Obituary: Mary Wilson

7 Jun 2018

Mary Wilson, poet, and widow of former Labour Prime Minister Harold Wilson, died yesterday aged 102.

 

Many politicians have already paid their tributes. Jeremy Corbyn described her as ‘A wonderful poet and a huge support in Harold Wilson’s General Election victories’, whilst Gordon and Sarah Brown said ‘She was a role model – as  a writer, a mother and as a woman who carried out her public role with determination and dignity, always offering support’.

 

Lady Wilson of Rievaulx was born Gladys Mary Baldwin, in Diss, Norfolk, in 1916. She started writing poetry at the age of six and after leaving school became a typist in Cheshire.

 

It was at a Cheshire tennis club that Mary met Harold Wilson, and the pair married in 1940. Mary later said that she married Harold "under false pretences", believing he would be an Oxford don, not a politician.

 

Being an intensely private person, Mary hoped for a quiet life with Harold and generally did not enjoy being a Prime Minister's wife - a burden made all the worse when she became the subject of satire in Private Eye’s long-running spoof Mrs Wilson’s Diary.

 

Harold Wilson worked as a civil servant, serving under Ernie Bevin during the Second World War, in place of military service. To Mary’s horror, Harold then went on to be adopted as a parliamentary candidate and was elected in the Labour landslide victory of July 1945.

Harold, Mary (holding umbrella) and their son in the early 1960s.

 

Despite her dislike of life at No.10, Mary was an accomplished poet and intensely political. She had strong left-wing views, backing Aneurin Bevan in the Labour leadership contest of 1955, and joined the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. She also opposed her husband over Britain’s entry into the European Common Market. Harold only learnt of his wife’s intention to vote against Britain’s continued membership of the Market when they returned home from the polling booth, with Mary reportedly telling him “I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t do it”.

 

During her time at No.10, she struck up a close friendship with the poet John Betjeman, who often visited her at Downing Street. Mary published her poems, with her first work, Selected Poems (1970), selling 75,000 copies.

 

She also got on well with Winston Churchill. When Wilson resigned from Attlee’s Cabinet in 1951, Churchill passed on a message, not to Harold, but to Mary, conveying his personal sympathy and understanding. When Harold saw Churchill the next day, expressing his wife’s thanks, Churchill reportedly cried, lamenting the way politicians’ wives suffered the consequences of their husbands’ actions. In his memoirs, Wilson quipped that ‘whereas two days earlier I had been a minister of the Crown, red box and all, I was now reduced to the position of a messenger between her and Winston Churchill, each of whom burst into tears on receipt of a message from the other’.

 

Mary dining with The Beatles.

 

Mary cared for her husband after his retirement in 1976. Unbeknown to the rest of the political world, Harold stepped down as PM largely because he feared he was developing dementia, a condition from which his mother had suffered. As he was ravaged by memory loss and fatigue, the pair moved to the Scilly Isles. Mary wrote a particularly heart-breaking poem for her husband when he was in extremis.

 

My love you have stumbled slowly

On the quiet way to death

And you lie where the wind blows strongly

With a salty spray on its breath

For this men of the island bore you

Down paths where the branches meet

And the only sounds were the crunching grind

Of the gravel beneath their feet

And the sighing slide of the ebbing tide

On the beach where the breakers meet.

 

Mary cared for him right up until his death in 1995. She remained out of the public eye after her husband’s death.

 

She is survived by their two sons, Giles and Robin.

 

 

 

 

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