Lady Healey - An appreciation

Lady Healey died last week aged 92. She was born in Coleford in the Forest of Dean and maintained a love affair with the area throughout her life. Cotswold Life's Katie Jarvis met up with her in September 2007. Here is that interview.

Lady Healey died last week aged 92. She was born in Coleford in the Forest of Dean and maintained a love affair with the area throughout her life. Cotswold Life's Katie Jarvis met up with her in September 2007. Here is that interview.

For 40 years and 11 general elections, Lady Edna Healey was a silent onlooker to British history. Now she’s ceased to be “invisible” and is celebrating her two great love affairs - with her husband Denis and with her Forest of Dean origins - in an autobiography. Katie Jarvis met her at Speech House.

WHEN Lady Healey walks into a room, the last thing you think about is her age.

Which is odd. She’s obviously not young – but there is, nevertheless, something incredibly youthful about her; something effervescent. Something rare that allows you still to glimpse, alongside the (beautifully coiffeured) white hair and the essential walking stick, the slip of a child dancing through Forest bluebells; a teenage girl offering a cold cheek for a first chaste kiss on a starlit walk home from Coleford Chapel.

We’re in the Speech House Hotel (swishly transformed from its spit-and-sawdust days of Lady Healey’s childhood) where she’s lowering herself carefully into a comfortable chair, looking pretty stylish in a bright pink ‘mac’.

“Oh,” she grumbles cheerfully, “I forget I’m a lame old woman. I said to my doctor the other day, ‘I suppose I’m not so bad for 78’. He said to me, ‘Lady Healey, you are 88!’

Most Read

“I said, ‘My God! So I am!’”

If the last thing you think about is her age, then the first that inevitably springs to mind is her famous husband. Healey is a name that conjures up one image: the extravagantly eye-browed former Chancellor of the Exchequer for whom impressionist Mike Yarwood coined the catchphrase “Silly Billy”; the wit who once famously likened the experience of being lambasted by Geoffrey Howe to being “savaged by a dead sheep”.

For 40 years and 11 general elections, Lady Healey stood beside her husband as a silent onlooker to British history. While he was at the forefront, it was her job – as an ‘invisible’ MP’s wife - to organise the removal men when the family’s official residence changed overnight; and to ensure that neither the piano nor the children’s hamster got damaged in the process.

Yet here is an Oxford-educated woman of no mean intellect; a teacher, lecturer and author of several outstanding biographies. 

“Invisible?” she says. “Oh certainly that. It’s something Mary Wilson said in an interview. She sometimes felt as though people passed over her as if she wasn’t there - and that still tends to happen if you’re married to a famous man.

“Once, I was about to go on a month’s lecture tour in America. I happened to say how nervous I was to a judge I was sitting next to, and he replied, ‘What are you worried about? Denis writes your speeches, doesn’t he?’”

For decades, Lady Healey was the ‘walk-on’ wife, summoned when a good photo opportunity presented itself; she was the one who sat silent, while men questioned Denis about Africa, in spite of the fact that she’d been there, worked there and written about it herself.

It’s no good simply reading these words on a page; you need to hear them spoken to understand them truly. For while they could be enounced with bitterness and gall, there’s only a trace of gentle irony that falls from Lady Healey’s lips. There’s even genuine amusement as she explains that, just before Gordon Brown took over the premiership recently, he invited the Healeys to lunch. It was the first time she and her children had ever eaten together in the official dining room of 11 Downing Street – their home for five years.

“Funnily enough, I had about three or four meals in there during all the time we were there - and I don’t suppose our two eldest, Tim and Jenny who lived in 11 Downing Street, had ever had a meal there. Partly it was because in those days (the ‘70s) women had no place in the financial world; the only reason I would be allowed in would be if a visiting chancellor had brought his wife.

“Because it’s Denis’s 90th birthday coming up, Gordon Brown very kindly asked us all over – our children as well as our grandchildren. And because it was a family occasion, he brought in his babies, which said a lot about him. His wife is very unassuming, gentle and serene. And I thought: Dear God, I hope the press leaves her alone.”

You have to wonder how she herself has survived so intact. In fact, the answer probably lies here, in the Forest, where she has returned for the weekend to give a talk about her life, encapsulated in an autobiography, Part of the Pattern: Memoirs of a Wife at Westminster. For a long time, she says, she declined to write any book about herself: “Having lived since my marriage for six decades in the shadow of great and interesting people, I know I do not rate an autobiography.”

But for once, she’s quite wrong.

For this is not only a behind-the-scenes glimpse of life in a hot seat; it’s also the story of the influences that helped create a great character: Lady Healey herself.

“As I said the other day, ‘Eat your heart out, Etonians!’ I had a privileged childhood,” she says. “I can remember coming to Speech House on my father’s shoulders. He was a quarryman, a crane driver, at one of the stone quarries near Parkend: a wonderful person, who understood the flowers and the herbs that grow around here.

“And my mother, of course, was a singer. Had she been born into any other background, she’d have been up there with the best. The poet Leonard Clarke said she had a voice like a ripe cherry; rich and full of soul.

“There’s no doubt that my solid background prepared me for some of the things to come – though there were tragedies. My father was unemployed in the slump, and he died when I was 14. My mother brought up five of us with very little money, but you always had a feeling of security.”

Born in Coleford in 1918, Edna Edmunds – as she was then – was a child of the old Forest, a world defined and limited by the natural boundaries of the rivers Severn and Wye. Anyone from beyond was a ‘foreigner’.

It was, both literally and metaphorically, a gritty place of rough reality, where miners would come home with the lines on their skin etched into bold relief by the dark artistry of coal dust; where the lavatories were outside and the Saturday night baths were in the kitchen in whose black grate burned the only heat of the house.

“In my childhood, there was no drinking water laid on; it had to be brought in pails from a standpipe in St John’s Street. This was a job for my brothers, who carried the pails home and impressed us by swinging the full buckets over their heads to demonstrate centrifugal force. Secretly we hoped that one day the force would fail! Water for washing came from the iron pump over the stone sink in the back kitchen.”

Highlights of the year were the Coleford fair each June where, for twopence, you could ride on the white horses or red velvet dragons of the merry-go-round; and when the brass bands marched through the centre of town.

After family and friends, the greatest influences on the young Edna were the Baptist chapel and Sunday school. Strangely – like so many of the ‘patterns’ that pervade her book - it was a theme that was to reappear time and again in her life: James and Audrey Callaghan were both Sunday school teachers; and the Non-conformist ethos was an important influence on Margaret Thatcher, Geoffrey Howe and Roy Jenkins. (“People often say there’s more Methodist than Marx in the Labour party and it’s true. It’s a very strong theme in all kinds of politicians, which is worth exploring further.”)

Encouraged by her English teacher, Joan Davis, Edna won a scholarship to Oxford – a bold move for a grammar school girl, as her kindly Coleford Chapel minister, the Reverend Frank Hearn explained. “Oxford University is for aristocrats and public-school boys, and the girls would be from schools like Cheltenham Ladies’ College. Edna would be out of place,” he advised. (Though it was advice Edna’s mother fiercely refused to take).

It was Oxford that introduced her to the world of politics. “I joined the Communist party. A lot of people did at that time because they were the only people who we felt saw the importance of the Spanish Civil War.

“That war was a political awakening for many, though it affected them in different ways. People like Ted Heath saw the importance of it too, though it didn’t turn him ‘Left’; it made him into a Conservative.”

Though she bumped occasionally into a certain Denis Healey – “black-haired, red-cheeked and already sporting the eyebrows that were to become famous” – it wasn’t until Edna took a teaching job in Denis’s home town of Keighley in Yorkshire that their friendship deepened into romance. They married in December 1945 after a marriage proposal on the moors, consisting of a single sentence: “I think we had better get it over with.”

Denis’s life over the years that followed is well documented, beginning with his election as MP for Leeds South East in 1952. When Labour won the 1964 election, he became Defence Secretary and, during the party’s next spell in Government, Chancellor of the Exchequer from March 1974 to May 1979.

Lady Healey’s memories of those years are peppered with famous names: Hugh Gaitskell, Tony Crosland, Nye Bevan, Earl Mountbatten.

But, actually, it’s the women behind the men who provide the most fascinating stories of Lady Healey’s book. This bias towards the female is partly through necessity: Harold Wilson hardly exchanged more than a dozen words with her during all the years Denis worked alongside him. But it was choice, too. On her many foreign trips beside her husband, she would often ask to meet ordinary women. In China, she met a woman who told of eating leaves during a childhood famine; who showed off her tiny bound feet.

“During a trip to Russia, we had lunch with Mrs Khrushchev on the Lenin Hills. If you looked at her, you’d think she was a nice comfortable housewife, but she was an engineer - a very intelligent woman - and that was a surprise. It was still in those days slightly surprising if you found someone had a career of their own and was married with children.”

There’s a common theme that runs through these descriptions – from Jenny Bevan, Nye’s talented wife, to Edna’s own self-sacrificing sister Doreen, always on hand to help with her nephew and nieces. It’s summed up perfectly in an incident Lady Healey relates, involving the wife of the 19th century Prime Minister, Benjamin Disraeli, who was driving with her husband to the Commons where he was to make an important speech. Trapping her hand agonisingly in the carriage door, Mrs Disraeli did not even murmur lest she distracted him. “I” Lady Healey says, “should have done the same.”

But, at the age of 60, when their three children had left home and life became hers once again, Lady Healey came into her own; for that was when she began writing. Her first book, about the philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts, won her a Yorkshire Post award. Next, she began on Wives of Fame, documenting the lives of the self-sacrificing wives of three 19th century men who changed the world: Jenny, wife of Karl Marx; Emma, wife of Charles Darwin and Mary, wife of David Livingstone. "Of each man it was so often said to me, 'I didn't know he had a wife' that I was tempted to make that the title of my book,” Lady Healey says.

“When I stood on the edge of the Kalahari Desert, there was a pile of stones where David Livingstone had lived with his wife and children. I was making a film at the time, and the camera was rolling, so they caught my fury. I said: ‘Look at that plaque - David Livingstone lived here. Not a word about Mary! Yet she walked up that hill and through those bushes every afternoon in the broiling sun. I was so angry.”

But that anger is always reserved for others who’ve been overlooked – never for herself.

It is quite obvious that Lady Healey is more than content with a life that has been shaped by a genuine love affair: with a husband of more than 60 years. “Now I haven’t got my husband with me, I find there is a point to husbands for carrying things and picking up things when I drop them,” she jokes.

And there’s a second love, too - the Forest of Dean that grounded her. While politicians such as Ted Heath, Margaret Thatcher and Roy Jenkins all took pains to moderate their tones to suit ubiquitous Middle England, Edna Healey’s Forest accent still shines through.

Of course, she and Denis have long been settled in East Sussex, but the Forest is never far from her thoughts.

“I was very lucky in that I’ve always had a deep sense of roots; and that means that you can go wandering wherever you like but your roots will hold you,” she says, with great pride.

She sat in the Speech House restaurant this morning under a portrait of her dear old friend, Cyril Hart, author and fount of knowledge. “Oh, he’s the great man of the Forest,” Lady Healey says. “He’s ill now, and I was so was glad to have him looking down on me during breakfast.” And in the room in which we’ve been chatting hangs an evocative portrait of an iron miner, candle in mouth, pick in hand.

“The poet, Leonard Clarke, was a great friend. Once, when he came and had tea with me, I showed him my little London garden and I told him, ‘Underneath that apple tree, I’m going to plant daffodils, and I’ve got bluebells underneath there; and there’s a bank with some violets…’ “And he looked at me and said, ‘And where are you putting the bracken?’

“He could see exactly what I’d done. I’d recreated the Forest of Dean.”

Comments powered by Disqus