Virginia's early summer of love, books and a baby
Sunday 12 July 1992
The year was 1967. At Essex University, a young sociology student named Virginia Garnett had a baby. He arrived in September, a few weeks before his mother began her second year studies. Three months later, at Christmas, she married the father, her long-time boyfriend Peter Bottomley.
Today Virginia Bottomley, 44, is Secretary of State for Health. At 19, for a few months, she was an unmarried mother. As the Independent quietly pointed out this week, she was herself perhaps not so very far removed from the teenage girls whom she has recently been advising on sex education and birth control.
But if Mrs Bottomley was a bit of a rebel in her youth, it was neither Essex University nor the Flower Power generation which made her so.
The well-spoken, smartly dressed young woman, daughter of a local Conservative MP, arrived at Essex in 1966, just before hippies were invented. It was also before Essex acquired its reputation as a hotbed of student activism.
By the time of the first sit-ins, in May 1968, baby Joshua was eight months old and Virginia respectably married. Her husband, four years older and a member of an old-established political clan, had already left Cambridge. He had acquired some knowledge of the world by driving an ice cream van, and was working as an industrial economist.
Even though 1967 was the year abortion was legalised and the Rolling Stones were in court on drugs charges, Joshua belongs to a more innocent age. For Virginia Garnett, 1967 was not the summer of love, but the summer of pregnancy.
Professor Peter Townsend, her personal tutor at Essex, remembers her well as a bright, keen although slightly diffident student. She went on to complete her studies and did social work before going into politics.
But she was no square peg at Essex. 'She didn't stick out socially in any way,' said Prof Townsend, now at Bristol University. 'She might have been more radical then than she is now, but then she was a lot younger.
'I don't remember her as a Flower Power person but neither was she especially tweedy. She was not unorthodox in her dress or behaviour in any way. She came across as someone who was quite sensitive, if a little slow to cotton on to the realities of life.
'She was somewhat more private than most students, and wasn't out partying every night.'
When Virginia Garnett arrived from Putney High School, Essex already had a reputation as a place to go. It offered a new kind of education quite different from the old-style universities, attracting students from a wide range of backgrounds. There was an air of egalitarianism - no separate facilities for staff and students, no senior common room, no staff toilets. Many of the students lived in self-catering student 'flats' in tower blocks on campus.
But this did not make the majority of students Marxist-Leninists. Many simply wanted to follow courses not available at Oxford or Cambridge - such as sociology - or to experience what was regarded as the more stimulating academic environment.
'Essex got its reputation later on,' said Professor Howard Newby, a student from 1967 to 1970 and now chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council. 'When I arrived in 1967 it was a terribly ordinary place. The standard joke at the time was that the permissive society consisted of two people sharing a flat in Bayswater. Everybody else was looking for it and nobody could find it. I certainly couldn't.
'There was a lot of media hype about sex and drugs, but the vast majority of students were reading books and writing essays. Sexual segregation was rigidly enforced in the tower blocks. Students could - and did - get into trouble for being caught in bed together.
'It is true that quite a few students would have experimented with soft drugs. There was a fair bit of cannabis around but Flower Power was really something that happened in San Francisco, not in Colchester.'
Ruth Lister (Essex 1967-70), now Professor of Applied Social Studies at Bradford University, said: 'It was a radical place in that it was a different, young community out on its own on the edge of town. But there were an awful lot of conventional people there too.'
If she was hardly of the Flower Power generation, Ms Garnett was certainly ahead of her time. Married or unwed, students with babies were almost unheard of in 1967. 'Actually, it was quite brave of her. She had the baby, finished her studies and carried on,' Professor Lister said. 'I don't remember any other students at all with children at university. Now it happens all the time.'
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