Florence Horsbrugh and Helen Shaw

The next in our series on women MPs by the House of Commons Hansard Writing Team.

Florence Horsbrugh (1889-1969) and Helen Shaw (1879-1964) were Scottish Conservative MPs elected in 1931. Prior to entering Parliament, both had received MBEs for their efforts during the First World War. In Parliament, however, their paths diverged, as Horsbrugh took up posts in Government while Shaw continued to be inspired by local issues.

Florence Horsbrugh - Churchill Archives Centre
Florence Horsbrugh (in evening dress), November 1936. Churchill Archives Centre, HSBR 3/1

Florence Horsbrugh

Horsbrugh achieved several notable firsts, including becoming the first Conservative MP for Dundee since the 1830s. She represented the constituency from 1931 to 1945 before becoming the MP for Manchester Moss Side from 1950 to 1959.

In Parliament, Horsbrugh demonstrated a particular interest in the economy and foreign imports, especially their effect on the jute industry, which had employed many people in Dundee until it started to decline at the start of the First World War. Her maiden speech [Official Report, 18 November 1931; Vol. 259, c. 950.] on that subject was described by the Women’s Freedom League as “a challenge to any who would limit women’s political sphere”.

In 1936, having earned a reputation as an impressive parliamentary speaker through her persistent campaigning on topics such as jute and housing in Scotland, Horsbrugh was the first woman to move the Address in reply to the King’s Speech. She described it as “the opening of a gate into a new field of opportunity…with true, if somewhat tardy, hospitality” [Official Report, 3 November 1936; Vol. 317, c. 14.]. Her speech attracted public interest and she became the first MP to be interviewed on television.

Between 1939 and 1945, as Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, Horsbrugh contributed to the preparatory work that led to the creation of the NHS. She took on major wartime challenges such as organising the evacuation of 1.5 million children and creating casualty clearing stations, with Ellen Wilkinson. In 1951, Churchill appointed her Minister of Education, and in 1953, in the same role, she became the first Conservative woman to serve in the Cabinet. She became a peer in 1959 and was thus the first woman to serve in both Houses of Parliament.

Helen Shaw - National Portrait Gallery
Helen Brown Shaw (née Graham), by Bassano Ltd, half-plate glass negative, 23 November 1931.
Given by Bassano & Vandyk Studios, 1974,. NPG x31233 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Helen Shaw

Shaw’s constituency of Lanark, Bothwell was her home area, and she identified strongly with it: before being elected in 1931, she had twice stood for election as its Member of Parliament.

Shaw’s priorities as a Scottish Unionist party MP were the economic situation’s effect on working people and education, on which she made her maiden speech [Official Report, 11 July 1932; Vol. 268, c. 993.]. She argued against cuts to teachers’ pay, commenting that “the whole of our educational system depends on good, efficient and well-contented staffs” and took a modernising stance on staffing structures, saying that in Scotland, “Anything which savours of the past and adds a further burden on the pressing cost of education requires investigation.” [Official Report, 22 June 1933; Vol. 279, c. 1032-33.] She also advocated for vocational subjects to be better recognised in the curriculum. She questioned the Government’s position on Sunday working in the mines and was concerned that new housing regulations might increase the burden on women in the home.

Shaw’s conscientiousness was shown in a debate entitled “Depressed Areas”. She described “going among the men…holding meetings…visiting the homes” [Official Report, 14 November 1934; Vol. 293, c. 2067.] to canvass working people’s views on transferring south from the Stewarts and Lloyds steel plant in Bellshill to work at Corby.

Shaw’s sense of duty is evident throughout her career; in her maiden speech she described her alma mater as “the university of public service, which does not confer degrees”. In the First World War, she was involved in the organisation of the war effort and continued her public and voluntary service as a war widow following her husband’s death on active service in 1915. She was district commissioner of Lanarkshire Girl Guides and served on Lanarkshire’s education authority. She returned to public and voluntary service after losing her seat in 1935 and unsuccessfully stood for Parliament in 1945.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team



Photos of Horsbrugh in the National Portrait Gallery – https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp84169/florence-gertrude-horsbrugh-baroness-horsbrugh

Photos of Horsbrugh on Getty images – https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/scottish-unionist-politician-florence-horsbrugh-news-photo/1163727798?adppopup=true


Article on Horsbrugh in Conservative History Journal (p21-23). https://www.academia.edu/7213922/chj_Conservative_History_Journal

including reference to Womens Freedom League quote (Churchill Archives Centre, HSBR 2/3, Horsbrugh Papers, Scrapbook 1932) and television appearance.

Details of exhibition of Horsbrugh’s papers, including a magazine piece with an interview. https://www.chu.cam.ac.uk/news/2018/nov/22/uphill-all-way/

Photos of Shaw in the National Portrait Gallery – https://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/person/mp52550/helen-brown-shaw-ne-graham?search=sas&sText=helen+shaw

Shaw with other female Conservative MPs after the 1931 election (including Nancy Astor) (Parliamentary Archives HL/PO/RO/1/188) https://www.parliament.uk/about/living-heritage/transformingsociety/electionsvoting/womenvote/parliamentary-collections/nancy-astor/conservative-women-mps/