of Margaret’s problems was money. Without a scholarship, she had to depend on what her father could manage and on what various small college bursaries could provide. In those days, it was possible to have most of your fees paid if you promised, on going down, to become a teacher, but this Margaret refused to do, believing that it was a vocation she did not have.
While her parents did their best, sending small sums and cakes baked by her mother that made the teas in her room well above average,
she was always short. She recalled that it was only after she had taught at a Grantham school during the Long Vacation at the end of her first year that she could afford to buy that most basic tool of Oxford life, a bicycle.
It would be quite wrong to give the impression that most of the undergraduates were terribly rich, or that Margaret was terribly poor; and besides, the rigours of war reduced the social differences that had prevailed in the 1930s. But lack of funds did contribute to Margaret’s sense of adversity that had to be overcome daily, and also to the impression which she created among her contemporaries. Their memories of her at Oxford often include the idea that her appearance was ‘brown’, both in hair and clothes, and somehow in personality:
Rachel Willink, one of the only two women before Margaret to become president of OUCA, the Oxford University Conservative Association, and daughter of a wartime Conservative minister, remembered her as ‘quiet, rather mousey’, ‘rather a brown girl’, someone who ‘hadn’t got the style’ to ‘make up’ for her background. In after years, she said, people who had known Margaret at Oxford found it ‘a thing out of nature’ that ‘that rather humourless mouse’ had been so astonishingly successful.
According to Mary Wallace, who was also an officer of OUCA, Margaret was ‘merely tolerated’ by the grandees of the Tory club as ‘someone who could be relied on to do the donkey work’.
To them she was a ‘slogger’, without star quality.