No one who has ever heard the humorous, free-flowing reminiscences of David Howe could be surprised at the cheerful faces of the ladies of Snitterfield WI after their March meeting. His subject was ‘The partners of the Prime Ministers’ – with not a scrap of politics in sight.

The Prime Ministers in question ranged from Spencer Compton (of nearby Compton Wynates), PM 1742-3, ironically un-partnered, to our present Premier and her husband. Choosing to give unobtrusive support, Philip May would probably agree with Denis Thatcher’s observation: ‘always present, never there.’ Wife or husband, the partners had a good deal to put up with, as they took on their supporting role without the security or privacy accorded to the PM.

When PMs change there is an immediate removal from 10 Downing Street; out with the old, often by the back door, and in with the new. There is truth in the old joke that the incoming partner arrives first to measure up for new curtains, even before the incoming PM has been received by the Queen. A change of home, for younger incumbents, can mean new schools and life-styles in London. Not every country family is happy to be in the forefront of media attention and the ever-present security team. Gordon Brown’s wife, Sarah, wrote of spoilt holidays, cancelled theatre visits and being ill-informed about appointments.

Of fifty-four PMs, fifty were married. Not always happily, though the press embargo which once existed failed to inform the country of unfaithfulness or illness. Lady Churchill, desperate for Winston to retire after four unreported strokes, had to become his carer, reminding him of the names of guests and covering for his absences. Harold Wilson’s wife, Mary, completely unselfish, preferred the Scilly Isles to London and, in 1976, when he retired, she became his carer for the next nineteen years. Incidentally, Clement Attlee’s wife, Violet, drove him everywhere to election meetings despite entirely disagreeing with his politics!

But what of those PMs who had no partner? William Pitt the Younger allowed drink and overwork to shorten his life, while Arthur Balfour had a constant friend in May Lyttelton, whom he had hoped to marry. Edward Heath relied on his long-time confidante, Kay Raven.

By way of conclusion, David Howe observed that, in death, PMs were not always buried with their partners. Disraeli, however, insisted that he and his wife should be together at Hughenden, rejecting Westminster Abbey for himself in an unusual demonstration of devotion.

The meeting had begun with announcements of planned outings, a competition based on climate change and visits to Sezincote, Batsford and a Frisbee day, a narrow-boat trip and skittles evening. The next competition is for an Easter Bonnet on April 12 and a quiz is planned for May 10. So many things to engage us in 2017!

Barbara Alcock

Barbara Alcock