Sometimes, this job can really surprise you (who can forget the infamous incident of the false teeth, received after the contents of a certain eminent scientist’s bedside table were sent to us, along with his papers, or the rather juicy dead rat perching on top of files which we once went to retrieve). Today’s story from the archives isn’t quite in that league for ghoulishness, I’m afraid, but I did nearly drop my pencil, which in the archive world is equivalent to a medium-sized Mexican wave.
One of my jobs at the moment is to catalogue the papers of Churchill’s youngest daughter, Mary Soames. It’s a good, varied archive, including Mary’s exuberant teenage diaries, written during the war years, and also a large amount of source material which she used while writing the biography of her mother, Clementine Churchill. I have been ploughing steadily through this for several months now, working my way through Clementine’s life, from her early girlhood to her funeral (which I reached last week), and when I got to 1976, the year before Clementine’s death, I came across a letter from the last person I expected to see in a Churchill family archive, Margaret Thatcher.
We do of course have Thatcher’s papers here as well, but it’s rather disconcerting when two archives collide like this, especially when the people concerned come from two completely different eras: Clementine Churchill, the grande dame at the very end of her life, and Margaret Thatcher, the brisk new leader of the Conservative Party.
Thatcher had gone to a drinks party at Clementine’s house, and the following day, wrote this fascinating letter to her hostess. (There is no copy in the Thatcher archive itself, I was rather pleased to see, as it’s a handwritten personal letter, but the drinks party does get a mention in the official diary). Thatcher talks about her admiration for Winston Churchill’s speeches (rating them above those of any other politician) and particularly compliments Clementine on her early support for women’s suffrage. She actually calls her a suffragette, which didn’t go down too well, as though Clementine was a keen supporter of women’s education, helping to set up the women’s college New Hall, as well as Churchill College, she definitely didn’t see herself as a suffragette, and firmly declined Thatcher’s later request to describe her as such in one of her speeches.
It’s hard to know quite what Clementine would have made of Thatcher; on the one hand, she may well have approved of such a trailblazer for women, but on the other she was particularly fond of Thatcher’s predecessor as Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and he was certainly no fan of Thatcher. In any case, she probably appreciated the closing lines in Thatcher’s letter:
“Perhaps one day, we shall have a “she”- Churchill in the House. Future generations owe that to you.”
— Katharine Thomson, Archivist
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