Obituary: Nancy Wheatley

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The Independent Online
Nancy Nichol, cooper: born Glasgow Tollcross 4 February 1906; married 1935 John Wheatley (created 1970 Baron Wheatley; died 1988; four sons, one daughter); died Edinburgh 3 March 1995.

Nancy Wheatley's death breaks one of the last surviving links with the Glasgow politics of the 1920s and 1930s, encapsulated by the memory of the Red Clydesiders.

She had participated in the great rally at George Square, Glasgow, in January 1919, "Black Friday", the start of militancy on Clydeside, to which she was taken as a girl by her father, Samuel Nichol. As Secretary and Treasurer of the Shettlestoun Independent Labour Party (ILP), Nancy Nichol was sent in March 1929, with her future husband, John Wheatley, to the ILP Conference in Carlisle, as Guild of Youth Delegates. There she met her husband's uncle, also John Wheatley, Minister of Housing in the 1924 Labour Government and originator of the council house, Jimmy Maxton, David Kirkwood, Campbell Stephen, the Rev James Barr, Geordie Buchanan (the future Pensions Minister) and others.

Nancy Nichol was responsible for bringing speakers to the Socialist Sunday School, then a very important educational vehicle, and, on most Sunday nights, to political dance/social functions in the Wellshott Road Hall. "Ramsay MacDonald came," she remembered. "He was a handsome man and a very eloquent speaker, but I was not impressed. He was a great believer in the inevitability of gradual- ness, which being young did not impress me. I wanted socialism overnight."

Nancy Nichol was born in Glasgow in 1906, the third in a family of the six children of a master carpenter originally from Hawick. Her mother hailed from Selkirk, descended from a Huguenot family who had fled religious persecution to continue their weaving in the Scottish Borders.

Nancy Nichol was steeped in the literature and tales of the Scottish Borders, and was proud to be related to James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd and radical poet. Her only brother, Jimmy Nichol, became a professional footballer and a wing-half in the Portsmouth side which beat Wolves in the Cup Final of 1939. She lost her mother when she was 11, and life was hard. Her memoir of life in the East End of Glasgow begins:

I feel very sorry for the children of today.They can have sweeties, crisps, fruit drinks etc every day of the week, every week of the year, and with Sunday shopping, every day just seems the same.

In our day, we started off with a

Saturday halfpenny, and then at the age of five or so that was increased to a penny. We spent a long time gazing into the window of the wee sweety shop in the main street of Tollcross, deciding how to spend our wealth. Should we buy two farthings' worth of different things or have a fit of complete abandon and blow the lot on one item? It was a serious decision. There were so many choices, sticks of rock, aniseed balls, liquorice sticks, and liquorice straps, an old-fashioned form of dolly mixtures, treacle toffee made by the owner of the shop - a widow, who I remember to this day - to mention but a few. So, Saturday was a day to look forward to. It was the only day we had sweeties, except an occasional one from a neighbour who asked us to run a message for her.

As for fruit I do not remember seeing a child - apart from our own family - ever eating an apple, orange or banana.

Throughout her life, she sung the praises of her teachers at Tollcross Primary School and Eastbank Secondary School, where her English teacher, and lifelong friend, Mary Broadhead, took her pupils on rambles, arranged for them to see Pavlova dance (at reduced prices) and invited disadvantaged pupils to stay with her and her mother at Braco, in Perthshire, for weekends. While she herself had to leave school herself at the age of 16, Nancy Wheatley was in later life, as a wife of an MP who later became a High Court Judge, a champion on innumerable committees of opportunity for toddlers and children from deprived backgrounds.

She worked for nine years in a cooperage firm in Glasgow, from 1926 to 1935. In 1935, after seven years' courtship, she married John Wheatley, and for the next half-century devoted herself selflessly to her family, extended family, friends and her husband's constituents. She was my adored mother-in-law, for a third of a century.

As a young mother during the Second World War she stayed in Drummond Place, in the New Town of Edinburgh, bringing up five children virtually singlehanded - an obligation little eased when, shortly after the war, her husband was elected MP for East Edinburgh and soon afterwards became Clement Attlee's Lord Advocate.

Keeping open house not just for her family and their friends but for constituents, party workers, visiting speakers, in the Edinburgh milieu which surrounded her husband's great friend Compton MacKenzie, doyen of the tradition of the Edinburgh Englightenment, Nancy Wheatley was a figure in the Scottish capital very much in her own right.

The late Col Betty Harvie- Anderson, the forthright, and no-nonsense Conservative MP for East Renfrewshire, was a prominent member of the Royal Commission on Local Government Reform in Scotland, the Wheatley Commission. The reason, she told me, that John Wheatley was such a good chairman, was that he had a wife who could bring him down to earth. And Sam Silkin, the cautious Labour Attorney General, a member and close ally of John Wheatley on the abortive Amory Commission on Penal Reform, told me that he was entranced by Nancy's warmth and good sense.

While she was her husband's candid friend, no wife ever leapt more loyally to her husband's defence than when Wheatley was vehemently criticised, for example for his thunderous judgement in one of the causes clbres of the 1960s - the divorce case of Margaret, Duchess of Argyll.

Above all it was the warmth of her personality and impeccable integrity that enabled her to make the most forthright observations to all and sundry without causing undue commotion. There was no subject on which Nancy Wheatley did not have a decided and usually perceptive opinion. Her tough repartee was legendary. Imagine calling Emmanuel Shinwell to his face "a right chancer" and living to tell him so every time they met.