Jean Alys Campbell-Harris, better known as Baroness Trumpington, passed away yesterday, aged 96.
Tributes have poured in from across the political spectrum. David Cameron tweeted that ‘she was one of a kind – they simply don’t make politicians like that anymore. She will be sorely missed in Westminster but long remembered for her outstanding ability and great humour. RIP Trumpers’.
The House of Lords peer was renowned for the wit and wisdom she displayed in the upper chamber, most famously flicking the V-sign at her fellow peer Lord King, when he turned to the Baroness while recounting how “the survivors of World War Two are starting to look pretty old”. She admitted she knew exactly what she was doing, telling the BBC, “He got what he deserved” because “he was being insufferable”.
But the formidable Baroness had a rich and varied life before joining the Lords in 1980.
Born into an upper-class family in 1922, Jean was raised in London, surrounded by a privileged clique that included Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson.
She left school at 15 with no formal qualifications and worked as a land girl on Lloyd George’s farm when the Second World War began, living alongside the former PM’s mistress, Frances Stevenson.
Jean working on the farm owned by Lloyd George.
Jean later recalled the harassment she faced as a 17 year-old land girl, remembering how Lloyd George would try to survey “pretty well all” of her body with a tape measure. During last year’s Westminster sexual harassment scandals, she reflected that what had changed during her lifetime was that “women have learnt to fight back. Women used to be terrified of making a fuss. Now, they don’t give a damn. If the man deserves it, he deserves a public fuss to be made of him”.
Despite having no qualifications, she was fluent in German, French and Italian, which led to her joining the codebreakers at Bletchley Park, where, at the age of just eighteen, she transcribed messages from German submarines, which were then passed on to Alan Turing’s team. During her time in the Lords, she raised awareness of the important work the codebreakers and the women of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) contributed to the war effort. In a related vein, she contended that Turing should receive a pardon and that the Bletchley staff and SOE deserved the same recognition as their military counterparts.
After the war, the Baroness lived in New York, returning to Britain in 1953, where she married the historian and Eton schoolmaster, Alan Barker. Despite living the life of a schoolmaster’s wife, Jean remained in the inner political circles, continuing to mix with the Astor family.
In the 1960s she gave Conservative politics a go, becoming a councillor and later Mayor of Cambridge. She did attempt to stand as an MP but was unsuccessful, so instead threw herself into public service, becoming a UK representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women.
Through her connections with the Conservative leadership, she joined the House of Lords in 1980. She was particularly close to Margaret Thatcher. Jean said that though the two of them argued, “that was my value to her. We were really good friends, but if I didn’t agree with her about something, I said so, and that was very good for her. It gave her a chance to know what the opposition might say”.
In 1985, the Baroness became a health minister, despite her habitual smoking, and later became a minister for agriculture under John Major.
She remained active in the House of Lords right up until her retirement in October last year. True to form, she signed the last oath wearing a fur coat and pearls.
She is survived by her son, Adam.