Continuing a tradition: Women MPs who are widows of former Members

The most recent woman to be elected as an MP is Gill Furniss who won the by-election in the constituency of Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough on 5 May 2016. She is the widow of Henry Harpham MP, who won the seat in the 2015 general election, but died on 4 February 2016. Ms Furniss served on Sheffield council for 16 years and made her maiden speech on 23 May 2016 during a debate on public services.[1]  There is a distinguished set of women MPs who won seats after the deaths of their husbands, who had previously held the seats, and this blog post outlines some of the more interesting examples below.

Margaret Wintringham
Margaret Wintringham, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/15/2/1

The first was Margaret Wintringham, only the third female MP and the first who won for the Liberals. Wintringham had a background in the suffrage movement before the First World War. She was a headmistress and prominent in several Liberal and women’s groups such as the Townswomen’s Guild, as well as being one of the first female JPs to be appointed in 1920. She had no children.  Her husband Thomas Wintringham had been elected MP for Louth in Lincolnshire in June 1920 but died suddenly on 8 August 1921, actually in the Palace of Westminster, in what was known as the News Room. The Times newspaper reported he had been reading a newspaper while waiting for dinner, when he had a seizure. The House adjourned at 8.30pm as a mark of respect.[2] There has been a tradition that deaths in Palace of Westminster are not recorded as taking place there. As a royal palace, the coroner would have to be from the royal household. Instead, deaths tend to be recorded in the jurisdiction of the Westminster coroner. The royal coroner was involved in the Wintringham case, but decided against an inquest, according to press reports.[3]

Margaret was persuaded to stand in the subsequent by-election in September 1921. She refused to make speeches, as she was still in mourning, but nevertheless won the seat and soon proved to be an active MP. In her maiden speech, on 9 November 1921, she spoke on the economy, using women’s priorities of health, education, and housing, to argue that national spending on those matters should be given greater importance as they were essential to the general prosperity of the country.[4] In the Commons with her from June 1923 was Mabel Philipson, who had won the seat of Berwick on Tweed after her husband was disqualified as MP following an election petition, as well as the first woman MP to take her seat, Nancy Astor, who was elected after her husband was elevated to the peerage in 1919.   Wintringham was re-elected at the general elections of 1922 and 1923. She helped to pass the Criminal Law Amendment Bill, a measure for the protection of young girls, through its parliamentary stages. She also worked to enable married women to retain their own nationality. Nancy Astor was a key friend and ally in the Commons, despite their political differences. Wintringham lost her seat in the October 1924 general election and despite several attempts was never able to return to the Commons.

A twist on the theme of women MPs succeeding their husbands occurred in St Ives on 6 March 1928, when Hilda Runciman won a by-election for the Liberals. She later stood down as candidate in favour of her husband Walter, who was then serving as MP for Swansea, in time for the general election of 1929. He had wanted to avoid causing a by-election at Swansea. Hilda contested another seat, Tavistock in Devon, but narrowly failed to win it. In 1929 Florence Dalton undertook the same manoeuvre for her husband Hugh, who was then MP for Peckham. She won the by election for the safe Labour seat of Durham, Bishop Auckland, but stood down in his favour for the 1929 general election. On 17 July 1986 Llin Golding won the seat of Newcastle-under-Lyme previously held by her husband John Golding, who had resigned to become General Secretary of the National Communications Union. Mrs Golding went on to have a long career in the Commons, until 2001 when she was awarded a life peerage.

Agnes Hardie was elected in a by-election for Labour in Glasgow Springburn on 7 September 1937 following the death of her husband, George Hardie, the half-brother of Keir Hardie, founder of the Labour Party. The Hardies had one son. She had a distinguished political career in her own right, as organiser for the shop assistant’s union and as Women’s Organizer for the Labour Party in Scotland from 1918-23. Hardie held this post until she moved to London in 1923, on the election of her husband as MP. She was the first woman MP to be elected to represent Glasgow, and made a name for herself as the “housewife’s MP” through her speeches about food shortages. At her election she joined just 10 other women MPs in the House. She retired at the 1945 general election.

Another widow MP, Lady Violet Apsley was the first woman MP to be a wheelchair user, having been badly injured in a hunting accident before becoming an MP. She was elected on 18 February 1943 for the Conservatives in Bristol Central, following the death of her husband on active service in Malta in December 1942. He had held Bristol Central since 1931. In her maiden speech (23 March 1943), during a debate on war pensions and disablement, Apsley drew upon both her personal experience and her position as national chair, since 1942, of the women’s section of the British Legion.[5] Lady Violet lost the seat in the 1945 election, and did not return to Parliament.

Lena Jeger won the by election at Holborn and St Pancras on 19 November 1953, after the death of her husband Santo Jeger. Lena had been a councillor for St Pancras and at the London County Council, where she had met her husband, a founder of the Socialist Medical Assocation. She lost the seat in 1959 only to regain it at the 1964 general election. A formidable left-winger, Jeger was a prominent supporter of the reforming legislation of the 1960s that ended capital punishment and legalized homosexuality. She was a sponsor of the Abortion Law Reform Act of 1967 and campaigned for improved support of one-parent families. On the issue of women’s rights she played a role in securing the Equal Pay Act of 1970. Lena stood down in 1979, but was made a life peer the same year. She held the front-bench brief as opposition spokesman on health (1983–6) and also on social security (1983–90). She died in 2007, aged 91. Another example in London during that decade was Lady Muriel Gammans at Hornsey. She won a by-election in May 1957 caused by the death of her husband, David Gammans, who had first won Hornsey in a wartime by-election in 1941. She retired at the 1966 general election.

The incidence of widow MPs continued throughout the twentieth century. On 2 December 1982 Helen McElhone won the by-election at Glasgow, Queen’s Park, caused by the sudden death of her husband Frank McElhone at a demonstration. The seat was abolished the following year, due to boundary changes. On April 1994, the MP Bob Cryer and his wife Ann, who acted as his assistant, were involved in a car accident which killed Bob, who had been an outspoken left wing MP since his election in February 1974 in Keighley. He later sat for Bradford from 1987. Ann Cryer was selected to contest Keighley in the 1997 general election from an all-women shortlist. Her son, John Cryer, was elected at the same time for Hornchurch.  She spoke out on issues such as forced marriages and honour killings, and sat on the Public Bill Committee for Forced Marriage (Civil Protection) Act 2007. Ann Cryer retired in 2010.

In Scotland, Mrs Irene Adams stood in the by-election in Paisley North following the sudden death of her husband Allen Adams in 1990. Tragically, the MP for the neighbouring constituency of Paisley South, Norman Buchan, had also died and both by-elections were held on 29 November 1990. Mrs Adams had acted as secretary to her husband and had already been selected for the seat of Argyll and Bute;[6] she won the by-election with a large majority. Irene was known for her strong support for Scottish devolution. She stepped down at the 2005 general election and was awarded a life peerage, taking the title Baroness Adams of Craigielea. Norman Buchan’s widow, Janey Buchan, served as an MEP from 1979 to 1994.

This blog would be interested to have details of any further examples. We have yet to find a male MP who succeeded his wife as MP on her death!

Oonagh Gay, Vote 100 Project

[1] HC Deb 23 May 2016 c305

[2] “M.P.’S Death In the Commons.” Times 9 August 1921

[3] “Mr Wintringham’s funeral: no inquest necessary Times 10 August 1921

[4] HC Deb 9 November 1921 c466

[5] HC Deb 23 March 1943 c1514

[6] Scots Labour MP dies  aged 44” Times 6 September 1990 “

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