John Barnes, Historian

Dame Caroline Bridgeman, Viscountess Bridgeman (1873 - 1961)

Car Bridgeman, the wife of William Bridgeman, who served as Home Secretary in the Bonar Law/Baldwin administration 1922-24 and First Lord of the Admiralty in Baldwin's second administration, was a formidable politician in her own right. She chaired the Women's Unioinist Association from 1918 until 1924 and was subsequently the first woman to chair the Central Council of the National Union 1926-27. She was rewarded for her services with the DBE in 1924.

Caroline Beatrix Parker was born on 30 June 1873, the eldest daughter and third of five children born to the Hon. Cecil Thomas Parker, son of the sixth earl of Macclesfield and his wife, Rosamund Longley. He was land agent to the Duke of Westminster. Educated privately, she worked as a school manager in London's East End and for the Charity Organization Society before marrying William Clive Bridgeman on 30 April 1895. They had three sons and lived at Leigh Manor, near Minsterley, Shropshire, where she was responsible for landscaping the gardens. Car's maternal grandfather had been Archbishop of Canterbury and her brother was to be chaplain to the Archbishop of York, Cosmo Lang, and subsequently Bishop of Pretoria. Both she and her husband took a strong interest in the affairs of the Church and their staunch Anglicanism reinforced a strong sense of public duty. When he faced a serious operation in 1925, Bridgeman wrote a letter to be read by his wife and family should he die in its course. In it he paid tribute to her "high standard of duty which has kept us up to the mark, as far as we have been able to do it".[1] Theirs was an exceptionally happy marriage in which each took counsel and encouragement from the other.

Six weeks after her marriage Car was out canvassing for her husband in the Mid Derbyshire constituency. It was the start of a long-lasting political partnership. But she was not content simply to support him. In 1904 she formed one of the first Women's Constitutional Associations in Oswestry, the seat that her husband was to represent from 1906 until 1929. She acted as Chairman and Secretary and built it into a formidable organisation with 26 branches and 2,868 members in the last full year before the first world war. At national level she was an active member of the British Women's Covenant Committee, which opposed Irish Home Rule, and of the Women's Unionist Tariff Reform Association, serving as its national Vice Chairman.

In 1918, when the franchise was granted to women over 30, the decision was taken to create a Women's Unionist Organisation, which would be fully affiliated to the National Union and take the place of the Women's Unionist Tariff Reform Organisation. Younger asked car Bridgeman to chair it, but before she accepted the post, the leaders of WUTRA insisted on a greater degree of autonomy even than Younger had in mind. They had no wish for their organisers to be subordinate to the Principal Agent. Younger gave them complete autonomy over all matters apart from finance and the women's organisation was subsequently constituted as a National Advisory Council to the National Union. The women were allocated one third of the seats on the Central Council and its Executive Committee. The rules of the WUO were approved on 9 April 1918 and WUTRA held its final conference in May. Car Bridgeman became its first chairman and there is little doubt that the respect in which she was held helped strengthen the position of the new organisation within the party. She was not always in good health and from February 1919 until 1921 appears to have taken some respite from her duties, but she served on the Council and Executive Committee of the National Union. Philip Williamson, who edited her husband's diaries, notes that, although reserved and "rarely at ease with individuals, she was a formidable committee member and an effective speaker."[2]

When her husband became First Lord of the Admiralty, she decided that her duties as a spouse must take precedence over her party role and stood down as Chairman of the WUO. However, she was asked to take the chair of the Central Council in May 1926 and presided over the party's annual conference. She was the first woman to hold such a position in any party. She sought a greater role for women in policy making and in 1927 introduced the requirement that at least one of the four party representatives sent from each constituency to the party conference should be a woman. Shrewdly she advised in 1928 that the party should fight the next election, with younger women enfranchised, on its record of social legislation.

When her husband announced his intention to retire as an MP at the 1929 election there was some suggestion that she should stand in his place. She had always regarded herself as his political adjutant and decided that she too would withdraw from politics. Her husband's health may have played some part in her decision. Thirty years later, when the first life peeresses were being selected for nomination to the House of Lords, her name was suggested within the party as a possibility, but by 1958 she was really too old to embark on a parliamentary career.

Throughout her political career she had wanted women to take an interest in the whole sweep of politics and not simply to concentrate on women's issues. Hence she felt that they should join political parties rather than feminist societies, and it could be said that the relative decline of the latter in the 1920s was in large part due to the success of political parties, and particularly the Conservative party, in wooing women members; and that in turn contributed to Conservative success at the polls. She tempered her eloquence with humour, but in private conversation she could seem intimidating. It was perhaps no accident that most of her close friends were men.The Davidsons - again a couple where the wife was as engaged politically as the husband - seem to have been close to them in the 1920s. In many ways she had simple tastes, preferring buses to taxis, though she was later to indulge herself with one of Britain's first television sets.

Viscountess Bridgeman (as she became when her husband was created a peer) had many interests outside politics. She had taken an early interest in hospital committees, chairing the Florence Nightingale Hospital for Gentlewomen for a decade and a half. During World War I she chaired the Shropshire women's war agriculture committee and had worked in Shropshire and London for the Women's Land Service Corps. In 1927 she was appointed to the royal commission on

London squares which reported later that year. Most of her energies, however, were devoted to the Church of England. She was elected to the House of laity in 1925 and remained a member until 1960. She served as its Vice Chairman from 1942 until 1947. She believed that the church

assembly had to foster the nation's spiritual life, and she was tireless in her promotion of religious education. In her view the Church could only maintain its position within a community of believers, and this could only be maintained through religious education, and in particular the promotion of denominational schools. Equally, increased stipends and pensions for the clergy and their dependants were necessary to sustain clerical recruitment, and she argued forcefully and successfully for better allowances. These issues demanded the church's urgent attention even if, in the short-term, it meant economizing on church building and physical improvements.

In 1927, after twenty one year's preparation, the Church of England had prepared a revised Prayer Book, which would accommodate moderate Anglo-Catholics while allowing the extreme ritualists to be disciplined. Car was a committee member of the League of Loyalty and Order in support of the Prayer Book measure and had argued the case for the measure at the Hereford Diocesan Conference. Her husband was chosen to introduce the measure and he induced Baldwin to speak for it. However, after passing the Lords, it was defeated in the Commons (it had a majority amongst the English Members). A modified book was prepared and Car, at the instance of Archbishop Davidson, helped conduct the new measure through the House of Laity. Again it went down to defeat. The new prayer book, having been approved by both houses of Convocation, continued in use alongside the Book of Common Prayer and the Church Assembly in February 1930 created a Commission to consider the relationship between church and state, in the light of Archbishop Davidson's reaffirmation in July 1928 of the Church's inalienable right to formulate its faith and embody its expression in its form of worship. Car Bridgeman was the only woman appointed to the Archbishops' Commission 1930-35, which was chaired by Viscount Cecil. Its unanimous report was published in two volumes under the title Church and State in 1935.

Although Bridgeman had retired from active politics, he chaired a committee of enquiry into the Post Office 1932 and was subsequently appointed a governor of the BBC. He was appointed to chair the Board in March 1935, but died on 14 August. Car was appointed to take his place as a governor and Church colleagues hoped that she would promote religious broadcasting. During her four years on the board she monitored carefully the progress of religious broadcasts, delivering blunt warnings against making them too sentimental, but she was sceptical about their effect. In her view, the Church had to concentrate on the medium of print, since broadcasting had only an emotional appeal and could not make a lasting impact.

Davidson regarded Car Bridgeman as a wise and able counsellor and a forceful advocate for the cause of women in the party. While she undoubtedly regarded her service to her faith as her major work in life, the path she charted in politics opened the way for women to play a major part in the Conservative party and in political life more generally. She died on 26 December 1961, and brief obituaries were carried in the Daily Telegraph and The Times.

[1] Quoted by Philip Williamson in his introduction to The Modernisation of Conservative Politics.The Diaries and Letters of William Bridgeman 1904-1935. The Historian's Press, 1988. p.4

[2] Ibid. p.4