Earl Ferrers: Farmer and Tory politician who spent over 30 years on his party's front bench

'We admire women, but we do not want them in this place,' he said in the Lords in 1957

When the Labour Government in 1999 abolished the right of all but 92 hereditary peers to sit in the House of Lords, Lord Ferrers topped the poll for those who were to remain. It was a tribute to his popularity and the respect in which he was held. He served in every Conservative government between 1962 and 1983, when he took a temporary break from politics to restore Ditchingham Hall, which his wife had inherited. Margaret Thatcher brought him back to the Government in 1988 and in four successive posts as Minister of State. He claimed with undue modesty to have made only two real contributions to politics, the Charities Act of 1991 and getting the pubs to open for an extra hour on Sundays.

The latter, he would add with a smile, was largely accidental. When the 1988 Licensing Bill reached the Lords an amendment was moved to allow pubs to remain open from 2-3pm on Sundays. As a member of a government determined not to provoke the sabbatarians, Ferrers called out "Not Content". As his was a lone voice, the question was put again and this time he remained silent, content to leave it to the whips to force a division. However, they followed his example and the clause stood as part of the Bill that went back to the Commons.

Robert Washington Shirley came of a family that traced its descent to the time of Edward the Confessor. He was the eldest child and only son of the 12th Earl and his wife, Hermione Morley. He was educated at West Downs and Winchester. It was subsequently noted that many of those tackling him, expecting to roll over an effete Etonian, found themselves dealing with a tough-minded Wykehamist and came off badly. His father had inherited the Earldom in 1937 and it was as Viscount Tamworth that he did his National Service in the Coldstream Guards, serving as a Lieutenant in Malaya against the communists. He then read estate management at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

In 1951 he married the 21-year-old Annabel Carr, daughter of Brigadier WG Carr of Ditchingham Hall. He had expected to manage the family estate at Staunton Harold in Leicestershire, but his father was forced to sell. The sale went ahead shortly after Tamworth succeeded as the 13th Earl Ferrers in 1954: he was invited to open the Hall after its purchase as the seventh Cheshire Home. He continued to farm at Hedingham Hall in Norfolk, where he had started with 150 acres and 23 cows, working seven days a week because he could not afford to pay overtime. Within a decade he was farming 450 acres and in 1970 he brought home the Chartley herd of White Park cattle his family had maintained from 1248 until 1905. At the turn of the century he had more than 2,200 acres.

He achieved notoriety in 1957 when he resisted the idea of women in the House of Lords. He found them distasteful: "In general they are organising, pushing and commanding. I do not feel one could say they are an exciting example of the attractiveness of the opposite sex. We like women, we admire women; we even sometimes grow fond of them, but we do not want them in this place."

Ferrers had to wait for office, although his knowledge of agriculture was increasingly valued in the Lords. Harold Macmillan appointed him to the Whips' Office as a Lord in Waiting in December 1962, but he retained his independence of mind. He had been an advocate of the birch, as opposed to imprisonment, in 1961, seeking to amend the Criminal Justice Bill, and he opposed the abolition of capital punishment in 1965. Reminded by Lord Henley that the 4th Earl had been hanged in 1760 when he was patently insane, Ferrers retorted that Henley was suffering a bad conscience for the dastardly deed of his predecessor.

When Heath came to power in 1970 Ferrers served again as Lord in Waiting, but it was not until 1974 that he enjoyed a few weeks as a junior minister in the Department of Agriculture. Back in opposition, he served on the Armitage Committee, which considered the political activities of civil servants in 1976. Margaret Thatcher made him Deputy Leader of the Opposition in the Lords later that year. In 1979 he coupled deputy leadership of the Lords with the job of Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, a job he relinquished in 1983..

In 1988 Thatcher brought him back as Minister of State at the Home Office and Deputy Leader of the Lords. In 1990 he had to introduce into the Lords the War Crimes Bill which aimed to allow prosecution of suspected war criminals living in Britain. "Your Lordships will be unfettered by party whips," he explained, "though some of your lordships always seem to be unfettered by party whips." The Bill was thrown out; he was not displeased.

He handled some difficult moments, not least when the Government had to abandon its decision to abolish legal aid for immigrants. But he handled them adroitly – and he could be far-sighted, noting in advance of the West case the perils to which runaway children were open. In 1994 he moved to the Department of Trade and Industry; responsible for consumer affairs, he resisted a scheme for silver to be hallmarked by the EU. He completed his ministerial career as Minister of State at the Department of Environment.

He hit the headlines in 1991 when he confronted a burglar in his London house and reduced him to a state of abject terror by giving him two sharp blows with his walking stick. He had not him too hard, he explained, because he did not want to break the stick. Six foot six, and every inch a guardsman, he was often thought of as a potential leader of the Lords. He was an imperturbable member of the Government front bench, sharp in debate although tempering his tendency to speak his mind. He was held in warm regard by successive Secretaries of State, but he never took himself too seriously as his recently memoir Whatever Next? makes plain.

Robert Washington Shirley (13th Earl Ferrers), politician: born 8 June 1929; a Lord-in-waiting 1962–64, 1971–74; Parliamentary Secretary 1974; Joint Deputy Leader of the Opposition, House of Lords 1976–79; Deputy Leader 1979–83, 1988–97; Minister of State 1979–99; married 1951 Annabel Carr (two sons, one daughter and two daughters deceased); died 13 November 2012.

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