Obituary: Dame Felicity Yonge

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Twenty-five years ago Felicity Yonge was personal secretary to the then Chief Whip, William Whitelaw - as she had been to a considerable number of senior Tory politicians before him - at a time when I worked at the Conservative Research Department and acted as secretary to a small group of MPs chaired by Whitelaw.

On one occasion when Whitelaw was occupied with some recalcitrant backbencher, and I was waiting to see him, I discovered the delights of a preliminary chat with the reputedly formidable Miss Yonge. There were many functionaries, of course, who had as much knowledge and experience as she, but none, in my experience, had so well organised a mind. She was a delight for a young tiro; and what I can only call her tutorials ended only when Whitelaw summoned me. She was the kindest, as well as the brightest of women.

Felicity Yonge was born into a well-to-do Roman Catholic family in Sussex. She went to the Convent of the Holy Child, at St Leonard's-on-Sea. Her father was a Commander in the Royal Navy, and she joined the WRNS in 1940. She immediately demonstrated a penchant for - and an exceptional efficiency at - administration. She always argued that she was merely a small cog in a great machine, but she was a particularly well-oiled cog, and her loyalty and aptitude made her privy to many matters confidential and even secret. Her war was not a particularly dangerous one but, as the slang put it, it was a good one.

From 1947 to 1950 she served as a purser on the Atlantic routes of P & 0. But the bug of politics had taken hold, and in 1951 she became private secretary to the formidable and great Lord Woolton, the man who had offered his services to restore the Conservative party machine after the electoral dbcle of 1945. Working closely with Woolton she acquired a formidable - indeed, unrivalled - knowledge of the party and its machinery as it was, and as it developed under Woolton's wise, if not always benevolent, stewardship. She took her knowledge and her experience into the service of Alec Douglas-Home and, finally, Whitelaw. She contrived, socially, to cover her essential discretion with a mask of indiscretion; and there were many senior politicians who benefited from her advice.

But her main preoccupation was with her religion, and with conforming to its laws. We had lunch one day, supposedly to discuss the mechanics of the relationship between the Research Department and the Whips' Office. When business had been briskly dealt with, she said that she had noted that I had an Irish name, and asked whether I was a Catholic. I said that I had been, but had lapsed. She was visibly distressed, and the rest of our time was spent in a heated discussion on Catholic theology.

What Felicity Yonge could not understand was my loss of belief, for hers was ardent. It was not, however, merely ritual for, from her early years, she devoted copious amounts of time, and almost unbelievable energy, to good works. Her religion, as manifested in these good works, was never preachy, but always practical. Her own parish in Wimbledon depended greatly on her. Though afflicted both by a painful spinal illness, and by cancer, she continued her work until six months before her death. She was one of the most remarkable people I have ever met, and her memory shines.

Patrick Cosgrave

Ida Felicity Ann Yonge, political secretary: born 28 February 1921; Private Secretary to Chairman of the Conservative Party 1951-64, to Leader of the Opposition 1964-65, to Opposition Chief Whip 1965-70, 1974-79, to Leader of the House of Commons 1970-74; MBE 1958, DBE 1982; Special Adviser in Government Chief Whip's Office 1979-83; died Wimbledon 1 April 1995.