Obituary: Dame Felicity Yonge

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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
  • Get to the point
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 People

Recruitment Genius: HR Manager

£36000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, - 1 Year contract

£50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: HR Manager Shared Services - Uxbridge, Stock...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Human Resource Officer and Executive Assistant

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

Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events business) - Central Manchester - £20K

£18000 - £20000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: HR Assistant (Events busi...

Day In a Page

'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before
'Queer saint' Peter Watson left his mark on British culture by bankrolling artworld giants

'Queer saint' who bankrolled artworld giants

British culture owes a huge debt to Peter Watson, says Michael Prodger
Pushkin Prizes: Unusual exchange programme aims to bring countries together through culture

Pushkin Prizes brings countries together

Ten Scottish schoolchildren and their Russian peers attended a creative writing workshop in the Highlands this week
14 best kids' hoodies

14 best kids' hoodies

Don't get caught out by that wind on the beach. Zip them up in a lightweight top to see them through summer to autumn
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The acceptable face of the Emirates

The acceptable face of the Emirates

Has Abu Dhabi found a way to blend petrodollars with principles, asks Robert Fisk