John Barnes, Historian

Dame Patricia Hornsby-Smith, Baroness Hornsby-Smith (1914-1985)

When she first made a name for herself, speaking to a still somewhat demoralised Conservative Party annual Conference in 1946, Pat Hornsby-Smith was a vibrant figure, a dynamic, auburn-haired firebrand; and she was confidently expected to make her mark when elected to Parliament. Her victory at Chislehurst in February 1950 was sensational as she overturned a Labour majority of 6,279 to win by just 167 votes. She increased her majority in October 1951 and was duly appointed to be Parliamentary Secretary at the Ministry of Health. At 37 she was at that time the youngest woman ever appointed to a ministerial post. Her ministerial chief, Harry Crookshank, doubled as leader of the House and was accustomed to refer to her as his minister of Health. But when it was decided that the department needed a full-time minister in charge, the job went to a backbencher, Iain Macleod. Pat cut very little ice with the civil servants, who saw her appointment as a token gesture, and it is not easy to know at this distance of time whether her comparative failure was due to their misogyny or to her own limited talent for administration. Macmillan promoted her to be joint Parliamentary Under Secretary at the Home Office and she played her part in steering a controversial homicide bill through a House of Commons that had earlier voted for the complete abolition of capital punishment. She was to vote for the re-introduction of capital punishment in 1973.

At the Home Office Pat made a special study of the refugee problems. She had visited Vienna in February 1957 to investigate the problems that followed the 1956 Hungarian revolution and she was appointed a United Kingdom delegate to the general Assembly of the United Nations in 1958, where she was one of those sponsoring the resolution to hold a World Refugee Year.

Her move to be John Boyd Carpenter’s junior minister at the ministry of Pensions was widely seen as at best a sideways move, at worst a demotion; although her appointment was welcome to him. The task to be undertaken was implementation of the graduated pensions legislation, which was already on the statute book, and can not be thought altogether surprising that by 1961, Pat was ready to seek a new career in the business world. She not only retained her seat in Parliament until 1966, when she was narrowly beaten, one of many seats to go to Labour in that General Election, but she was determined to win it back. She was to regain it in 1970, but she did not expect and did not get ministerial office in Heath’s administration. In fact, he was to exercise a baneful influence on her future in the Commons, although it was not altogether his fault. When the choice had to be made of a candidate to fight the newly formed seat of Old Bexley, effectively he displaced her as the favoured choice, a move that cost her any place in the 1974 parliament and precipitated her elevation to the House of Lords. Her later years were dogged by ill health, but she remained an active parliamentarian and an inveterate campaigner for the charity of her choice.

Margaret Patricia Hornsby-Smith was born on 17 March 1914 at 315 Upper Richmond Road, East Sheen, in Surrey. She was the only daughter and second child of Frederick Charles Hornsby-Smith, a small shopkeeper, who dealt in saddles and was a master umbrella maker, and his wife, Ellen Florence Minter. She was educated in the local elementary school and at Richmond county school. When she left school it was to embark upon a secretarial career, but she had also joined the Junior Imperial League at the age of sixteen. She was invited to join the Conservative Party’s “flying squad” of speakers for the 1931 election campaign. It was evident that she already had her eyes on a political career, although it was not easy to see how she would find the wherewithal to fund it. After her father’s death in 1944, she supported her mother on a salary of three pounds a week.

For eight years she worked as a private secretary in engineering, electrical, and textile firms; she also worked for an employers' federation. The outbreak of the Second World War took her also into voluntary work. She helped organize a comforts fund for service personnel and ran a Women's Voluntary Services canteen. She served as a member of the Barnes war efforts committee and was the joint organizer of a National Savings Campaign. In 1941, as the result of the government’s drive to bring more women into the civil service, she became principal private secretary to Lord Selborne, the minister of economic warfare, and she remained in that post until 1945.

After the war, her political career took off. She was elected to a term on Barnes Borough Council 1945-9, where she served not only on committees dealing with housing, education, electricity, and maternity and child welfare, but also on finance and general purposes. She helped to organize the Surrey Young Conservatives, becoming their chairman, and then chairman of the Young Conservatives in the South East Area. That took her on to the National Union’s executive committee where she served from 1947 until 1950. She had already made her mark on the wider party through her speaking ability. The feisty speech she made at the party’s annual conference in 1946 was long remembered, and although she did not immediately find a seat, on one occasion being rejected quite explicitly as a woman, she was eventually selected to fight the Labour held seat of Chislehurst in Kent. Not surprisingly, she remained convinced that selection committees were the ‘most potent citadel of prejudice’ in all the parties, and that women had to be better than all the men to be selected. In general it was the women on selection committees that were the most prejudiced opponents of women candidates.

Once adopted for Chislehurst, her drive revitalized the constituency association, and in 1950 she defeated her Labour opponent by just 167 votes. She had campaigned successfully as “our Pat” and twenty months later she increased her majority to 980, not least because of a highly successful party political broadcast, which set out to woo the woman’s vote by concentrating on housing and the cost of living. As a constituency MP she was hard-working and effective, and she increased her majority at successive general elections. When the political tide turned against the Conservative party in 1964, she managed to retain her seat in a three-cornered contest by 1,515.

For the greater part of the Conservative’s thirteen years in Office, Pat was a hard-working, but a not particularly notable junior minister. Churchill had invited her to serve as Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry of Health, initially under Harry Crookshank, but then under Iain Macleod and finally Robin Turton. The civil servants thought her “nervous” and “inexperienced”. They also thought, revealingly, that she was too much of a party politician. Transferred to the Home Office, she spent two years as joint Under Secretary with Jocelyn Simon. In 1959 she became a privy councillor but was moved to the ministry of Pensions, if anything a demotion. It was evident that her ministerial career was going nowhere. Irene Ward wrote to the Telegraph: “I am devastated that the Prime Minister does not know how disturbed responsible women…. will feel at the unimaginative decision to appoint women in his Government merely to do the chores of administration.” Pat played her part in implementing the Government’s graduated pensions scheme, which came into effect in 1961, but by September of that year she had had enough. As Peterborough noted, she had by now rated a department of her own, but none was on offer: “Mr Macmillan may not be exactly antipathetic to women in the Government, but he shows no great sign of being captivated by their talents.” He did at least write her a graceful valedictory and make her a DBE.

Pat had decided to embark on a business career, in which she prospered. She became the chairman of a Courtaulds subsidiary and in April 1964 the chairman of the Western and General Unit Trust, the first woman to have such a role. She continued in the House of Commons, but inevitably perhaps went down to defeat in 1966 by 810 votes. There was some hostility to her readoption, which brought a rather emotional reaction from her. But in the end, she was reselected and won the seat in 1970.

Writing in 1968, Pat had reflected that the lot of a woman MP was not a happy one. She described the difficulties of getting selected in the first place and went on to discuss the awkward lifestyle, the conditions women faced in parliament, the domestic constraints, the meagre salary and the costs of nursing a constituency. Her strongest comments came when she discussed the way in which women MPs were expected to restrict themselves in debate to certain subjects, and the problems inherent in received notions of domesticity. She did not comment, to the regret of her biographer for the ODNB, Helen Jones, “on the difficulties for women ministers. Perhaps because she was never promoted to the cabinet she was deeply conscious of the prejudice against women in all the parties.” Paradoxically, however, she campaigned against the anti-discrimination bill in February 1973, regarding it as too sweeping and inimical to married women.

The boundary changes that had been postponed before the 1970 election were now brought into force and Pat found herself competing against the Prime Minister for the Bexley-Sidcup seat. She believed she had a prior claim, but when it became clear that Heath would not discourage his supporters from putting his name forward, it seemed inevitable that she would have to shift to a new seat. Diplomatically she stood down from the contest on 23 May 1972, and in April 1973, she was adopted for Aldridge Brownhills in the west Midlands. It was perfectly winnable, but the constituency organisation was far from good, and in February 1974 she went down by 366 votes. In retrospect it was clear that the massive vote enjoyed by the Liberals (23.4%) had enabled the Labour candidate to win. She decided not to fight the next election and was given a life peerage in May 1974. Despite increasing ill health, she remained active member of the House of Lords where she took a considerable interest in immigration and matters affecting fishermen.

Through contributing to the BBC radio programme Any Questions? she was better known to a wide public than many with more distinguished political careers. From 1971 she was a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. She had maintained her wartime connections with SOE through membership of the Special Forces Club and she was also a member of the Constitutional Club and the Cowdray.

Pat had maintained a strong interest in what is today described as the third sector and from 1966 she worked for the Arthritis and Rheumatism Council for Research as the chairman of its appeals committee. She became Vice Chairman of the Council in 1974. In 1975 she became chairman of the Electrical Association of Women, and in 1983 of the St Edward's Housing Association.

She also travelled widely: in 1962 she led a parliamentary delegation to Australasia and in 1972 she headed the parliamentary delegation that visited Kenya.

Almost her last engagement fittingly was attendance at the First Women of our Time luncheon which was held at the Mansion House on 14 May 1985.

She died on 3 July 1985. Her funeral took place at Mortlake on 8 July. She had never married but her brother, Freddie, organised the memorial service held on 29 October 1985 at St Margaret's, Westminster, at which the prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, read one of the lessons.