John Barnes, Historian

Baroness Brooke of Ystradfellte

Unlike most Parliamentary wives of her time, Barbara Brooke was a formidable political force in her own right. She had been picked out by the then Conservative party Chairman, Lord Woolton, to succeed Lady Kilmuir as one of the two Vice Chairmen. Her responsibility was to ensure that the women's voice was heard within the counsels of the party and hers was particularly forceful and straightforward. Not everyone found it helpful. Sir William Urton, then General Director of the party, thought she tended to personalise issues, which made her less effective. But she was well liked in Central office, not least for her blunt confession on appointment that not only had she never sat at a business desk before, but had never seen one with three telephones! No one would describe her as a feminist, but she was appalled at the way in which able women in the Conservative party, while quite acceptable in local government, found it hard to find a Parliamentary seat. It was brought home to her a few months before the 1955 election when she entertained all those women who had been adopted as Conservative candidates to lunch in the Commons and to her consternation found that only one, Evelyn Emmet, had been adopted for a safe seat. Next morning she called on her fellow Vice Chairman, John Hare, who was in charge of candidates, and pressured him into to the task of persuading every constituency association where there was a realistic chance of success into interviewing at least one woman. She was delighted when Joan Vickers won Devonport in 1955 and still more when Mervyn Pike, Margaret Thatcher, Betty Harvie Anderson and Joan Quennell were added to the total. There was also the uncovenanted benefit of Hornsey choosing Lady Gammans to fight and win the seat vacated by her husband's death. But it was an uphill struggle. When Lady Davidson and Dame Florence Horsbrugh stood down in 1959, they were replaced by male candidates and when Dame Barbara herself called it a day, the number of Conservative women MPs, thanks to Eveline Hill's defeat in the 1964 election, had fallen to eleven. By then she had a different concern. Women with a contribution to make to politics were being drawn away by the prospect of bigger and better jobs in the professions and in business, but her message remained the same: Women were still not getting a fair crack when constituencies made their selection - although ironically it was the Conservative ladies with their preference for young married men who were doing the damage.

One amusing episode illustrates the enormous influence she had on Conservative women, to an extent that often bewildered her. In 1962 she attended the Conservative Women's Conference and chose to do so hatless. Instantly the rumour ran around that she was recommending the women to abandon the hats that had made them notorious. When told, she said simply, "I didn't know I was so much observed." She was a forceful speaker and in 1959 had the rare privilege of making a Conservative party political broadcast, although neither an MP nor minister.

Her enormous energy and down to earth views had made her position one of some weight in the party, but after ten years in the job, from 1954 until 1964, she felt that it was right that someone younger should take her place. "I am a great believer", she said, "in not holding on to a post when I know that it would be a good idea to have to have someone with fresh ideas, a fresh mind and fresh imagination." She had already been made a Dame of the British Empire for political and public in 1960 and she now became a Conservative life peer as Baroness Brooke of Ystradfellte, a good vantage point from which to continue her commitment to public life. Subsequently in 1969 her work for the party was recognised by her election as President of the National Union.

Barbara Muriel Matthews was born at Llanwern, the younger daughter of Canon Alfred Matthews, a Welsh rugby international, who was then a clergyman at Newport. She was educated at Queen Anne's School in Caversham and then took a diploma at the Gloucester Training College for Domestic Science. This gave her a taste for some of the more mundane necessities in life, which she believed stood her in good stead. "There's nothing better to get rid of one's pent up worries", she once said, "than to give the kitchen floor a good scrub." Her late night ironing before conferences became a party legend. After some years in teaching, her brother invited her to a party in Balliol. There met her future husband, Henry Brooke. They were married in 1933. Their marriage was intensely happy and was based on a profound Christian faith and a deep-seated respect for traditional values.

Brooke had joined the Conservative Research Department in 1930, rising to be its Deputy Director, before entering the House of Commons in 1938. Inevitably his wife was drawn into political activity, not least because her husband was heavily involved deputising for R.A.Butler on the Post War Problems Central Committee and in reviving the Conservative Research Department. Defeated in 1945, Brooke, already a Hampstead Councillor, plunged into fresh activity as leader of the Conservatives on the London County Council. Barbara followed him into active politics as a member of the Hampstead Borough Council from 1948 until 1965. She was to chair its Housing Committee at a particularly controversial time when her husband piloted the 1957 Rent Act on to the statute book and her knowledge of London's housing conditions contributed to her husband's decision to modify the proposals of his predecessor, Duncan Sandys.

Brooke had been returned for Hampstead in the 1950 election and four years later was plucked from the backbenches by Butler to become Financial Secretary to the Treasury. Barbara had just become Vice Chairman of the Party and thereafter she led an intensely busy life as the wife of a front bench MP, who was successively Minister of Housing and Local Government, Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Home Secretary, and a highly active participant in the management of the Conservative Party Organisation. "Most people", she said "are capable of more work than they believe" and the range of her own activities perfectly illustrates her dictum. She was active in the Queen's Institute of District Nursing for more than half a century and served as chairman of its executive committee from 1961 until 1971. She had joined the West Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board in 1954 and became its chairman in 1959. She was often to be seen on Christmas Eve visiting all the hospital wards in its care. But she loved also to entertain and her passion for cards often caused her to call on her husband's police guards when they were in need of a four.

To all these activities she brought enthusiasm, charm and common sense. She had an ability to motivate others that derived in part from the intense interest she took in their work and she was forthright and resolute in pursuing what she deemed to be right. Duty could be said to be her watchword. 'Rab' Butler, who thought her husband first-rate and paid tribute to her charm and drive, could not resist the slightly malicious observation that he thought "they get out of bed in the morning and go straight to the nearest wall and bash their heads until they are bleeding and when they are really satisfied about the masochism of their lives, they proceed to the House of Commons." It was a conceit worthy of Enoch Powell but it was also a tribute to the nature of their faith.

Barbara Brooke was typical of the Conservative women of her generation in setting great store by high personal standards of morality, honesty and conduct. She had little time for those who broke their marriage vows. When John Profumo became embroiled with Christine Keeler and subsequently laid to the House of Commons about the affair, her verdict was trenchant: "a man who has sinned against our standards", she told a Conservative garden party in Portsmouth.

Brooke's apparent insensitivity as Home Secretary cost him his seat in 1964 and his wife left the Council a few months later. He joined his wife in the Lords in 1966 and for a while they both spoke for the party from the front bench. She specialised in welfare, but also contributed to debates on health and education. She had completed her period on the hospital board in 1966, but was then appointed to the management committee of King Edward's Hospital Fund for London 1966-71. But although the Association of Municipal Councils had wanted her to serve on the Royal Commission looking into the future of local government, Richard Crossman refused to appoint her. "One prima donna", he said in reference to Dame Evelyn Sharp, whom he proposed to appoint, "was more than enough."

Two activities in later life gave her particular pleasure. The Brookes had given up their Hampstead home to move to Mildenhall in Wiltshire. There she plunged into fund raising to secure a new village hall. When late in the '70s the roof fell into a state of disrepair, she flung herself into fundraising to have the hall rebuilt.

Far more important was her term as chairman of the governors of the Godolphin & Latymer school in Hammersmith, then a state school but, as now, one of the most successful in the country. The Inner London Education Authority had decided that the school should be merged with another and turned into a comprehensive. Lady Brooke was angered at this wanton destruction of a fine school and persuaded her fellow governors that they should resist the move and take the school into the independent sector. She called a meeting of parents in the ballroom of a hotel - the school had no hall large enough - and obtained the support of the overwhelming majority for the move. The school had less than 60,000 in endowments and immediate efforts at fundraising were required. Within months half a million pounds had been raised and leading firms approached successfully to provide bursaries for those whose parents could not afford the fees. As a result of the publicity Shirley Williams, soon to be Secretary of State for Education, withdrew her daughter from the school, but in its first year of independence Godolphin & Latymer was second only to St Pauls as the most highly subscribed school in London. Although she stood down as a Governor in 1978 after eighteen years service, Lady Brooke retained her interest in the school's continuing success and some believe that she found the result of this struggle the most rewarding of her many achievements.

The declining health of her husband - he was suffering from Parkinson's disease - brought her public life to an end, but she continued to take an active interest in the affairs of the village and the local church. She had also much to be proud of in the achievements of her family. Her eldest son, Peter, eventually became Chairman of the Conservative party and a cabinet minister, while the younger, Henry, is a Lord Justice of Appeal.

The Brookes celebrated their golden wedding in 1983, but Henry died the following year. Although Lady Brooke continued to live in Mildenhall, increasing frailty eventually caused her to move into the home where she died in her ninety third year.

She had a lifetime of achievement to reflect upon with pleasure, but would have regarded it as no more than a necessary part of her Christian duty. Her disappointment at the lack of progress her party had made in returning Conservative women MPs continued to rankle. But she could and did take great pleasure in her family and in an extremely successful and happy marriage.