Oxford DNB home page
page layout image
Subscriber home page
page layout image

Margaret Thatcher

Thatcher [née Roberts], Margaret Hilda, Baroness Thatcher (1925–2013), prime minister, was born at 1 North Parade, Grantham, Lincolnshire, on 13 October 1925, the younger daughter of Alfred Roberts, grocer, and his wife, Beatrice Ethel, née Stephenson (1888–1960).


Grantham to Oxford, 1925–1943


Although Margaret Roberts distanced herself from her home town at the earliest opportunity, and seldom felt nostalgic towards it in her years of power and fame, Grantham was very important in the life and mental make-up of the woman who achieved national renown and international celebrity as ‘Mrs Thatcher’. Situated at the north-eastern extremity of the English midlands, Grantham was a provincial market town, on the main road (A1) and the east coast railway line (LNER) from London to Edinburgh, with a population holding steady at about 20,000 throughout the inter-war years. There was little by way of heavy industry or a factory-based working class, and its civic politics were largely consensual and non-partisan—except, as Thatcher remembered and regretted, in the case of the Labour Party. The local grandees were the Brownlows, who lived nearby at Belton House, and the fifth Baron Brownlow was serving as mayor of Grantham in 1925, the year of Margaret's birth. There was no large-scale unemployment of the kind that was found in the manufacturing towns and cities of the north, but Grantham shared the hardships of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and in the economic recovery that came later in the years immediately before the Second World War. Despite the excellent rail and road connections north and south, the great cities of London and Edinburgh were far away, not only geographically, but culturally and socially as well.


Inter-war Grantham was a somewhat claustrophobic pool, where Alfred Roberts was in the process of becoming a big fish when his second daughter (he and Beatrice had no more children) was born. His father had been a Northamptonshire bootmaker, from whom he may have inherited his unostentatious Liberal politics; and in his sustained determination to improve himself, and to be of service to his fellow citizens, Margaret's father might have stepped straight from the pages of Samuel Smiles's Self-Help, a book which later became talismanic to his younger daughter. He had left school at thirteen because, being one of a large family, he needed to earn his living, and he went into the grocery trade. But he was also eager to make his way in the world, and this he did by voracious reading, and by his active involvement in the Methodist church. By the time he moved to Grantham and married Beatrice Stephenson, he had saved enough money to acquire a shop on North Parade, and not long before Margaret was born he opened a second store on Huntingtower Road. From this base Alfred Roberts launched himself into the civic life of the town: he was a lay preacher at the Methodist chapel; he became a Rotarian and a justice of the peace; he was a local councillor, elected as an Independent; he was a governor of Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School; and he would later become an alderman and serve as mayor of Grantham in 1945–6.


Margaret Roberts was born above the family shop, and her upbringing was spartan: there was no garden, the lavatory was outside, and there was no hot water. Her parents were not rich, although the family business would prosper in a modest sort of way. But Alfred Roberts loathed any form of extravagance and hated anything that smacked of self-indulgence. The domestic regime over which he presided was austere and puritanical, joyless, and lacking in warmth. At least twice every Sunday, Margaret and her sister, Muriel (1921–2004), were taken to worship at the Finkin Street Methodist Church, where their father often preached the sermon. From an early age the girls were taught the importance of order, precision, and attention to detail; they were escorted on weekly visits to the local library to borrow improving books; as soon as they were old enough, they served behind the counter in the family shop; conversation at home was earnest and high-minded; and Alfred and Beatrice rarely took holidays. Thrift, hard work, self-help, self-reliance, and self-improvement were the governing imperatives of the Roberts household; duty invariably came before pleasure, and public service before personal gratification. Integrity mattered above all else, and it was important to hold opinions because they were right, not because they were popular.


These were the lessons learned, and the virtues internalized, by the young Margaret Roberts, and as prime minister she would later celebrate them as the ‘Victorian values’ which she believed had made the United Kingdom great in the past, and which under her leadership would make it great again. ‘We were Methodists’, she would recall, invoking one aspect of her father's legacy, ‘and Methodist means method’ (Murray, 17). ‘Those poor shopkeepers!’, she allegedly exclaimed in the summer of 1981, invoking another, on hearing of the damaged retail stores in the Toxteth riots (Young, One of Us, 223). When prime minister, Thatcher would declare that she owed ‘almost everything’ to her father (remarks outside 10 Downing Street, 4 May 1979, Complete Public Statements). Her relations with her mother were never as close. Yet Margaret learned more from Beatrice than she would later admit, for although she would never be a conventional housewife, she liked to clean, to sew, and to decorate and furnish the places where she lived; she would often provide late-night meals for her personal staff at 10 Downing Street; and she would elevate the domestic verities of hearth and home into governing principles and political imperatives. ‘Some say I preach merely the homilies of housekeeping or the parables of the parlour’, she told the lord mayor's banquet in November 1982. ‘But I do not repent. Those parables would have saved many a financier from failure and many a country from crisis’ (speech of 15 Nov 1982, Complete Public Statements).


 

To read the rest of this article, please click here.


The full text is available via most UK public libraries and universities, or through personal subscription. Please click here for details of how to subscribe.

Copyright © Oxford University Press 2017
Privacy Policy and Legal Notice