Allen [née Sutton], Margaret
- Stephen Fay
Allen [née Sutton], Margaret (1933–2015), journalist, was born on 19 July 1933 at 7 Highfield Street West, Dukinfield, near Ashton-under-Lyne, Lancashire, the elder daughter of George Sutton, a skilled toolmaker and Labour activist, and his wife Agnes, née Rogers, a millworker, and a Protestant. As a Roman Catholic, George Sutton insisted that their daughter should be educated by nuns, at Fallowfield Roman Catholic School. The family was, in Margaret’s own phrase, ‘poor, but not destitute’ (unpublished autobiography). Her father was an active trade unionist, and Margaret inherited his politics. From her days in the Labour League of Youth onwards, she never doubted her allegiance to Labour.
The family was opposed to Margaret Sutton’s determination to go to university, but her father did not regard higher education as a waste of money. In 1950 the London School of Economics was anxious to recruit female undergraduates, and it was from there that she obtained a second-class degree in economics in 1954. She went on to the Institute of Education, became a supply teacher in the East End of London, and learned that she had no taste for unruly children. On 14 April 1956, at St Peter’s Roman Catholic Church in Hyde, Cheshire, she married Norman Allen (b. 1934), a pilot officer in the RAF, whom she had met as a student. Before long she found life on an RAF base intolerable. A remarkably decisive young woman, she decamped to London, carrying an unborn child. Lodging with university friends, she gave birth to a daughter, Freddi. It was, she wrote in her unpublished autobiography, the bravest thing she ever did, divorce being impermissible for a Catholic.
Margaret Allen’s life in journalism began accidentally. A careers officer at the London School of Economics had happened on a vacancy for a statistician on a weekly financial magazine, the Investors’ Chronicle. Among six applicants Allen was the only woman and thought little of her chances. But the employer was Margot Naylor, one of only two women financial journalists in the City of London. She offered Allen the job at £500 a year (which, she discovered, was £100 less than was offered to young men). Despite this, she still saw it as her best stroke of luck.
Allen’s instinctive feminism led her to publicize the extent of sexual discrimination in business and society. At the Investors’ Chronicle, for example, she telephoned half a dozen insurance companies to inquire whether they took mortgage applications from working women. All said yes. Next, she visited their offices to make formal mortgage applications. All said no. Aged thirty, she settled happily into single motherhood and journalism, becoming increasingly absorbed by finance. Her Catholicism lapsed, and she had a succession of men friends.
Years later, the financial journalist Andreas Whittam-Smith told Allen she was the most ambitious person he had ever met. She certainly ascended swiftly through the lower reaches of financial journalism, working briefly and unhappily on The Economist, where she felt clubbable men made fun of her Lancashire accent. She moved on to the Evening Standard, where she met and then lived with the financial editor, (b. William Davis 1933). She left the Standard in 1961, four days after the birth of her second child, Jacki; she and Davis separated two years later.
Allen returned briefly to the Investors’ Chronicle as features editor before joining The Times as deputy editor of the Times Review of Industry and Technology. John Grigg judged her to be the outstanding woman journalist on the paper during the Thomson years (Grigg, 188). Her first editor, Sir William Haley, who had edited the Manchester Evening News and who understood her background, made her deputy financial editor in 1966. The City would not be pleased, Allen told Haley; the City will have to put up with it, he replied. He ordered that she should be paid equally with men in her department.
Haley’s successor, William Rees-Mogg, promoted Allen to the features department as deputy to Charles Douglas-Home in 1971, and when she succeeded him in 1973 she ended the segregation implicit in the existence of women’s pages. She argued bitterly and successfully with Rees-Mogg when he tried to rank her below Douglas-Home in the paper’s hierarchy. Fierce in defence of her status, she shouted at all her editors. In her prime she was an attractive figure, smartly dressed and hair flowing; Grigg wrote of her ‘powerful femininity to which several of her colleagues were far from immune’ (Grigg, 189). Her colleague Louis Heren described her as ‘a handsome, bouncy lady, full of northern grit’ (Times, 1 Jan 2016). She lived in Chelsea for some years with a former deputy editor of the paper, Michael Cudlipp.
Allen’s only excursion into public life was her appointment to the Equal Opportunities Commission in 1975. Roy Jenkins, a favoured contributor to her pages, warned her that she would become impatient with the political games played between blocks on the commission. Jenkins was right; after three years, she quit. She made one court appearance, in 1958, as a witness in a case brought by women journalists after an unsuccessful demonstration protesting their exclusion from the counter at El Vino, the Fleet Street wine bar. Not that she bore a grudge against the institution: for years after retiring from The Times she regularly drank champagne, argued, and gossiped with former colleagues at El Vino’s New Bridge Street bar.
There Allen would express her disenchantment with England. When she left The Times after the Murdoch takeover in 1981, she spent long periods in Singapore as a teacher of business journalism at the Straits Times, making lasting friendships. She had more friends on the Aeolian Island of Lipari, which she had discovered in 1963, and to which she returned regularly each year. Eventually she bought a house there. The last of her seven books, many of which had been written principally to advise women on how to run their finances, was about Liparese who had emigrated to Australia and the US.
Allen, who lived latterly in a flat at 9 Chelsea Embankment, overlooking the Thames, was a regular visitor to the gym and remained fit into her eighties. Towards the end of her life she suffered a few mild strokes, and she died on 27 December 2015, of cardiac failure, at the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Her body arrived at Mortlake Crematorium for her funeral in a horse-drawn hearse, and the ceremony included no mention of religion, at her insistence.