Baroness Hornsby-Smith, National Portrait Gallery

Priscilla, Lady Tweedsmuir, Patricia Hornsby-Smith and Harriet Slater

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

Priscilla Thomson (1915-1978) was the first woman to represent Aberdeen South. Elected in a by-election in 1946, she was one of only two female Conservative MPs at the time and, at 31, the youngest woman in Parliament. Her first husband, Sir Arthur Lindsay Grant, died at Normandy, and in 1948, she married John Buchan, second Baron Tweedsmuir.

Baroness Tweedsmuir, National Portrait Gallery
Priscilla Jean Fortescue Buchan, Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie by Walter Bird. Bromide print, 9 December 1963. © National Portrait Gallery, NPG x185781

Tweedsmuir was the second woman to be elected to the executive of the 1922 Committee and served for two years as Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. She was also a delegate to the Council of Europe between 1950 and 1953 and to the UN General Assembly between 1960 and 1961. In 1957, she became the first woman to move the Loyal Address to the Queen’s speech, covering the strengths of Scotland in the UK, the challenges of forging a new relationship with Europe, and the creation of a new defence able to respond to Russian aggression.

After being made a life peer in 1970, Tweedsmuir returned to the Scottish Office, as Baroness Tweedsmuir of Belhelvie, before becoming the first woman to serve as a Minister in the Foreign Office, serving as the UK’s lead negotiator in the “cod war” with Iceland. She was Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees in the Lords and, from 1974, Chair of the European Communities Select Committee of the House of Lords. Under her chairmanship, the Committee became, in the words of Lord Peart, “a byword both in this country and in Brussels due to the exceptional quality of its reports”. In 1974, Tweedsmuir was made a Privy Counsellor and Deputy Lords Speaker.

Baroness Hornsby-Smith, National Portrait Gallery
(Margaret) Patricia Hornsby-Smith, Baroness Hornsby-Smith by Godfrey Argent. Bromide print, 26 June 1969. © National Portrait Gallery, NPG x18587

Patricia Hornsby-Smith (1914-1985) was active in the Conservative party from a young age, including as a platform speaker and member of the Junior Imperial League, the forerunner of the Young Conservatives. She joined the civil service in 1941 as principal private secretary to Lord Selborne, the Minister of Economic Warfare. After the war, she served as a councillor but struggled to find a parliamentary seat to contest. One selection committee explicitly rejected her for being a woman, and she later referred to such committees as the “most potent citadel of prejudice”. 

Hornsby-Smith won Chislehurst from Labour in 1950. Her maiden speech in May 1950 on Anglo-Canadian trade was a hint to the Chamber that she was not going to confine herself to domestic issues—the so-called women’s subjects. In 1951, she was appointed Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health, becoming the youngest woman ever to hold ministerial office. She was later a Minister in the Home Department and the Ministry of Pensions. She lost her seat in 1966 to Labour’s Alistair Macdonald, but regained it in 1970. She was appointed to the House of Lords in 1974 after unsuccessfully contesting the seat of Aldridge-Brownhills following boundary changes. 

Harriet Slater, Parliamentary Archives, PUD/F/920
Harriet Slater, 3 December 1963. © Parliamentary Archives, PUD/F/920

The daughter of a potter’s placer, Harriet Slater (1903-1976) was originally a teacher. She served as a Labour councillor on Stoke-on-Trent City Council from 1933 until 1949. From 1953 to 1966, she chaired the Stoke education committee. She became Co-operative party organiser for the north-west of England in 1943, holding the post until she was selected as a Labour party candidate for Stoke-on-Trent North in 1953. She secured the seat comfortably in a by-election following the death of the incumbent Albert Davies. Her maiden speech in May 1953 focused on the abolition of the colour bar, and she argued that “to break down the prejudices, superstition and fears that have been built up over a long period, then…we must do it in a bold way.

Slater was the first woman to be appointed a Government Whip. The 1964 Labour Government had an overall majority of only four and needed conviction, tenacity and organisation to marshal their MPs and win votes in the Commons. Her successor in Stoke-on-Trent North, John Forrester, paid tribute to her work in his maiden speech: “I sometimes wonder whether the previous Parliament would have lasted for 17 months if she had not wielded that whip so effectively”. In Parliament, she campaigned on education, health, housing and equal pay for women teachers; and, at a time of rising food prices, spoke “on behalf of the tens of thousands of housewives agitating in tens of thousands of back kitchens”. She stood down in 1966.

House of Commons Hansard Writing Team

Links:

Loyal Address 1957: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1957/nov/05/debate-on-the-address 

Tributes to the late Lady Tweedsmuir of Belhevie: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/lords/1978/mar/13/tributes-to-the-late-lady-tweedsmuir-of

Colour Bar (Abolition): https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1953/may/01/colour-bar-abolition  

Debate on Housing and Building Policies: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1966/may/19/housing-and-building-policies

Debate on Food Prices: https://api.parliament.uk/historic-hansard/commons/1953/nov/10/food-prices

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