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Wright [née Clough; other married name Rathbone], Beatrice Frederika, Lady Wrightfree

(1910–2003)
  • Naomi Paxton

Beatrice Wright (1910–2003), by unknown photographer, c. 1941

© Science and Society Picture Library

Wright [née Clough; other married name Rathbone], Beatrice Frederika, Lady Wright (1910–2003), politician, was born at New Haven, Connecticut, USA, on 17 June 1910, the only child of Frank Roland Clough (d. 1927), a banker, and his wife, Frederika, née Hammond (b. 1880). The family home was in Beacon Street, Boston, Massachusetts, but as her father was often working abroad she travelled extensively as a child, visiting Russia, Japan, China, and Korea before she was ten years old.

Known from childhood and throughout her life as Babs, Beatrice Clough attended the Ethel Walker School in Simsbury, Connecticut from 1926 to 1928 before continuing her education at Radcliffe College, the women’s college of Harvard University, from 1928 to 1929. She spent two years as an exchange student in the United Kingdom, studying at Oxford under the Chaucer scholar Nevill Coghill. While at Oxford she met her future husband, John Rankin Rathbone (1910–1940), an undergraduate at Christ Church. The son of William Rathbone, a naval architect, and a member of the Liverpool ship-owning family, he was the nephew of the social reformer and Independent MP for the Combined Universities Eleanor Rathbone. They married in Boston, Massachusetts, on 30 January 1932 and had a son, John (known as Tim), born in 1933, followed by a daughter, Pauline, in 1935. At the general election of 1935 her husband stood as the Conservative candidate for Bodmin in Cornwall, and after a closely fought campaign, in which she played a key organizing role, he defeated the sitting Liberal MP, Isaac Foot.

At the outbreak of the Second World War, Beatrice Rathbone organized the evacuation of English children to America and sent her own two children to stay with her uncle, Captain Paul L. Hammond, in Long Island, New York. On 10 December 1940 John Rathbone, who was by then in the Blenheim Squadron of the RAF Volunteer Reserve, with the rank of flying officer, was shot down on his first mission to bomb German-occupied Antwerp. He was the sixth MP to be killed in action during the Second World War. At the resulting by-election in March 1941, Beatrice Rathbone was elected unopposed as MP for Bodmin, becoming (after Nancy Astor) the second American-born woman to enter parliament and the thirty-seventh female MP to take her seat.

Beatrice Rathbone travelled to the USA in the summer of 1941 at the invitation of Columbia Broadcasting System to give a series of lectures about the part women were playing in the British war effort. She was reunited with her children in New York, and although the lecture tour was cut short by the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941, she remained in the USA until the beginning of 1942. In January 1942 she was the first female MP to sign up for national service, despite being exempt from doing so. She was also a member of a numerous committees, including the Agricultural Committee and the Consultative Committee appointed by the minister of health to examine maternity and infant welfare problems. On 23 May 1942 she married, in St Faith’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, Paul Hervé Giraud Wright (1915–2005), a captain in the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the son of Richard Hervé Giraud Wright, secretary of White’s club. When their daughter, Faith Beatrice, was born in April 1943, Beatrice Wright became the first serving member of parliament to give birth to a child.

Beatrice Wright and her daughter lived in Dean’s Yard, Westminster, while Paul Wright was on war service. She recalled the practicalities of combining motherhood with her parliamentary duties. ‘If the Division Bell should ring (which it did in our house), I would have to put Faith in the already prepared pram and set out at top speed for the House of Commons where I would hand her over to an obliging policeman on duty and rush in to vote, usually just making it before the lobby doors closed!’ (unpublished memoir, family papers). She was an active parliamentarian, making seventy speeches in the House over the course of her four years as an MP and focusing her attention on issues that affected women, children, and her Cornish constituency. She maintained her transatlantic links and helped to organize the Bundles for Britain initiative. Described as ‘a champion of womanhood’ in the House of Commons (Cornish Times, 12 Jan 1945), in January 1945 she announced her intention not to stand for re-election, wanting to spend more time with her husband and young family after the turmoil of the war years. At the general election of 1945 her husband stood unsuccessfully as the Liberal candidate for Bethnal Green North East. He became director of publicity for the Festival of Britain, after which he joined the diplomatic service. She accompanied on him on his postings; the first, at the United Nations, took them to New York. Over the course of his career, he held ambassadorships to the Congo and Burundi (1969–71) and to Lebanon (1971–5); he was awarded a KCMG in 1975.

In 1978 Lady Wright became vice-president of the Royal National Institute for the Deaf. She had a long-standing interest in deafness as her mother had lost her hearing after being treated with quinine to cure a bout of malaria. In 1982 she co-founded Hearing Dogs for the Deaf (later Hearing Dogs for Deaf People), serving as president of the organization until 1988. The Beatrice Wright Centre for the training of hearing dogs was opened in 1994, and she was awarded an MBE in 1996 for services to deaf people.

Lady Wright and her husband converted to Catholicism in the 1980s. She died at St John’s Hospice, Westminster, on 17 March 2003. Her funeral mass was held at Westminster Cathedral, and her ashes are buried alongside those of her second husband, Sir Paul Wright, at St John the Evangelist Church in Bury, West Sussex. She had been predeceased by her son from her first marriage, John Rankin (Tim) Rathbone (1933–2002), Conservative MP for Lewes from 1974 to 1997.

Sources

  • Boston Post (7 Dec 1941)
  • Daily Telegraph (20 March 2003)
  • J. Ault, ‘Beatrice Rathbone – the reluctant feminist?’, www.academia.edu/3983682/Beatrice_Rathbone_The_reluctant_feminist, accessed 8 March 2018
  • J. Ault, ‘The other Rathbone: Beatrice, the trans-Atlantic envoy’, Women’s History Magazine, 71 (2013), 31–8
  • Dod’s Parliamentary Companion
  • family papers, priv. coll.
  • oral history interview, 1991, IWM, 12030
  • New York Times (24 Sept 1927) [F. Roland Clough]
  • The Times (2 Jan 1941); (8 Jan 1941) [J. R. Rathbone]
  • The Times (30 June 2005) [Sir Paul Wright]
  • The Times (16 July 2002) [Tim Rathbone]
  • Radcliffe College Archives, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University
  • m. cert. (1942)

Likenesses

  • photograph, as Beatrice Rathbone, c.1941, Science and Society Picture Library [see illus.]
  • two photographs, with Alfred Bossom, 1941, Hult. Arch./Getty Images
  • D. Oulds, photograph, 1941, Central Press/Getty Images
  • three photographs, 1941, Getty Images
private collection
, ser. 1–5 (1803–)
death certificate
marriage certificate
(1920–)