Wilson, Mary (1916—)

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Wilson, Mary (1916—)

Wife of British Prime Minister Harold Wilson . Born Gladys Mary Baldwin in 1916 in Norfolk, England; father was a Congregational minister; educated at public and boarding schools including Wilton Mount, Sussex; trained as a stenographer and typist; married Harold Wilson (later prime minister of Britain, 1964–70, 1974–76), later Baron Wilson of Rievaulx, in 1940 (died 1995); children: sons Robin (b. December 1943) and Giles (b. May 1948).

Mary Wilson was born Gladys Mary Baldwin in Norfolk, England, in 1916. Her father was a Congregational minister who had begun life as a mill worker and nearly starved to death while studying theology at night, and her mother had also worked in a mill until shortly before her marriage. Among the Reverend Baldwin's many pastorates were Cambridge and Penrith at the edge of England's Lake District, where Mary, an only child, attended local schools. A good student who inherited a love of reading from her father (he quoted poetry as often as the Bible in his sermons), she also later attended Wilton Mount, a boarding school in Sussex. Travels with her father to his pastorates exposed her to the rough working conditions at the mills and mines of Northern England, where she observed miners black with coal dust after a day in the pit mines. After studying shorthand and typing, Wilson began working in Cheshire in 1934.

That year she met and began seeing Harold Wilson, who was preparing to go to Oxford. He won a first-class degree in 1937 and became a don (professor) and lecturer in economics, and, with his future apparently secure at Oxford, they became engaged. With the beginning of World War II in September 1939, she moved to Oxford and worked for the Potato Marketing Board. Harold volunteered for Army service, but because of his reputation as an economist was channeled into civil service instead. They were married at Mansfield College in Oxford on January 1, 1940. Soon thereafter, Harold was appointed to the Ministry of Supply in London, and they moved to an apartment in Twickenham. His job took him to the unoccupied capitals of Europe, and the bombing raids on London forced Wilson to move back with friends in Oxford and then with family in Cornwall. She later returned to London and a flat in Richmond, where she served as an Air Raids Precaution Shelter Warden, guiding civilians to the shelters at night, and gave birth to their first son late in 1943. When German buzz-bombing raids began in the summer of 1944, she moved with her infant son to her parents' house in Cambridgeshire. Later that year the family was reunited in London, and in the spring of 1945 they returned to Oxford.

This resumption of university life was brief, however, for in July 1945 Harold was one of the victors in the Labour Party's postwar landslide victory. He also became one of three newly elected Labour members of Parliament (MPs) to obtain a position as a junior minister, thus entitling him to sit on the front bench. In 1947, he became a member of the Cabinet as president of the Board of Trade. Instead of the quiet university life of Wilson's dreams, the family, which by May 1948 included a second son, was being swept along on the political tide. On February 14, 1963, Harold was elected leader of the Labour Party. In 1964, he became prime minister with the Labour Party's minimal victory at the polls. That October, Mary rode with her husband to Buckingham Palace, where Queen Elizabeth II formally requested that he form a government. Wives usually did not attend such events, but Mary said, "It wouldn't occur to Harold to do anything else."

Four weeks later, the family took up residence at No. 10 Downing Street in London, the prime minister's official residence. Wilson sought as normal an existence as life in public permitted; she enjoyed being able to walk to the House of Commons to see her husband, and treasured her time to read and to write her own poetry. Although she objected to public speaking, she was quick to kill the "timid housewife image" associated with her and adapted well to the grander life and to public appearances, accompanying her husband on state visits to Washington, Paris, Rome, Ottawa, and Moscow. Harold Wilson served as prime minister until 1970, and was reelected in 1974. To some surprise, he then resigned in 1976. He was honored by the British government that year with a knighthood, and in 1983 received a life peerage, thus making Harold and Mary, Baron Wilson and Lady Wilson of Rievaulx.


Frederick, Pauline. Ten First Ladies of the World. NY: Meredith Press, 1967.

Gillian S. Holmes , freelance writer, Hayward, California

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Wilson, Mary (1916—)

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