Blunt, disruptive, rambunctious just some of the terms that could describe the chamber antics displayed on many an occasion by Irene Ward MP. This was a Conservative Dame who came up the hard way determined to represent people disadvantaged by gender and geography whatever their political allegiances. Never totally on board with Parliament’s established etiquette this rulebreaker would do it in her own indomitable way for over four forthright decades.
In this blog, Richard Ward, Assistant Archives Officer, shall be chronicling a career that mightn’t have been littered with grandstanding ministerial milestones yet was majestic in its sheer bloody mindedness to get things done.
Irony of ironies was that Irene Ward the pride of Northern England was born at St Stephen’s Mansions a stone throw from the Palace of Westminster in February 1895. The death of her father led to the family relocating to Gosforth at the other end of the country. A wealthy uncle paid for Irene’s education, which was rewarded when she was employed as secretary to businessman and former Liberal MP Sir Cecil Cochrane. Intelligent, engaging, and standing at a statuesque six feet Ward caught the attention of local grandees Lord & Lady Renwick who persuaded her to join the Newcastle Conservative Association.
Wowing delegates at the 1923 Party Conference she was nominated with expenses covered to challenge for the seemingly impregnable Morpeth seat. An early example of her unorthodox approach to electioneering was shown when she went down into a coal mine in response to goading about her working-class credentials from Labour opponent Robert Smillie. Incredibly at the age of twenty-nine she couldn’t vote due to qualification rules that stayed in situ for a further four years. Defeat was taken on the chin in the knowledge that this confident young tyro had the capabilities to eventually break this red wall.
Seven years passed till Ward finally got over the electoral line, but it was worth the wait. Overhauling leading light Margaret Bondfield in Wallsend with a stupendous seven thousand majority to claim the biggest Labour scalp of the 1931 General Election. Anyone expecting a bunfight were disappointed as the campaigning was conducted with a mutual respect irrespective of their rival platforms. She entered Parliament around the same time as Thelma Cazalet-Keir who became a lifelong friend and collaborator. This new intake inevitably attracted adverse attention from the male-orientated press with Ward being dubbed the ‘only blonde in the House’.
Beneath this perceived glamorous facade was an undeniable grit that soon showed itself in a passionate maiden speech on the Coal Miners Bill that made fellow members sit up and take notice. During the thirties Ward advocated for the League of Nations as the best hope for preventing future conflicts in Europe. Always willing to participate in various Parliamentary delegations prior to the outbreak of World War Two she was part of a group invited to visit Nazi Germany to help improve diplomatic relations. Rumour has it Ward was overheard at a reception reprimanding Joachim Von Ribbentrop for ‘talking absolute rot’.
This Woman’s Work
Wartime manpower shortages allowed women the opportunity to enter a host of industries that previously weren’t receptive to employing them. Ward was on hand to lead from the front as chairperson of the appropriately named Woman-Power Committee. Alongside the likes of Ellen Wilkinson, she relentlessly pursued Ernest Bevin, the Minister of Labour & National Service for a fairer wage structure. Another bugbear was the prioritising of blue serge fabric for male Royal Navy uniforms over Women’s Royal Naval Service (Wren) officer requirements that involved her lampooning the Lord of the Admiralty with trademark mirth in a memorable Secret Session exchange.
After an interlude away from Westminster she returned to assist the continuing quest for female equality. In 1952 she joined Edith Summerskill at a demonstration organised by the Fawcett Society and two years later sponsored a petition to Parliament demanding ‘equal pay for equal work’. Her willingness to take these protestations to the airwaves catapulted her to unlikely celebrity status. The Times’s social column Merry Go Round noted Ward’s attendance at the Savoy’s 1956 Women of the Year Awards. As an award recipient she was placed on the top table in the elevated company of actor Edith Evans and barrister Helena Normanton QC.
Serjeant-at-Arms Alexander Gordon-Lennox had served on Arctic convoys in a highly decorated naval service still even that grounding didn’t prepare him for facing Ward’s wrath as he did in May 1968. She’d gone toe to toe with Speaker Horace King when attempting to highlight the lack of daily business allocated for scrutinising the budget by obstructing a division vote. The last straw was her damning quip that ‘Parliament is turning into a dictatorship’. Before the inevitable escorting out she said to a flustered Gordon-Lennox, ‘Will you take my right arm or left?’ to laughter on all sides.
A contrarian extraordinaire her bullish attitude was legendary however the defiance didn’t deflect from a responsibility to support causes such as pensioners rights. Also close to Ward’s heart was the arts specifically the Carl Rosa Opera where she sat as a trustee. Under threat of a merger with Sadlers Wells coupled with a state subsidy withdrawal she tabled a series of motions calling for an inquiry regarding fund allocation. This episode saw Ward indirectly contribute to a subsequent Lord's debate via objections voiced from the gallery predating by sixteen years her formal introduction to the Upper House that took place in the seventies.
To get a Private Members Bill onto the statute book is a legislative endurance test requiring immense persuasive powers. The fact Ward achieved this distinction a record four times marks her out as a contender for a backbench hall of fame. A champion for the nation’s nurses Ward’s 1961 Nurses Amendment Act ensured all nursing auxiliaries were correctly registered. In this period, she often traded verbal blows with Health Secretary Enoch Powell on NHS salary disparity. This clash of the Tory titans was box-office producing column inches galore that importantly kept the issue firmly on the agenda.
The beginning of her final decade as a Parliamentarian was dominated by discourse on Britain’s application for inclusion in the European Economic Community (EEC). When given the chance to speak on the matter she expressed her concern on the possible effect this fiscal transition may have on her constituents. Throughout a thirty-eight-year tenure those from the coalfield, shipyard, and fishery heartlands of Ward’s constituency were unequivocally her first, last and everything to the detriment of a cabinet posting. She died in April 1980 on request her ashes were transported from London to the Northeast to be scattered by fishing boat into the sea.
Women at Westminster: An account of women in the British Parliament 1918-1966 by Pamela Brookes
Women and the Women’s Movement in Britain 1914-1999 by Martin Pugh
Angels of the North: Notable Women of the Northeast by Joyce Quin & Moira Kilkenny
Politics Strangest Characters by Neil Hamilton
Dame Irene Ward – Oxford Dictionary for National Biography Volume 57 – extract by Helen Langley
Hansard – Parliamentary Debates
The Times Digital Archive