Thatcher's dad: mayor, preacher, groper

Alderman Roberts of Grantham liked to squeeze more than his sausages, reports Keith Nuthall

Alderman Alfred Roberts, revered father of Margaret Thatcher and inspirer of her Victorian values, sexually harassed young female assistants working in the grocer's shop where she grew up, according to the distinguished political biographer Professor Bernard Crick.

Writing in the satirical magazine Punch, the political theorist, commentator and biographer of George Orwell recounts claims from contemporaries of the one-time Methodist preacher, pillar of society and Mayor of Grantham, Lincolnshire, that he "was a notorious toucher-up".

The assaults supposedly took place about 60 years ago, behind the counter of the shop, next to the "splendid mahogany spice drawers with sparkling brass handles (and) large, black, lacquered tea canisters", recalled in her autobiography by Baroness Thatcher, whose decisive endorsement of William Hague as Conservative leader last week has renewed her influence with the Tory right.

"Older teachers," Professor Crick was told by a Grantham friend, "all remembered their difficulty in trying, good women, to steer girls away from taking jobs at his shop.

"They were frightened to hint at the real reason: for he was a figure of real power in the town."

Crick, emeritus professor of the University of London, said that he learnt of the allegations in the mid-1980s, when the then Prime Minister was promoting the Victorian values of thrift and self-reliance that she had admired in her Rotarian father.

Her comments made the left-wing academic realise that he held the seeds of a story that could damage the Conservatives. Before the 1987 general election, he said, he gave the story to a friendly Daily Mirror journalist, who then declined to alert his newsdesk, fearing the wrath of owner Robert Maxwell, should it create too much controversy.

The story remained a secret until it appeared in Punch last week, although he had tried to persuade the magazine to publish it before this year's election.

Lady Thatcher's office said that the former Prime Minister had no comment.

However, although tales of her father's alleged sexual misconduct might not have been known nationally, they have been common currency in Grantham for years, it was clear last week.

Peter Hadlow, 76, lived next-door-but-one to the Robertses, and overheard many conversations about the scandal when working as an apprentice electrician. "Quite a broad spectrum of people said it. It was all over Grantham virtually," he said. "I would hear the boss talking about it. My ears were flapping - that sounds juicy, I thought.

"These stories were bandied about, and eventually you begin to believe there was some truth in them. But he was an Alderman and so that sort of thing got hushed up. It was a question of who do you believe - a teenage girl, or Mr Roberts?"

Mr Hadlow still lives in the same area of the town and added: "Funnily enough, when he gave up running the shop, he changed into a really nice bloke".

More significant still were the comments of a 74-year-old woman from Grantham, who told the Independent on Sunday that she had been molested on frequent occasions by Alderman Roberts, when she worked in his shop, aged just 15.

She said: "He was a bad one. He came round and put his arms around me, feeling my breasts. He used to put his tongue in my mouth.

"I got quite frightened. I didn't like it and I'd push him away. He'd say nothing and go, but then he would come back again. He used to chase other girls round the counter." She worked at the shop for six months until she told her parents what was happening. Her father told her she should not return.

The woman, who does not wish to be named, was then a chorister at the Methodist chapel where Alderman Roberts was a lay preacher. "One Sunday, I got up and walked out. I couldn't stand him standing up there and preaching," she said.

It was only then, when her parents challenged her to explain her behaviour, that she told them about the harassment she had suffered at the hands of the Alderman.

Professor Crick said that his piece was "written in the spirit of good- humoured satiric rage".

He said he had wanted it to be published before the general election. "I was so angry at the Conservative Party using all that family values stuff. To use it for political purposes is really quite off. It debases politics and in the end, you get caught out. It's a great offence to exploit and mythologise the past for political purposes."

Punch also sent a reporter to Grantham, who found pensioners willing to recount lurid tales about the grocer. One elderly resident claimed that she had two cousins working at the shop. "He was forever pinching their bums when they bent over - and looking up their skirts."

Journalist Richard Creasy wrote: "Memories of Alderman Alf raise a smirk amongst the pensioners who remember him far from fondly."

Paul Spike, editor of Punch, said: "People have been talking about this, but no one has been willing to run this until now. Crick has been talking about it for decades - he's a known responsible figure.

"We're not saying this has been established in a court of law. We thought we should check it out further. That's as much as we could get."

The rumours about Alderman Roberts took on fictional form in a novel about Thirties Grantham, Rotten Borough, written by local journalist Oliver Anderson and published in 1937. It featured a councillor who ran a corner grocery shop and was given to frolicking with his female assistants. At one point he is caught in flagrante beside the pork pies and polony sausages when a faulty light is switched on and passers-by see him, trousers down, through the shop window.

Rotten Borough was withdrawn from sale after just three weeks following threats from the Grantham establishment, including an earl and MP, of legal action. In 1989 it was republished by Fourth Estate. Its author died last year.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • 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 General

Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / Analyst (CIMA finalist/newly qualified)

£32000 - £38000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant / F...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - .NET

£27000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of a mark...

Recruitment Genius: Help Desk Specialist

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides Reliabili...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Managing Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This leading provider of refrigeration, mechan...

Day In a Page

No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor