Peggy Jay

Peggy Jay was born on 4th January 1913 and died on 21st January 2008.

As a young girl, Peggy Garnett attended St Paul’s Girls’ school in London, where she befriended Shiela Grant Duff. In 1931, she went up to Somerville College, Oxford, but she left two years later to marry Douglas Jay.

She led a long political career with the Labour Party and served as a London County Councillor, recruited by Herbert Morrison, representing Hackney then Battersea. She was the last of the ‘Hampstead middle-class Labour grandes dames’ when Morrison groomed her to take over the London County Council in 1934. She was elected to the new Greater London Council before losing her seat in 1967.

She married politician Douglas Jay in 1933 aged twenty. They had four children, but the marriage ended in divorce. A son, Peter Jay, is a leading economist and a former British Ambassador to the United States and her son-in-law is Rupert Pennant-Rea, a former deputy governor of the Bank of England.

Her niece is Virginia Bottomley, Baroness Bottomley of Nettlestone, a Conservative politician and life peer.

I interviewed Peggy Jay in 1993 and here is the full text of that interview.

You regard the lack of maternal affection in your early years as the origin of what you describe as ‘a restless striving spirit, always longing to be recognized and approved of, and above all to achieve.’ But coming from a distinguished family on both sides you might well have had those feelings anyway, don’t you think? 

Possibly, but I think they were sharpened by a great longing for maternal acknowledgement and praise. I was fortunate in a wonderful aunt, a sister of my father’s, who used to come and stay, and who filled a considerable gap in my life. My mother was affiliated with awful bereavements in the first war and also with various miscarriages and other troubles, and this resulted in our own relationship being not altogether happy. It is undoubtedly true that in my later life, when my marriage started to get difficult, I found enormous satisfaction in public work and local government work. And part of that was my need for praise and recognition.

You speak with love and admiration of your father and are pleased to be thought like him in personality. Do you recognize any of your mother’s qualities in yourself? 

That’s a facer since what I recognize in myself is her short temper. I certainly haven’t got her artistic flare. She had great originality and managed to create a very beautiful house in the Isle of Wight, and her attitude to furnishing and interior decoration was extraordinarily advanced. But I was rather an undomesticated person. I did share a love of animals with her, I suppose, but I couldn’t claim much more. I identified much more with my father who always had a tremendous urge to make the world a better place, an obligation to concern himself with matters wider than just domestic day-to-day things.

At age ten you felt so unhappy at home that you begged to be allowed to go to boarding school. Can you remember what led to this unhappiness, and looking back, can you understand it? 

I understand it better and better as time goes on. My parents went on to have four, then five and subsequently six children, my youngest brother being born in 1930 when I was seventeen. They were naturally very preoccupied with this large young family, and I think I resented that.

Yet you loathed your time at boarding school and suffered dreadfully from homesickness. What was it exactly that you were missing at home? 

Oh, just home, the cosiness, the intimacy, the familiarity. I wasn’t particularly nice to my brothers and sisters, but they were always around, and I did enjoy my father’s company very much, especially when I started to join my parents in the evenings for dinner. Boarding school was certainly quite a good move on their part because I hated it, and when I came back after a year and a half, my mother only had to threaten me with going back to boarding school, and I would immediately behave myself. Later on when I went to St. Paul’s, I loved it and became much happier.

The relationship between you and your mother continued to cool as you grew up, and it was compounded by what you describe as ‘the insoluble problem’ of her dislike of the man you married, Douglas Jay. From all the evidence, together with his rather unconventional approach to life and marriage, it is difficult not to sympathize with your mother’s view. Did you come to judge her less harshly? 

Very much so. Speaking as someone with daughters-in-law and sons-in-law with whom I get on extremely well, I can think of nothing more painful for a mother than to have the underlying hostility of the man that her daughter marries. It was a kind of long-standing battle Douglas fought with rather authoritative, powerful women – albeit with intense devotion in the case of his own mother. He wanted to show them that he was a bright young man and was not going to have any of their interference. Be it said, my parents had very conventional views about propriety, and Douglas had extremely advanced views even for that time, so it was a hopeless tangle and never resolved.

Did she always dislike him? 

Originally he was the brilliant boy-next-door who was asked to coach me for what was then called ‘matric’. They then asked him on one or two holidays to the Isle of Wight, so they were quite ready to approve of him, my father always being much taken by academic status and ancient universities, and all those things. So what happened later was tragic really. I don’t know if I could have managed it better, but it was certainly a great affliction and a great sadness.

After your father’s death you came to know your mother better. You list her qualities, her courage in rebuilding her life after so many personal tragedies, her lack of snobbery and so on. Is she totally forgiven, would you say? 

Very largely, yes, but I think as one gets into one’s late eighties there is an extraordinary revival of childhood memories, and through no fault of hers it was a very sad time for me. So I suppose there is just a residual ‘why couldn’t it have been different?’

Do you think she was ever aware of your unhappiness in childhood and that she had failed to give you the love and security you craved? 

I’m not sure. I just think that through the monumental tragedies that she suffered, she was hopelessly preoccupied. Her emotional life was centred on her lost brother, her lost sisters, her lost eldest child, and as that awful phase came to an end by the arrival of the additions to her family.

What was your father’s attitude towards Douglas? 

He had a respect for him, and he admired his intelligence and his work, though my father wasn’t as left-wing as Douglas was. My father was never a member of the Labour Party; rather he was soaked in liberalism. He had very progressive, humane ideas about everything and I think he would have welcomed Douglas if only things had been different.

In 1939, aged twenty-five, you were elected as Labour member to the LLC and this was the beginning of a long career in public service. You say at some point that you had never considered anything other than voluntary work … did it never occur to you that you might have had your own career independent of your husband? That the work you did was in effect a career, the only difference being that it was unpaid? 

Yes, that really sums it up. I married at the age of twenty and in a way I was still a schoolgirl, extremely innocent and having had a very sheltered background. I absolutely devoted to Douglas, thought everything he said was more or less perfect, and this influenced me very much. Never for a moment would I have thought I had anything to offer that anybody would think was worth paying for. It fascinates me to see my granddaughters earning salaries – I’m sort of breathless with admiration.

Did you have boyfriends before Douglas? 

I had quite a few boyfriends, but my heart was completely lost to him. I had quite a few admirers, men who would have liked to pursue things with me, but I was, from the age of fifteen, completely enraptured. Douglas was the only one I really loved.

There is no doubt in your mind that a wife’s total financial dependence is a mistake – what you call ‘a relic of Victorian-Edwardian days’. How important in the break-up of your marriage was the money factor? 

Quite important, because it was the sparking-point of so many rows, and I can see it now more from Douglas’s angle. I realize that we were indeed very short of money – we had two boys at Winchester and two girls at a fee-paying school, and the parliamentary salary was £1500. He only had one suit and one pair of shoes. Once when Attlee was walking along with him towards the underground from the Houses of Parliament, he said, ‘I observe, Mr Jay, that you have holes in your shoes. I would advise that a folded postcard does help to keep the damp out.’ We had no fridge or washing-machine and we lived very simply. Of course I had always grown up with domestic help at home – there were even people to make my bed – but there I was in a very different world. I see it more clearly now: if I had earned my own money, it would have liberated me and given me huge independence.

How much do you think Douglas colluded in the attitude that a woman’s role was primarily as homemaker and supporter of her husband? 

I think he felt I had let him down by wanting to have so many children, and he thought I had better get down to it and look after them. He did persuade me to resign from the LCC for a very short period when the twins were born, but then North Battersea, his parliamentary constituency, asked me to give up my Central Hackney seat and become their LCC member. And this he smiled upon.

How did his attitude sit with his view of himself as ‘an intellectual freedom fighter’, someone who wanted to liberate people from what he called ‘the chains of tradition of convention’? 

That’s a facer, isn’t it? I think perhaps there were two people liking at two different levels. In theory we were all free and equal and he would never have subscribed to a view that all women were second-class citizens; but in fact he thought they were. He was educated in a wholly male environment – Winchester, New College and All Souls.

You say of Martin, your second child and younger son, that ‘from his earliest days he brought me great joy’. Am I wrong to be reminded of how much pain and jealousy was caused to you by a similar show of preference by your own mother? 

I don’t think that I favoured Martin exactly. I was tremendously proud of Peter, and he has been an enormous strength to me in my older years, but with Martin as a small boy our emotional make-up and chemistry just clicked, that was all. But I would hate to think there was a question of favouritism, though I suppose if I am totally honest, there was once a very sad episode when Peter, aged about six or seven, said to me, ‘You always laugh when Martin says things, and you always tell me to tidy up my toys.’

How was your relationship with the twins, with the girls? 

Oh, first class, absolutely excellent, although it has to be said that I was rather a harum-scarum mother. I remember once tearing along the road from County Hall, anxious to be home before the girls got in from school and coming in the front door to hear one of them on the telephone, saying: ‘No, I’m so sorry, she’s out, she’s giving a lecture about the importance of being at home when your children get home from school.’

When you married, you and your husband were in total agreement about educating any future children in the state system, and indeed you were in favour of abolishing private education. Yet when the time came you put what you call ‘the well-being of the children’ before principle. Was this not an uncomfortable decision? 

It was certainly a difficult decision. My brothers had all been at the Dragon School in Oxford where they were extraordinarily happy, and of course Douglas had very strong feelings about Winchester, so that’s the way it happened. And I suppose one has to concede that the standards were rather higher.

Can you understand that your decision might be seen as self-interested or even hypocritical by those who cannot buy what you were buying for your children? 

Certainly, I can.

What do you think the answer is to this very difficult question of education, which even the prime minister has had to face – or some would say avoid? 

It’s a very difficult one. I feel very strongly that in an ideal world there would be selective education, but not a financial basis. There would be more classes with people of like ability on various subjects, which might mean that a pupil could be high up in one subject and low down in another. I certainly think that it is wrong to force everybody into a kind of melting-pot together. I’m not for a moment saying that better-off people are more intelligent; I’m saying rather that we probably waste a great deal of ability at the moment by not bringing on the undoubted intelligence that exists in less well-off people. Anyway, I can’t foresee a government in the near future abolishing private schools – I can’t just see it happening.

One of your many appointments was to the Royal Commission of Population which had to deal with what Lord Simon called ‘the distasteful subject of abortion’. I was surprised to read that you advised the commission that they need not make heavy weather of it because there was ‘probably not a married woman on the Commission who had not experienced it’. Was that your true belief? 

Certainly, it was. It was a matter of commonsense and common observation. I had had the experience myself, and though I couldn’t prove what I said scientifically, it just seemed obvious.

In 1958 you were asked to serve on the Committee of Enquiry on Human Artificial Insemination, and you say you were concerned only with the security and well-being of any child born regardless of whether the insemination was by the husband or by an anonymous donor. The idea that children could be fathered by men in no way known to the mother surely must have seemed very shocking then. Were you really quite untroubled by it? 

No, naturally I wasn’t untroubled by it. But if you put in the balance the concept that the genetic link between a child and its father is arguably a passing moment in time, and that love, care, companionship, support and interest of a permanent male figure are basically what fathering is about, it wasn’t a great step from there for a man to say that although this child is not a child of my body, I love it and I care for it and I feel it to be mine.

How do you feel now about the quite extraordinary advances in this area – test-tube babies, cloning, and so on? 

I sometimes feel slightly breathless. I think it all has to be taken very carefully. I don’t have any theoretical objection to what is happening, and I think people with strong parental urges who really have weighed up the meaning of parenthood should be given a chance. But I would also like to see all the existing children in orphanages well placed, so that awful early deprivation might be avoided.

As a politician your husband was ideas-driven rather than power-driven, a man of strong conviction and ideals come into conflict with yours in other areas, for example the upbringing of the children? 

No. I was filled with admiration for his role as a father. He was absolutely wonderful, going down to Winchester on winter afternoons with a horrible little package of meat paste sandwiches to stand about on the touch-line and watch the boys play football. We used to spend summers on the north coast of Cornwall or in the middle of Dartmoor, and he would give the children great adventures, climbing rocks and swimming in rough seas. He played chess with them and cricket in the road with them – he was a marvellous father.

The eldest of your children, Peter, became one of the most brilliantly talented public figures of his generation, famously described as ‘the cleverest man in England’. I imagine you have felt great pride, but how hard has it been for you to bear public criticism of him? 

It was really rather upsetting and saddening, but I don’t blame him. It would be quite wrong to give the impression that I have gone into mourning over the one or two setbacks he has had. The truth is, he has a considerable reputation and he has just written a book which has been very well received. He also has a brilliantly happy second marriage and three most lovely little boys from that marriage, and he has been a cause of tremendous pride and joy to me.

One often reads – usually as an excuse for criminal behaviour – that those deprived of maternal love grow up unable to love, and that as a result their children suffer. Given your lifelong devotion to your children and your grandchildren, and also to the rights and needs of children generally, isn’t the opposite just as likely to be true? 

Yes, I think that’s right. What I would say is that I have noticed that where children have not experienced a father’s love, or a father’s presence or a father’s care, that sometimes they do find it difficult to be fathers themselves because they’ve never seen how it’s done or what it’s about. The maternal instinct, however, is very deeply implanted in women, and it would take something quite appalling to wither it away. Whatever difficulties I might have had with my mother didn’t affect my enjoyment and pleasure and pride in my own children at all.

You mention in your memoir that both you and Douglas came from a background of generations of unbroken marriages, and so it hardly occurred to you to give special attention to your own marriage, as it were. Do you think things might have turned out differently if you hadn’t ‘neglected’ your marriage? 

Well, that’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question. Marriage just went on, and you’re right, I never took any care of it. Douglas had the view that monogamy was a sin, and he didn’t much mind if I was monogamous or not. There wasn’t any question of my not being, since I was simply monogamous by nature. I sometimes think that if I had always had a hot dinner in the oven and been wonderfully organized domestically, things might have been different, but I am not sure. I didn’t pay attention because marriages just continued. Occasionally I would hear my parents speaking in very whispered tones of people who had got divorced, as if it was something completely disgraceful and unspeakable, so it never really occurred to me that it was possible. One just went merrily on.

Despite your acceptance of the open marriage and your husband’s promiscuity, you clearly felt very vulnerable and exposed. You tried very hard to fight feelings of jealousy … do you think it is actually possible to avoid being hurt in such situations? 

No. I do know people who genuinely don’t seem to be jealous, which is wonderful and admirable and splendid, but the fact is that I certainly had my share of it, and it got more and more intense. However, the break-up didn’t come until after forty years of marriage, by which time Douglas’s mother and my mother had both died, something which is not insignificant.

Douglas promised that he would try hard not to fall in love with your best friend, Sheila Grant-Duff … did they become lovers in fact? 

I don’t think so, but how can one say? He certainly was very fascinated by her. She was very blonde, and he always loved blonde people, and she looked like a sort of young Viking queen. She was very much in our circle at Oxford, and throughout her whole life in fact, but I don’t think they actually had an affair.

Nobody reading your memoirs could possibly doubt the depth of your love for your husband and the extent of your forbearance, but you finally admitted defeat when it became clear that his affair with Mary Thomas, his personal assistant, was no passing fancy. Have you ever had regrets about divorcing? 

No. I’ve been liberated. I’ve been divorced for over thirty years and they have been the most fulfilling wonderful years, largely due to my children’s support, help, interest and companionship. It also has to be said that Douglas had a much happier time with his second wife, who gave him much better care than I did. What is also of interest, although I suppose it is rather strange to say it, is that since Douglas died I have lost all feelings of antagonism towards her. I quite admire her in fact.

Did you ever fall in love again? 

Never. I had a lot of male friends, a lot of colleagues, but it just didn’t occur to me to think in those terms. To be quite honest, I never had a proposal, but I felt fulfilled in every way.

Was it anger at your decision to divorce that made Douglas refuse to speak to you for more than fifteen years? 

He was actually very angry about my book, although I was most determined that it should in no way be damaging to him, and I didn’t believe it was.

Did it hurt when he was elevated to the Lords and Mary became Lady Jay? 

Well, I myself was actually offered a life peerage by Harold Wilson. Then James Callaghan came across to the Isle of Wight and he sat on the beach with me and said, ‘I have to tell you that Harold has withdrawn the offer because he thinks it would be improper and nepotistic to have the wife of a cabinet minister elevated.’ Douglas was President of the Board of Trade at that time. Six weeks later we were on holiday in the middle of Dartmoor and a telephone call came from the prime minister that he was crossing over from the Scilly Isles and wished Douglas to meet him in the stationmaster’s office at Plymouth railway station. I stayed in the car park and Douglas went in to meet Wilson. After about twenty minutes he came out looking rather white and shaken and said, ‘The bloody man’s sacked me.’ Wilson also told Douglas that I was a useful woman and he hoped that now he could get on with the life peerage. But I never heard another word. Now when I lie in my bed at night and look at my telly, which I love, and I see all the people sitting on those red benches, I just think how lovely it is to be able to take part in it all without having to take a taxi home afterwards.

Would you have liked to have a title? 

I suppose I would, yes, if I am completely honest.

When Harold Wilson described you as ‘a useful woman’, did you regard that as high praise? 

I really wouldn’t want to approve of anything Harold Wilson said, because I was very disillusioned and critical of him for a whole series of reasons, but certainly, coming from him, it was gratifying. I think a word could have been found which was perhaps a little less flat, a little more colourful and romantic.

A lot of people don’t think very highly of Harold Wilson … do you believe that the historians will think better of him? 

Historians may feel less antagonistic than many of us who were his contemporaries continue to feel. Wilson was all things to all men, or rather wished to be, and then people would compare notes and discover that he had lied.

If you could live your life over again, what would you do differently? 

I would love to feel that I had not broken up my marriage. If I could have died still married to the man I had marries forty, fifty, sixty years before, that I think I would have been a very real achievement. But I didn’t manage.

Do you hope for an after-life, or would you prefer oblivion? 

I try to steel myself to oblivion, but without wishing to sound soppy or sentimental, I feel a very deep conviction that death is probably not the end.



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