Jean Barker (neé Campbell-Harris), Baroness Trumpington
Gange Tout Sans Atouts (Win all with no Trumps)
23 October 1922 – 26 November 2018
If you read Jean Barker’s autobiography, Coming up Trumps (Jean Trumpington, 2014), or her extensive Wikipedia entry, you get a flavour of her very full life. I am not going to discuss her life in Cambridge but will book end it by covering her life before she arrived at the Leys School as the Headmaster’s wife and afterwards when she left when Alan Barker moved to be headmaster of University College School, Hampstead.
The appointment of Jean Barker as Mayor of Cambridge, 27 May 1971.
During a distinguished career, Jean Barker, Baroness Trumpington (1922-2018), was a Cambridge City Councillor for Trumpington Ward from 1963-73, County Councillor for Trumpington from 1973-75, and Mayor of Cambridge , 1971-72. This report on her life is based on talks and comments by Edmund Brookes, Howard Slatter, Stephen Siddall and Adam Barker, at the meeting about Two Trumpington Mayors , September 2019.
Edmund Brookes, Adam Barker, Howard Slatter and Stephen Siddall at the meeting about local Mayors, talking about Jean Barker (Baroness Trumpington). Photo: Andrew Roberts, 26 September 2019.
Front cover of ‘Coming up Trumps: A Memoir’.
I have personal recollections of Jean. Once, in the House of Lords, I was in conversation with her and Baroness [Emily] Blatch who I actually knew better. She wanted to know why I was talking to a particular peer, I will not state which party he represented, but she resented it. I gave her a direct answer which she did not like. Our late mother, Jane Brookes, knew her well and indeed succeeded her as the Trumpington Ward County Councillor in October 1975. Though primarily a City Councillor, Jean had been elected to the County Council in 1973, resigning when she moved to London.
In the 236 pages of ‘Coming up Trumps’, pages 1-143 cover the first 36 years of her life before Alan was appointed Headmaster of the Leys School, 40 pages (196 -236) cover the 43 years of her life after they moved to Hampstead. An interesting split.
I will summarise Jean’s non-Cambridge life in four phases: upbringing; World War 2 (Land Girl and at Bletchley Park); marriage and pre The Leys school; and London politics.
She was born Jean Alys Campbell-Harris to Major Arthur Campbell-Harris and his American wife Doris. He was an officer in an associated regiment of the Bengal Lancers. It was an upbringing typical I suppose of the time, though her mother lost most of her inheritance in the Wall Street Crash of 1929 when Jean was seven. She took dancing classes, including with the Ballet Rambert and attended Princess Helena College, but left at 15 having never taken an exam, although she was fluent in French, German and Italian. This was followed by finishing school in Paris and then to Biarritz. She also played tennis to a very high standard.
World War 2
War meant a return to Britain. Initially she worked for a year as a Land Girl for Lloyd George who the family knew, staying with his secretary/mistress and hints that Lloyd George had designs on her, but somehow she managed to do a secretarial course. What she was to do after that was a concern to her father and according to her memoire he had a conversation with a navy officer who thought her language skills could be used at Bletchley Park. As a result of this and a trial translation, she was given a train ticket for the following morning to Bletchley. She describes work there as a mix of deathly dull and thrilling excitement. It did not stop her enjoying life in London when off shift and she did go to Queen Charlotte’s Ball, though not ‘presented’ due to the War. When she arrived at Bletchley Park, there were just 400 people working there, by the end of the War there were 6000, and she worked in Hut 4. Jean made a lot of friends at Bletchley, most of whom had her sort of background, probably what one would call privileged these days and she describes much partying, including at Claridge’s when off duty.
She describes work at Bletchley Park after VE day as very boring, so she feigned an accident to her Mother as a reason to escape, which she did. She managed to get a job working for the European Central Inland Transport Organisation in Paris as a filing clerk.
The filing clerk’s job mutated somehow into being the effective transport manager working from an office above Mimi Pinson’s Nightclub. She partied extensively and moved in high circles, including the British Ambassador, and still played tennis. After 4 years, she returned to London to work for a Conservative MP amongst a succession of jobs in political circles. Weddings were a plenty but not hers, though she obviously had no shortage of suitors.
At the age of 30 she moved to New York, officially working at an advertising agency, but both her book and Wikipedia suggested that she spent a lot of time socialising. It was here that she met Captain (William) Alan Barker, wounded in Normandy while in the Royal Artillery and then a Master at Eton. Alan’s injuries were far more serious than realised in the heat of battle, but he survived though he walked with a limp ever after. Jean says at the time that “she still had boyfriends”. It was while back in the United Kingdom for the 1953 Coronation that she fell in love with Alan. They got engaged the night before she flew back to New York but it was not formally announced in The Times until 2 November and she returned to the UK on 15 December by sea. Jean and Barker, as she often called him, were married at the Chapel of the Royal Hospital Chelsea on 18 March 1954. This was followed by a long honeymoon driving through France and Spain in an open top Ford car, quite adventurous.
Married life started not at Eton, but at Richmond Terrace here in Cambridge, as Alan had taken up a history fellowship at Queens’ College. By August 1955, they were proud parents of Adam, and Alan had returned to Eton in the same role as he had left. The reasons for leaving Cambridge so suddenly are covered in her memoir: it appears that he wrote to his old headmaster for a reference to become head of another school, as he was thwarted in his desire to become Professor of American History. Robert Birley, the then head of Eton, urged him back rather than go to another school and back he did go.
But only for 3 years, as in 1958 he was appointed the first non-Methodist as headmaster of The Leys School.
After The Leys School
In the next 17 intervening years, Jean failed to be selected as Conservative candidate for the Parliamentary constituency of the Isle of Ely, and Barker failed to become Headmaster of Eton, which he desperately wanted. However, in 1975 he was appointed Headmaster of University College School in Hampstead, but their lives there did not progress quite as planned. A large part of the school was destroyed by fire in 1978, which undoubtedly put a great strain on Alan. Jean says she was not bored, as she matured into a serious-minded public figure serving on the Mental Health Tribunal, became a General Commissioner for Taxes, Chair of the Air Transport Users Committee and Margaret Thatcher appointed her the UK representative to the UN Commission on the Status of Women. She was made a Life Peer in 1980 becoming a Baroness in Waiting (i. e. Whip) in 1982. Just as she immersed herself in her new political career disaster struck the family. She was dining in the private dining room at the Cavalry Club when two headmasters entered and broke the news that her husband had had a stroke in the middle of a dinner he was attending. When one offered to drive her to the Westminster hospital another diner is said to have commented “Oh, who is going to make up the eight for bridge!”.
Senior figures went to see him including Douglas Hurd (Foreign Secretary). It became apparent that Alan would have to leave University College School. He moved to their house in Sandwich, with Jean living in a flat in London during the week. This arrangement took its toll on both of them, with Jean being a Government Whip in the week and caring for Alan at the weekend. It became evident that this arrangement would not work and Alan moved to the Royal Star & Garter Home in Richmond for the last 3 years of his life. From what she writes, it is obvious that Jean missed him terribly for the rest of her days (over 20 years).
Margaret Thatcher promoted her to a Minister in the Department of Health & Social Security, and in 1987 to be a Minister of State in the Department of Agriculture, then in 1992 to be a senior Whip. The new Labour Government appointed her an Extraordinary Baroness-in Waiting, given her experiences at Court. She gained a reputation for being a traditionalist, with a sense of order, propriety and taste. Throughout her career she was notable for raising uncomfortable truths about topics most politicians avoided such as the plight of women in prisons or the fate of single mothers with mental health issues.
However, she is perhaps best remembered for her physical reaction, caught on camera, to Lord King of Bridgewater who in the House of Lords on 10 November 2011 referred to her advanced age during a Remembrance Day debate. She retired from the House of Lords on 24 October 2017, one day after her 95th Birthday.
Having appeared on Desert Island Discs in 1990 (luxury item, The Crown Jewels, to maximise the chance of being rescued) and Have I got News for You! in 2012. She had a number of other broadcast appearances including being a Guest Editor of the Today programme in December 2017, just a year before she passed away on 26 November 2018.
She had lived an exceptionally full life which was not without tragedy. She was an undoubted socialite before the War, carrying on as she could while working at Bletchley Park. She resumed this life after the War until she met Alan Barker, but then led a life supporting him, but interspersed with some political activity. She knew so many people in so many circles. On moving to London in the 70s she was carving out a political career when her husband was struck down, and after his death led a very active life centred on the House of Lords.
I have not mentioned that she enjoyed contract bridge, needlepoint and horse racing and that her Battersea flat caught fire in 2010!
Perhaps her son’s remark in announcing his Mother’s death is very apposite “She had a bloody good innings”.
Life in Cambridge, 1958-75
A few facts about Jean Barker’s 17 years in Cambridge.
Jean and her husband Alan came to Cambridge in 1958 when Alan took up the headmastership of The Leys School. Jean soon joined the local Conservative Association, and in 1963 she stood successfully as a City Councillor for Trumpington Ward.
She was elected Mayor in May 1971, and continued in that role until the following year. As with all Mayors since 1836, there is a permanent record of her mayoralty carved into the wall at the top of the entrance staircase in the Guildhall. Her book ‘Coming up Trumps’ has several stories of the events she attended as Mayor, one of them being in 1972 when she gave the Honorary Freedom of the City of Cambridge to RAF Oakington, in recognition of the services rendered by the Royal Air Force.
Memorial recognising the terms of Cambridge mayors, Cambridge Guildhall. Howard Slatter, 2019.
In 1973 she stepped down from the City Council to be succeeded by Trumpington councillor Betty Suckling who, incidentally, also became Mayor some years later. But she was not done with local politics, as she immediately became County Councillor for Trumpington, staying in that role until she and Alan left Cambridge in 1975.
All this time she lived with Alan in the Headmaster’s House at The Leys. When I came here in 1980, to teach at The Leys myself, Stephen Siddall was well established as Head of English at the school.
Memories of Jean Barker at The Leys
Stephen Siddall said that he was appointed to teach at The Leys by Alan Barker. Stephen was then in his 20s.
Stephen said that in those days, headmaster’s wives were expected to subordinate themselves and be excellent hostesses. Jean was the latter, she got on well with everyone, proving a very good person at The Leys and as Mayor. She did not interfere with the headmaster’s role. Stephen first met her about a fortnight after starting at the school, when he was invited to dinner. He was let in by Alan, with no sign of Jean, until she shouted downstairs to Alan, “they’ve said bugger on TV”, a typical intervention.
On another occasion, the guests overstayed after dinner, Jean appeared in her mackintosh, going out to walk the dogs and saying, “now darlings, lovely time but now you must go”. Dogs were always an important part of the household.
When Jean became Mayor, Alan was reluctant to walk behind her as her consort, so a number of teachers took turns to accompany her to formal events. Ray Ward went with her to art events, such as at the Fitzwilliam Museum, while Stephen went with her to a number of theatre events. On one occasion when there was a performance of a Chekhov play, they had dinner beforehand. Travelling in the Rolls, they arrived early at the event, and had to circle around. In the interval, they had drinks in the manager’s office, when Jean was approached and asked “hello Jean, is this your son?”. Afterwards, they returned to the Rolls, but the theatre secretary approached and asked them to join a group. Jean said that Stephen, “my son”, would go but she had to leave to “write a speech”. She was a great improviser!
Stephen commented that Jean said that when she was ennobled, she thought that she should take her name from one of the Cambridgeshire villages, and Lady Trumpington seemed preferable to Lady Six Mile Bottom!
Whatever role she played, she was always herself, a great influence, a wonderful person, a force of nature.
Adam Barker and Howard Slatter at the meeting about local Mayors. Photo: Andrew Roberts, 26 September 2019.
We were fortunate that Jean’s son, Adam Barker, was able to attend the meeting, and say a few words after the other speakers. He said that he had inherited his mother’s love of horseracing and been to the races in Newmarket that afternoon, when his horse ran badly!
Adam explained that his mother did say that she had not read ‘Coming up Trumps’, but this was taken out of context. In fact, she dictated the whole book, but by that time had macular degeneration and was unable to read it herself, so Adam read it to her about 10 times.
Adam said that Jean loved her time in Cambridge. She was most proud of the Market Place, where a car park was removed and market stalls instated during her term.
Adam said that he had inherited around 150 volumes and copious notes about his mother. He brought a set of the volumes to the meeting, covering her period as Mayor.
Volumes (scrapbooks) about Jean Barker (Baroness Trumpington), displayed by Adam Barker at the meeting about local Mayors. Photo: Andrew Roberts, 26 September 2019.
Photographs from Baroness Trumpington’s archive, Adam Barker, October 2019.
The appointment of Jean Barker as Mayor of Cambridge, 27 May 1971. Captioned “May 27 1971: The Sergeant-at-Mace, Mr. Kenneth Quick, presents the chain of office to the new Mayor.”
Jean Barker, Mayor of Cambridge, at the Cambridge Midsummer Fair, 23 June 1971. Captioned “June 23. On the roundabout with Mr. John Whyatt, president of the Showman’s Guild, after the official proclamation of Cambridge Midsummer Fair.”
Jean Barker, Mayor of Cambridge, with her husband Alan Barker and son Adam Barker, at a conference, 3 September 1971. Captioned “At the Incorporated Association of Preparatory Schools conference at Trinity College, with Adam and Mr. Barker, and (from left) Mr. J.W. Hornby, chairman, Mr. D. Wright, headmaster of Shrewsbury, and Mr. M. Hankey, secretary.”
Jean Barker, Mayor of Cambridge, at Old Addenbrooke’s Hospital, 25 December 1971. Captioned “December 25. Chatting to Christopher Bates in the children’s ward at Old Addenbrooke’s Hospital, during a round of Christmas Day visits.”
Adam added that it was fortunate that his mother spent so much time managing her own memorial service, which she had planned about 20 years before her death.
He was asked, did she embarrass you and answered “yes, I was used to it”. He commented on her appearance on ‘Have I Got News For You’ (2012) when she made forthright remarks about Boris Johnson and others.
Another person asked whether she elicited negative responses. Adam said yes, sometimes, but she was not a feminist. In June 2019, The Mirror newspaper had an article about the people who the Brits wanted to bring back from the dead, with his mother at number 39 in the illustrious list.
One of the audience commented on the 1989 Medieval Weekend event at Trumpington Hall, opened by Baroness Trumpington, and praised her for the way she banged heads together in Parliament, a skill that would be valuable in today’s circumstances.
Stephen Siddall said that he never came across anyone who disliked her, she had a knack of putting people at ease, and was very interested in other people.
Adam said that his mother had so much time for everyone. He added that he had grown up in Cambridge. Rather than attend The Leys, he went to St Faith’s School, where his mentor was Michael Morpurgo, then The King’s School, Canterbury. He refused to go to Eton because of his parent’s strong connection with that school, even though he could have gone there free of fees!
Howard Slatter closed the meeting, with thanks to Edmund Brookes and Stephen Siddall and our surprise guest, Adam Barker.