The first woman to sit for a Scottish seat was Katherine, Duchess of Atholl, elected on 6 December 1923. The first for Wales was Lady Megan Lloyd George, elected on 30 May 1919. However, Northern Ireland had to wait until 15 April 1953 for a woman to hold a seat there, and this was Patricia Ford MP. Of course, the first woman MP, Constance Markievicz, was elected for a Dublin seat in December 1918, but that was outside the borders of Northern Ireland.
Patricia Ford is not well known these days. She was elected unopposed for North Down, after her father, Sir Walter Smiles MP, was drowned in a disastrous ferry accident on 31 January 1953, where 133 people lost their lives’ the ship MV Princess Victoria foundered in heavy seas between Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Patricia was well connected. She was the great-granddaughter of Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help, and her great-aunt was Isabella Beeton, the cookery writer. Her first husband, Captain Neville Montagu Ford, was a professional cricketer, and they married in 1949 in the presence of the Northern Ireland Prime Minister, during an era of devolved Northern Ireland Government at Stormont. She was an imposing figure at nearly six feet tall, but as a woman often found the male world of Unionist politics a considerable trial.
In the shock of her father’s death, the local constituency asked Patricia to stand and she was returned unopposed. From 1950 while unopposed elections (General and by-) took place in Armagh and Antrim North and South, and Londonderry constituencies, that was not the case in Down North. All elections there were contested from 1950 onwards (two-Member Down constituency was replaced by Down North and Down South) with just the exception of 1953.
Patricia caused some controversy in her initial few weeks at Westminster, when she wrote an article for the Sunday Express on 26 April 1953 on her life as a new MP. She referred to an all-night sitting, which mentioned finding Bessie Braddock MP and Edith Summerskill MP napping (and snoring) on two beds in the Lady Members’ Room. Braddock raised the issue as a matter of privilege on the following day, as reproduced from Hansard:
On a point of order. I want your guidance and assistance, Mr. Speaker, if I may have it. I want to draw your attention—and I must apologise for not being in London until 2.50 p.m. today in order to give you notice—to an article which appeared yesterday in the “Sunday Express,” headed: What a Baptism By Patricia Ford, M.P. In that article there are some statements which are not facts. I do not want to make reference to the whole of the article; I only want to draw your attention to one particular section of it and to ask your advice on what I must do about it.
The part to which I want to refer particularly, without making comment about the whole of the article on which I have very definite opinions, is this: There is even a room upstairs with a couple of beds, and the old stagers seem to get there first. One night I found both Mrs. Bessie Braddock and Dr. Edith Summerskill stretched out on them, and both snoring. First of all, I have never slept alongside or with my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West, and, secondly, which is of more importance, I was never in the room and have never been in the room at any time since it has been opened.
I have no objection at all to true statements being made. Arising out of the last incident, I have been subjected—I am not complaining—to many jocular comments on the wireless, the television and in the Press. I am not objecting to that now, but I am objecting on this occasion to a falsehood being printed in a newspaper and to the newspaper’s printing it without finding out whether the facts were correct. The statements are untrue, and other hon. Ladies can verify that what I am saying is a fact. When I pass this newspaper to you, Mr. Speaker, apart from other things in the article—I am referring on this occasion particularly to myself—I hope that some steps will be taken, through the House, to right the wrong that has been done to me.
Further to that point of order. Apart from the bad taste of the article, in fairness to my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock), I should like to state that on the occasion mentioned there were four occupants of the room in question. The hon. Lady the Member for Down, North (Mrs. Ford) and I were occupying chairs, and the two couches were occupied, one by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, West (Dr. Summerskill) and the other by the noble Lady the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Viscountess Davidson). I should imagine that it would be a peculiarly unobservant person who would mistake the hon. Member for Hemel Hempstead for my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Exchange.
If I have offended the hon. Lady the Member for Liverpool, Exchange (Mrs. Braddock) in any possible way, I apologise most wholeheartedly. I can only add that it is sometimes difficult to see in the dark. “
For the full set of exchanges see the Hansard for 27 April 1953 and for 28 April 1953, when the matter was formally referred to the Privileges Committee (which recommended no punishment in its report (HC 171 1952-3)). Lady Ford had the distinction of having to make a personal statement of apology before she had even made her maiden speech (which was on defence on 29 July 1953).
Patricia did not stand again in the general election of 1955. She had upset constituents by attending a Roman Catholic mass at Brompton Oratory and she was expelled from the women’s branch of the Orange Order, membership of which was a pre-requisite of Unionist politics.
However, Lady Ford had taken part in parliamentary campaigns, particularly on equal pay for women, joining other women MPs in presenting a petition of 8,000 signatures on the subject on 8 March 1954. This attracted great media attention as the MPs arrived at Parliament in horse-drawn carriages, decorated with white and green rosettes, echoing the suffragette era. (Times Digital Archve “Mass petitions on equal pay” 9 March 1954).
The petition was presented that day in the Commons by Dame Irene Ward, flanked by Barbara Castle, Dr Edith Summerskill and Lady Ford, together with a similar but larger TUC petition on equal pay for civil servants. Presumably relations had improved between Summerskill and Ford to allow a joint campaign!
Patricia retained strong political connections in her second marriage to Nigel Fisher, Conservative MP for Surbiton, in 1956. Indeed she was part of a remarkable parliamentary dynasty:
- Daughter of MP Sir W D Smiles, and his successor as an MP
- Married to Neville Montagu Ford, with whom had a daughter who married Sir Michael Grylls MP (father of Bear Grylls)
- Divorced and remarried Sir Nigel Fisher MP to become stepmother of Mark – later to become Labour MP Mark Fisher.
Patricia became well known for her charitable work, founding the Women Caring Trust in 1972 to address sectarian issues in Northern Ireland, now Hope for Youth Northern Ireland. She died on 23 May 1995.
Oonagh Gay, Vote 100