Horsbrugh, Florence (1889–1969)

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Horsbrugh, Florence (1889–1969)

British minister of education who was the first woman to serve in the Cabinet of a Conservative government. Name variations: raised to the peerage in 1959 as Baroness Horsbrugh, P.C., G.B.E. Born Florence Gertrude Horsbrugh in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1889; died in Edinburgh on December 6, 1969; daughter of Henry Moncrieff Horsbrugh (a chartered accountant) and Mary Harriet Stark (Christie) Horsbrugh; attended Lansdowne House, Edinburgh, and St. Hilda's, Folkestone, Kent; had two sisters; never married.

Awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE, 1929); made a life peer (1959).

Was a Conservative member of Parliament, representing Dundee, the first Conservative from that district in 100 years (1931–45); was parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Health (1939–45); was parliamentary secretary for the Ministry of Food (1945); appointed minister of education by Winston Churchill (November 2, 1951), becoming the first woman to hold a post of Cabinet rank in a Conservative government; served in that position until 1954.

Florence Horsbrugh, who played an important role in the preparatory stage of creating a national health system for the entire United Kingdom, did much to advance the cause of women. She was born in Edinburgh in 1889, the youngest of three daughters of an accountant, and received a solid education at Lansdowne House, Edinburgh, and St. Hilda's, Folkestone. A conservative and a patriot, Horsbrugh did voluntary service during the last two years of World War I in canteens and national kitchens, work for which she received an MBE in 1920. She was elected to Parliament as a Conservative in 1931, representing Dundee. Her legislative interests included children's welfare issues, and she introduced the private member's bill which in 1939 was passed into law as the Adoption of Children (Regulation) Act of 1939. That same year, she was appointed CBE. Although not an ideological feminist, Horsbrugh worked conscientiously at fulfilling her Parliamentary duties and, in so doing, raised the general status of women in British political life.

In 1936, she was the first British woman serving in the House of Commons to move the address in reply to the King's speech. This took place during the short reign of Edward VIII, and Horsbrugh had to consult the Chief Whip about appropriate dress at a time when male members of Parliament wore court dress and knee breeches, but nobody knew what a woman should wear. According to Horsbrugh, "For a full minute he looked at the floor stunned and speechless, and then said with the utmost gravity—'Evening dress, but no tiara'." Other firsts for women achieved by Horsbrugh included being a privy councillor in 1945 and a GBE in 1954. She was one of the first British women delegates to the League of Nations Assembly, serving there in 1933, 1934, and 1935. In 1945, she was a member of the British delegation to the United Nations meeting in San Francisco where that international body's charter was drawn up. In the early 1950s, she was the chief United Kingdom delegate to the seventh session of the general conference of UNESCO in Paris.

On the eve of World War II, Horsbrugh was appointed parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Health. Once war began, she played an active role in the evacuation of children from London and other large cities to the countryside; she retained this role until 1945, remaining in London throughout the conflict and suffering injuries from a bomb blast during an air raid in 1944. As the war was drawing to a close, she was working on the complex plans for a postwar national health system for the United Kingdom. Although the plan was put into effect by the Labour government after 1945, she made a significant contribution to many of its details. In the caretaker government of June 1945, Horsbrugh was parliamentary secretary to the Ministry of Food, dealing with the countless problems relating to shortages of food supply and transportation issues.

As part of a national rejection of the Conservatives, in 1945 Horsbrugh lost her seat for Dundee. She then became Conservative candidate for Midlothian and Peebles, but was again defeated in the general election of 1950. Pure chance on this occasion brought her back to Parliament. Since the Conservative candidate for the Moss Side division of Manchester had died before polling day, the election there was postponed. Quickly, Horsbrugh was nominated as Conservative candidate and was elected two weeks later in an "extended general" election, winning with a handsome majority. When the Conservatives led by Sir Winston Churchill returned to national power in 1951, she was appointed to the post of minister of education. At first, Horsbrugh was not a member of Prime Minister Churchill's Cabinet, but in 1953 her position was promoted to the status of full member of the Cabinet—making her the first woman to hold a Cabinet post in a Conservative government. Although she had many plans for major improvements in the national educational system, most of these could not be implemented during her period of tenure, which ended with her resignation in October 1954. The large number of children entering schools at the time created unprecedented strains on resources, and with housing a national priority it proved difficult to achieve major educational growth; thus, much of her time in office was a period of consolidation rather than dramatic changes.

Upon her resignation from the government in October 1954, Horsbrugh was created GBE. She did not withdraw from public life, serving as a delegate to the Council of Europe and the Western European Union during the years 1955 through 1960. In 1959, she was made a life peer with the title Baroness Horsbrugh. Often seen in academic circles, she received a number of honorary degrees, including Doctor of Letters from California's Mills College in 1945. The venerable University of Edinburgh awarded Florence Horsbrugh an honorary LL.D. in 1946, and in that same year the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh conferred honorary fellowship of their college on her, making Horsbrugh the first woman to receive such an award in their 440 years of existence. In her obituary, The Times of London noted that she "was spirited in controversy and never shrank from the rough and tumble of the party fight. But she was also less severe than she looked; and if her Scots mannerisms were sometimes reminiscent of a very senior school mistress, there was usually a merry twinkle in her eye." A "brilliant and attractive" speaker in Parliament, she was appreciated by those who knew her well for her sense of humor and as a generous friend. Baroness Horsbrugh died at her home in Edinburgh at the age of 80 on December 6, 1969.


"Baroness Horsbrugh, First Conservative woman Cabinet Minister," in The Times [London]. December 8, 1969, p. 10.

Elliot, Katharine. "Horsbrugh, Florence Gertrude," in E.T. Williams and C.S. Nicholls, eds., The Dictionary of National Biography 1961–1970. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1981, pp. 540–541.

"Horsbrugh's gift," in The Times [London]. December 8, 1969, p. 8.

John Haag , Associate Professor, University of Georgia, Athens, Georgia