OBITUARY:Patricia Fisher

Roy Bradford
Sunday 11 June 1995 23:02

Portavo Point, a large white 1930s building, sits on a promontory on the north coast of Co Down, facing the Copeland Islands and the Atlantic. For over 25 years it was the fiefdom and home of Patricia Fisher, and, inadvertently, the reason for her becoming the first woman member of Parliament for a seat in Northern Ireland.

Portavo Point had been built by her father, Sir Walter Smiles, who for many years was MP for North Down, until, in 1953, he went down with 128 others in the Princess Victoria, the Larne-Stranraer car ferry which sank during a storm, within sight of Portavo. In those days the idea of a family seat still existed in the Ulster Unionist Party and Patsie Ford (she was married in 1941 to Neville Ford) was returned unopposed at a by- election in her father's place.

She remained in the Commons for only two years, retiring at the general election of 1955, and many people put this down to her rather unfortunate beginning. In an article for the Sunday Express she innocently described her first week in the House, including her first all-night sitting and a description of Bessie Braddock and Edith Summerskill snoring. Both women objected strongly to such an improper exposure of what happened in ''our own private apartments'', as the Speaker termed the Commons in his stern reprimand; and Patsie Ford's first speech in the Commons had to be an apology. ''It is sometimes difficult to see in the dark,'' she said.

Furthermore, when she appeared in a photograph attending a Roman Catholic Requiem Mass at the Brompton Oratory, her constituents took grave offence, and she was expelled from the women's branch of the Orange Order, membership of which was then virtually obligatory for any aspiring MP.

Politics for Patricia Ford became less and less congenial, and she stood down, although politics was to stay in her family. One of her two daughters with Neville Ford married the Conservative MP Sir Michael Grylls. And her second husband was her former colleague Nigel Fisher, then Tory MP for Surbiton, later a junior minister for the Commonwealth and Colonies under Harold Macmillan. Nigel and Patricia Fisher were kindred spirits: he, welcoming the "wind of change" and opposed to any form of racialism at home; she, open-minded and irreverent.

Patsie Fisher's boundless energy involved her in many voluntary organisations. She founded the Women Caring Trust and worked tirelessly for needy and deprived children in Northern Ireland, and had been the trust's Chairman or President for the past 23 years.

Also, as the great- granddaughter of Samuel Smiles, the Victorian apostle of "self-help'', and as the great-niece of Mrs Beeton of Household Management fame, she set up a company to market preserves and other foodstuffs under the Beeton banner.

During the Second World War she threw herself into the women's effort to find more food. Lady Mairi Bury, daughter of the Londonderry family, remembers her mother arranging for Patsie Ford to learn how to plough on the estate at Mountstewart. They were close friends and used to go sailing together in River Class boats on Strangford Lough. Sailing, as well as politics, ran in the family. Her father was a keen helmsman and her son-in-law Michael Grylls is a member of the Royal Yacht Squadron.

Patsie Fisher was a woman of irrepressible vivacity, and there was always something special about parties at Portavo Point, especially at Christmas when the tree, the focus of attention in the huge bay-window overlooking the sea, was each year decked out in an even more imaginative array of exotic baubles.

Roy Bradford

Patricia Smiles, politician and entrepreneur: born 5 April 1921; MP (Ulster Unionist) for North Down 1953-55; married 1941 Neville Ford (two daughters; marriage dissolved 1956), 1956 Nigel Fisher (Kt 1974); died 23 May 1995.

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