Obituary: Marjorie Wilson

IT IS difficult to be the male spouse of a leading lady politician. I suspect it is no less difficult being the big sister of a Prime Minister. Marjorie Wilson succeeded in being a lady of considerable worth in her own right. After studying Chemistry at Leeds University, she became a teacher, later moving to Cornwall, where she spent many years as headmistress of St Blazey's Infants School and, from 1966 to 1971, of Biscovey Infants School.

David Blackford, Secretary of the Cornwall branch of the National Association of Head Teachers, describes her as "caring". Nothing, he says, was too much trouble for her. She was respected by staff and parents alike and a keen member of his association. "Nobody would ever have been aware of the special circumstances of her relationship with the Prime Minister."

Marjorie used to bring their father, Herbert Wilson, a widower, to Labour Party conferences, where they both became something of a benign institution. I remember her irreverent outpourings at Scarborough in 1967. Harold, she told us, was born the day before her seventh birthday. "I suppose he was a sort of birthday present." Marjorie would talk about him as if he were half baby and half doll, someone to be protected.

Actually Harold Wilson owed Marjorie a great deal, as she it was who was to look after his father and carry many of the family responsibilities. Without her he might not have had the time so assiduously to climb the Labour Party tree.

All was not sweetness and light. As the secretary of the Labour Party Standing Conference on the Sciences and a young MP, Harold Wilson wanted me to talk at length to his father Herbert, who had been a chemist, about the science policy, during the white heat of the technological revolution.

Later, when I told him genuinely that his father had been interesting and his sister charming, he looked quizzically, in a particular Harold Wilson way, as if to say, "That's only half the story." Ever a gossip, he told me that Marjorie had bullied him and recalled that during one summer holiday - I think in Morecambe - he had nearly lost his life at her hands. Going for a walk along the sea-front he and his sister had had a fight. Marjorie overpowered him and hurled him with all his clothes on into the sea. He was terrified and his heavy garments were soaked through. He had to be taken to a shop to get new clothes.

This may have been Marjorie's revenge for all the attention that came to her young brother. As Ben Pimlott put it in his brilliant and perceptive biography, Harold Wilson (1992), "Marjorie was expected to watch Harold's brilliant successes and to be enthusiastic about them, almost as a third parent."

Marjorie's successes were automatically regarded as less of an achievement. There is an oft-repeated story which Harold Wilson would tell against himself. When Marjorie told her parents excitedly that she had won a scholarship to Huddersfield Girls High School, Harold, then four years of age, complained, "I want a 'ship' too." When Herbert Wilson made a celebrated sightseeing trip to London and visited Downing Street, it was Harold and not Marjorie who had a photograph taken outside the door of No 10.

The relationship between brother and sister, however, became very good. When Harold was called to Chequers to see Clem Attlee in 1947, he was staying with Marjorie at her St Austell bungalow (she had moved to Cornwall with her mother shortly after her father started to work there in 1938); they spent the evening making guesses about what Attlee would offer.

Marjorie wanted to know on Monday morning where her brother was to go in the Government, so he arranged to leave a symbolic message on her breakfast table on his way back to Mullion Cove in Cornwall where he used to stay. A lump of coal would mean that he was to be Minister of Fuel and Power, a strip of metal would mean Minister of Supply and a slice of bread Minister of Food. Neither of them had imagined that he would be given the pre-sidency of the Board of Trade.

Tam Dalyell

Marjorie Wilson, schoolteacher: born Manchester 12 March 1909; MBE 1972; died Truro, Cornwall 8 March 1998.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Building Manager / Head Porter

£25000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This award winning Property Man...

Recruitment Genius: Medical Copywriter / Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join an awa...

Recruitment Genius: Transport Clerk / Debriefer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading temperature contro...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Marketer

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

The future of songwriting

How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

Recognition at long last

Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

Beating obesity

The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
9 best women's festival waterproofs

Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

Wiggins worried

Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Liverpool close in on Milner signing

Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

On your feet!

Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

The big NHS question

Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

Thongs ain't what they used to be

Big knickers are back
Thurston Moore interview

Thurston Moore interview

On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
In full bloom

In full bloom

Floral print womenswear
From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

From leading man to Elephant Man

Bradley Cooper is terrific