Friends and Relations
Picture of Callaghan  .

Lady Callaghan, died on Tuesday 15th March 2005 aged 91 and was said to have been a powerful influence on her husband, James Callaghan, Labour prime minister from 1976 to 1979.

Tall, commanding and a much stronger personality than her predecessor at Number 10, Mary Wilson, Audrey Callaghan stood by her husband as he rose through the political ranks. Indeed, had it not been for her strength in a crisis, it was generally believed that James Callaghan might well have backed out of politics altogether in 1967, when he resigned as Chancellor of the Exchequer over the devaluation of the pound, which he had previously said would not take place.

When her husband became Prime Minister in April 1976 following Harold Wilson's resignation, the headlines did not spare Audrey Callaghan, labelling her "the Yorkshire Pudding", ostensibly for her skill in cooking, but alluding to her poor dress sense and mildly disorganised appearance.

Mrs Callaghan, said a woman columnist, had "resolutely resisted the traditional tendency towards neat elegance and suitable hats". It was also noted that her hobby was keeping pigs.

But the satirists found little to lampoon in the Callaghan household. John Wells, the author of Mrs Wilson's Diary and the Dear Bill letters in Private Eye, fell uncharacteristically silent during the Callaghan years, partly because Audrey Callaghan herself was careful not to impose her own personality or embarrass her husband by doing or saying the wrong thing.

In fact, Audrey Callaghan's homely exterior concealed a good brain and a strong political will and a committed Socialist, she served for many years as chairman of the Maidstone Labour Party and Fabian Society and whiles her husband pursued his career in Parliament, she carved an independent life for herself in local government and through her involvement in charities concerned with children.

She served from 1969 to 1983 as chairman of the board of governors of the Great Ormond Street Children's Hospital. She endeared herself to the unions by listening seriously to any grievance. Yet she was no pushover; as her husband's administration tottered towards its close during the 1978-79 "Winter of Discontent", and the health union NUPE singled out Great Ormond Street as a strike target, Audrey Callaghan bitterly attacked the strikers for putting children's lives at risk, adding that, if necessary, she herself would go down on her hands and knees to help volunteers scrub floors, clean dishes and wash linen.

She also helped to raise large sums of money for the hospital. She was chairman of the hospital trustees in 1988 when the copyright of Peter Pan, bequeathed to the hospital by JM Barrie, came to an end after 50 years. Spotting a letter in a national newspaper about how a perpetual copyright for Clarendon's History of the Rebellion had been given by Parliament to Oxford University, she suggested to her husband that the same might be done for Peter Pan.

Lord Callaghan tabled a series of amendments to the Copyright, Designs and Patents Bill - then on its way through Parliament - that won the approval of the Conservative government. As a result, Great Ormond Street Hospital was granted copyright in perpetuity, a decision that added greatly to its income and in 1991 it received one of its biggest ever windfalls when Hook, the film directed by Steven Spielberg about the adventures of Peter Pan and Captain Hook, was released.

While still at school, Audrey worked at weekends as a Sunday School teacher at a Baptist church in Maidstone. It was there that, as a slim 16-year-old, she met her future husband, James Callaghan, who was then working in a tax office. He was sufficiently struck by Audrey to join a tennis club of which she was a member.

The couple walked out together for eight years and married in 1938 and settled in a rented house at Norwood. By this time, Audrey Callaghan was working as a domestic science teacher. She also studied economics at an extramural course at Eltham High School, where her tutors included a young Hugh Gaitskell.

While her husband was serving as a lieutenant in the Royal Navy during the war, Audrey Callaghan worked as a dietician in an ante-natal clinic and coped with a growing family. Their first child, Margaret, was born in 1939 and by 1945 they had three children.

When Callaghan left the Navy and plunged into politics, Audrey was always at his side for election battles and at his weekend surgeries in Cardiff South, the constituency he represented from 1945 to 1979.

Not at any stage during an extremely long marriage, marked by a golden wedding anniversary in 1988, was the Callaghans' domestic base anything other than a happy one. It formed an important part of James Callaghan's self-assurance and credibility as a politician, and for this an immense amount was owed to his wife.

When in later life Audrey had illnesses or accidents - a minor car accident when Callaghan was Prime Minister, a thrombosis in her leg in America, a frightening mugging in London when she was in her seventies - it was a major crisis for Callaghan.

Audrey Callaghan began her own political career in 1959, when she was elected to represent Lewisham on the LCC. In 1964 she began six years as an alderman on the newly-formed Greater London Council.

Though widely considered to be more Left-wing than her husband, Audrey Callaghan was respected by her opponents for her willingness to accept sensible compromise.

Her strongest interest, however, was in the welfare of children. She became chairman of the South East London Childrens' Committee, which had 8,000 children in care, and in 1969 embarked on a long stint at Great Ormond Street Childrens' Hospital as chairman of its board of governors.

In 1968 the Callaghans bought a half share in a 138-acre farm at Ringmer, in East Sussex, where Audrey Callaghan cultivated a kitchen garden and kept pigs while her husband raised dairy cattle and sheep and grew barley.

After retiring as chairman of the Great Ormond Street board of governors in 1983, she became chairman of the hospital's board of trustees. She worked devotedly on such projects as the Sick Childrens' Trust. She was also a member of the council of Save the Children.

Lady Callaghan is survived by her son and two daughters, one of whom, Margaret, is Lady Jay of Paddington.

 

Added by: John Whittle on 24th February 2006.

 

 

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Picture of Callaghan  .