Obituary: Baroness Vickers

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The Independent Online
FROM an early age my aunt was the key to an exciting grown-up world, writes Hugo Vickers. She took my sister and me on a tour of the Ark Royal in Devonport - and my memory of the day is that nothing else seemed to be happening aboard that great aircraft carrier beyond the gratification of every wish of two small children. She whisked me to Westminster to see the Lying-in-State of Sir Winston Churchill and introduced me to Mrs Thatcher in the days when she still wore Conservative ladies' hats. So far-reaching did I believe my aunt's influence to be that I apparently made several visits to Tower Bridge convinced she would have it opened for me. I was heard to say: 'I'll give her one more chance]'

She arrived in Devonport in the early 1950s in what her agent described as 'a whiff of political eau- de-Cologne'. When as a teenager I joined her to canvass, I was impressed by the considerable efforts she put into retaining the seat. Door-to-door canvassing was an absolute requirement in those parts. There were times when I stayed at home, exhausted, while she was still out addressing rallies and making speeches; yet when she sailed into my room with breakfast at 8am sharp, immaculate in her pearls, she had already been out to greet the dockers on their way to the dockyard. Many Labour men told me that, despite the difference in their politics, she would get their vote because she had rehoused them or upheld a vital local interest, often ignoring the instructions of the party whips. Nor did she desert Devonport after being unseated by David Owen, but continued to support the constituency both locally and in the House of Lords.

On the rare occasions she spoke of her own life, the air was a little uncomfortable. She did not expand: 'I had my fun,' she would say. As an aunt used to unceasing endeavour, she could be exacting. At the successful conclusion of one of my projects her immediate question would be: 'And now what are you going to do?' To answer 'a holiday' was unwise. It was better to outline a long list of plans - and then take a holiday. Equally, a book that had been the labour of five years could pass apparently unnoticed, whereas a few weeks devoted to helping the International Year of the Child would be rewarded with a long handwritten letter.

She managed to continue to serve in the House of Lords until she was 80. But then increasing frailty forced her to retire. Nevertheless she was able to fly to the Falklands at their invitation, and I accompanied her on a memorable expedition in a balloon in 1983, on safari in Kenya. Early in 1990, when her frailty became too great a burden, she seemed resigned for death. She endured an unpleasant spell in a nursing home and, contrary to all indications, she regained much of her strength. She was able to return to her old constituency in November 1991 to give a large lunch and to speak. And last year she hosted a lunch for the Indonesian ambassador when he presented her with the Bintang Jassa Utama - the highest Indonesian order for foreigners. She rose magnificently to both these occasions and on the latter gave a memorably funny speech.

Her will-power and strength of purpose were formidable. Visiting her wounded brother in a military hospital, she was stopped by a sentry. 'You can't go in there,' he said. 'Well, shoot me then,' she declared. She walked straight in.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood died 3 January 1994.

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