Widow of Harold Wilson and inspiration for famed Private Eye diary

Born: January 12 1916;

Died: June 6, 2018

LADY Wilson of Rievaulx, who has died aged 102, was best-known in her role as the wife of Harold Wilson, who served as Prime Minister from 1964 to 1970, and again from 1974 until his unexpected resignation in 1976; she also achieved notice as a poet and Booker prize judge, and as the supposed author of a parody diary in Private Eye.

Mary Wilson had never had any intention of being a political wife, and did not relish the role; indeed, there was a libel action over suggestions she eschewed the activities and duties thought appropriate to a politician’s spouse (which, in the 1960s and ’70s, almost invariably meant wife).

In fact, as Wilson’s counsel detailed, she had attended 26 of the 27 party conferences her husband had gone to, went to party meetings around 15 times a year and gave tea parties at Number 10 for political wives. All the same, she did not enjoy political machinations.

It may, however, have been precisely that quality which made her such a support to Wilson and, after his resignation and subsequent withdrawal from public life, an effective guardian of his privacy and steward of his reputation.

In his authorised biography of Wilson, Philip Ziegler claimed that Mary Wilson had neither the inclination or experience to share in political life and that “[i]n a sense, Marcia Williams was his political wife.” The relationship between Mary Wilson and Marcia Williams (later Lady Falkender) was not without tension during Wilson’s premiership, and the friction, and its probable causes, attracted considerable attention. In later years, the two women tended to present a common front against any speculation.

For many, the most plausible and credible account of their relations (which also suggested a cause for what many of Wilson’s colleagues thought was Marcia Williams’ unwarranted influence) came from Joe Haines, Wilson’s press secretary. He wrote a memoir that claimed that Marcia Williams told Mary Wilson, in his presence, that she had slept with her husband “five times in 1956. It was not satisfactory”.

Though Lady Falkender never sued over the book, she did successfully sue the BBC for libel over a later dramatization (by the journalist Francis Wheen) that made the same allegation, and relied on Haines as its source. Even those who thought the story credible felt that some of Haines’s other claims – such as that Wilson’s doctor planned to kill him at the behest of MI5 – were extravagant.

Whatever the truth, any such speculation was vigorously contested at the time. In the best-known example, all the royalties from The Move’s Flowers in the Rain (the first record played on Radio 1), written by Roy Wood, went to charity after a libel action, because the record had been briefly promoted with a drawing of Wilson in bed with Marcia Williams.

Further notoriety came from a diary, purporting to be by Mary Wilson and modelled on the radio show Mrs Dale’s Diary, in Private Eye, which escaped legal censure, but brought similarly unwelcome attention. Though now a common technique, this sort of parody was then unusual, and taken seriously by some readers.

In fact, Mary Wilson had literary ambitions, having always written verse. In 1970, Hutchinson published her Selected Poems. The best that could be said was that she played the role of John the Baptist to Pam Ayres, rather as Ezra Pound had for TS Eliot. Unlike Eliot’s claim about Pound, no one declared her la migliora fabbra.

She was nonetheless talked of as a possible Poet Laureate (John Betjeman was a good friend) and, in 1976, judged the Booker Prize alongside writers and critics, Walter Allen and Francis King. (It was won by the Yorkshire socialist David Storey, for his novel Saville.)

Gladys Mary Baldwin was born on January 12 1916 at Diss, in Norfolk, where her father was a Congregationalist minister. She went to boarding school at Milton Mount, near Crawley, before taking a secretarial course in Cumbria – her father had become minister at Penrith – and becoming a shorthand typist for Lever Brothers at their model factory at Port Sunlight.

Harold Wilson saw her playing tennis at a local club in 1934, and immediately went out and bought a racquet. Within a couple of weeks, he had decided to marry her. He was then at Oxford and looked set for an academic career, and the idea of being a don’s wife appealed to Mary – “very old buildings and very young people”.

In the event, the outbreak of war swept Wilson into the civil service, and encouraged the couple to marry, which they did on a foggy New Year’s Day in Oxford in 1940. The honeymoon was interrupted after a week by a telegram from Sir William Beveridge (then Master of University College, Oxford, but also seconded to the war effort) summoning Wilson back.

With Wilson working in Whitehall, the couple had an unsettled start to married life, with flats in Earl’s Court, Dolphin Square in Pimlico and then Twickenham. After their son was born in 1943, Mary moved to stay with her parents, by then based at Duxford in Cambridgeshire.

In July 1945, Harold Wilson was elected as the MP for Ormskirk in a Labour landslide (though his majority of around 7,000 had come only because the right-wing vote in his seat was split), and his political career was launched. So too, was Mary Wilson’s reluctant round of political duties.

She saw little of her husband at first, since she had returned to Oxford and he divided his time between London and his constituency (with a three month stint in Washington), though after Wilson became President of the Board of Trade in 1947 they bought a house in Hampstead Garden Suburb, and their second son was born.

Despite doing what was expected of a political wife, Mary Wilson disliked political wrangling (even over nuclear disarmament, which she supported and Wilson opposed), and detested the inevitable manoeuvring that accompanied her husband’s rapid rise through the Labour party.

By the time he became Prime Minister in 1964, Mary Wilson was, according to Richard Crossman’s diary, “embittered and unhappy”. Similar concerns led George Thomas, later Speaker, to encourage the PM to take more interest in his home life – to little avail. Over time, Mary Wilson was able to separate her life in the flat above Number 10 from her husband’s work, but only with difficulty.

Even after he lost to Ted Heath, he remained as leader, and returned as PM in March 1974, at first leading a hung parliament. He gained a tiny majority in the second general election in October. The couple chose, however, not to live in Number 10, but in Lord North Street nearby.

In 1975, she voted to leave in the referendum on the EEC, despite her husband’s campaign for the other side, though she kept it quiet until 2007, when she gave her only major newspaper interview (to the Labour MP and journalist Roy Hattersley).

Though she denied “hating” her time as the PM’s wife, she clearly preferred to bring up her children, to read, to write, and to see friends from outside the world of politics; in short, the life of the don’s wife she had envisaged for herself. Only at Lowenva, their holiday home on St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly (the mortgage on which was paid off by Mary Wilson’s poetry royalties), did she get much respite until, mid-way through Wilson’s second term as prime minister, in March 1976, he suddenly resigned.

The reason for this was never fully explained; Wilson claimed he had always planned to give up aged 60 and that he was exhausted, but Mary Wilson’s influence may have played a part. The most likely explanation is that Wilson had become aware of the early symptoms of the Alzheimer’s disease from which he suffered in later years. He remained as an MP until 1983, when he was raised to the peerage as Lord Wilson of Rievaulx. He died in May 1995, aged 79.

Mary Wilson cared devotedly for her husband during his long decline in health, and maintained her friendship with Marcia Williams. She divided her time between her flat in Westminster and her house in the Scilly Isles. She is survived by her sons, Robin and Giles.