Baroness Peerless! Chain smoking, V-sign flicking peer regularly turned the air blue but Lady Trumpington, who’s died at 96, was the very best of battleaxes — and a tonic to public life, says QUENTIN LETTS
Conservative peer Jean Trumpington was a splendid, life-affirming old bag of contradictions. That may sound an ungallant thing to say about a great parliamentarian who has just died, but she most assuredly would not have minded.
Lady Trumpington was posh but unstuffy, a traditionalist who loved to disrupt. She was the one-time health minister who was a chain-smoker.
At a public school speech day in the Sixties, where as the headmaster’s wife she had just handed out the prizes, she decided the event needed livening up, so she jumped into the school swimming pool. Fully clothed. Having just had her hair done.
Seven years ago, footage showing Baroness Trumpington (above) making a V-sign at a fellow Tory over what she saw as a rude remark about her age went viral online
‘My husband didn’t talk to me for three weeks,’ she recalled.
What a woman. What a tonic she was in our so often sterile, monochrome public affairs. Through much of her long life, which ended on Monday when she died in her sleep aged 96, she was dutiful yet impish, public-spirited yet joyously unpredictable.
If there was one thing she could not abide it was an excess of pomposity. If she suspected everyone was becoming too sombre, she would poke out her tongue or wiggle her hips to raise morale.
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Some onlookers, seeing her bullet-proof tweeds and swept-back curls, presumed this doughty shires matron must follow orthodox Tory theories about social order. Yet Lady Trumpington was a firm believer in the legalisation of brothels.
As a local politician she combined liberal enlightenment with good Conservative common sense. It is largely thanks to her, for instance, that the historic centre of Cambridge — where she became mayor — has such a vibrant, car-free market.
This is the woman who, infamously, flicked a V-sign in jest in the Lords in 2011 at her friend Lord King. He had just said the World War II generation — her generation — was getting on in years. The moment was caught on TV and she became a national hit and nicknamed ‘Baroness Battleaxe’.
A more kindly battleaxe you never met, even if she was prone to littering her conversation with booming profanities. The language that flew off her! Eff this, bugger that, don’t be such a bloody fool.
The same Jean, when reading Scott of the Antarctic’s letters, would dissolve into tears. At chi-chi diplomatic drinks parties she invariably made a beeline for the loneliest-looking person in the room.
And although she once had raging rows with her party leader Margaret Thatcher, she helped look after the other Lady T in her dwindling years.
In the World War Two, she worked in naval intlligence at Bletchley Park
Trumpington’s vocabulary owed something to a regimental sergeant-major and the timbre of her voice was not unlike that of It Ain’t Half Hot Mum’s Windsor Davies. All those cigs had coated her larynx like a lorry’s exhaust pipe. On the telephone she was regularly mistaken for a man.
It was a joy to hear that voice in the Lords, cutting through the trilled political cliches. Smack! A few sentences from ‘Trumpers’ (as I never dared call her) would soon remind the House of the real world beyond Westminster.
Born in 1922 to a Chicago household paints heiress and a feckless British Army officer called Campbell-Harris, young Jean survived and was perhaps shaped by an unhappy childhood. Her private education was haphazard. She left at 15 without having troubled the examiners.
Her parents mixed in royal circles and left much of the child-rearing to a succession of nannies who were not always gentle.
She loved dance lessons at Madame Vacani’s in Knightsbridge and for a while she took her tutu to the Ballet Rambert. But by the time she had reached 5ft, with feet and hands like a frogman’s flippers, she was too big for any balletic future. One of her childhood friends was a delicate boy called Jeremy Thorpe. It is fair to assume Jean bossed around her little playmate.
Her mother lost much of her fortune in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. The family moved to a mouldy but enormous house in Kent. Yet her mother’s idea of economy, when in London, was to ride to the Ritz by bus.
Baroness Peerless had worked at Bletchley Park (pictured above) as a code breaker
The Crash meant Jean would have to work her passage through life. It was the making of her. When the war started, the well-built teenager was despatched to the Land Girls, who sent her to work for former PM David Lloyd George.
He was a lusty old goat and insisted on taking out a tape-measure to record her vital statistics on a regular basis. She survived his groping and later went to work at Bletchley Park as a code-breaker, using her finishing-school German to translate U-boat messages. On leave in town, Jean and her Bletchley friends used to chuck buns across the Claridge’s dining room. ‘Disorder! Disorder!’ as she liked to say when discussing parliamentary politics. She smoked a pipe. She was not allergic to champagne. She would narrow her eyes and call you ‘old cock’. She was sheer heaven.
At school she had been a tomboy and had spent much of her time in woods with boys — smoking, not snogging. At finishing school in Paris she became known as ‘Mademoiselle Ne Touchez Pas’ (Miss Don’t Touch Me), and this possibly contributed to her mastering the art of humorous asides, brushing off shyness with a jest.
Lady Trumpington only bowed out from the House of Lords, where she was celebrated as one of Parliament’s most colourful characters, last year
She was no prima donna, no princess. She regarded men as blokes, nothing more or less.
Later in life it made her an ideal housemaster’s wife at Eton, and then the headmaster’s wife at The Leys school, Cambridge. She spent the start of the Fifties in New York, working in an advertising agency by day and living a high life by night.
Rich Manhattan marvelled at her cut-class accent, ripe humour and work ethos. There was an American boyfriend, though she never disclosed his name.
Lady Trumpington (pictured above) was a firm believer in the legalisation of brothels
She might have stayed in the U.S. for ever had she not met an English schoolmaster, William Barker. In the peerless memoirs which she produced in 2011 she referred to him simply as ‘Barker’. Before her 1954 wedding, she lost a lot of weight and as she and Barker walked down the aisle she heard someone say ‘what a waist!’ — before realising that it may have been ‘what a waste’.
Galumphing? A self-caricature? Outspoken? Lady Trumpington could be these. But she was fun, and most of all she was true to herself, and we could all see that behind her exaggerated joviality there lurked mercy and great decency. She topped up the family finances by winning prizes in TV quizzes and antiques-dealing on the side. Lovejoy in a Barbour and twinset. After Barker’s death in 1988, this former mayor of Cambridge who joined the Lords in 1980, turned her energy to serious politics, encouraged by Willie Whitelaw, an old friend.
She became a whip and later a minister happily absorbing ministerial briefs (she would say the word with a Frankie Howerd leer) at Health and Agriculture. She never joined the Cabinet but maybe she was too good for that. Too honourable. Too normal.
A peer for 37 years, she became a fixture, peering at the Order Paper through a magnifying glass so enormous, it could once have served duty at the Royal Observatory. She retired only last year.
Once, when a peer was boring the House, Jean interrupted to advise members that this might be a good time for anyone to go to the loo. That’s what was so great about her. She was my pomposity-pricking pin-up.
On the day Lady Thatcher died, Jean was in a TV studio preparing to go on Have I Got News For You. She realised they were preparing some disobliging references to her dead friend and she walked off the programme.
She will be remembered not as a politician but as a public character, someone who ‘lived life to the full whenever I got the chance’, as she said. Her son Adam said yesterday it had been ‘a bloody good innings’.
Too right. We should applaud her all the way to the pavilion.
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