Margaret Thatcher, who has died aged 87, visited York on a number of occasions, and left her mark on its history.
Alex Lyon, who had been Labour MP for York for 17 years, was swept aside by his Tory rival Conal Gregory in Mrs Thatcher’s second General Election victory, the post-Falklands War landslide in 1983.
The Thatcher revolution affected York in many ways, from the Right To Buy council house sell-off, which delighted the new home owners but depleted the city’s stocks of social housing; to a free market policy which allowed the likes of Rowntree to be sold to foreign bidders despite 13,500 people sending Mrs Thatcher Hands Off Rowntree petition coupons from the Yorkshire Evening Press.
So to mark Lady Thatcher’s passing, here are six connections between York and the former Prime Minister.
Terry’s visit: July 1, 1977
“She was accompanied by Mr Iain Johnston, Terry’s managing director, Dr David Tod, prospective Conservative candidate for York, and Mr Douglas Craig, chairman of York Conservative Association,” reported the Yorkshire Post.
“In the chocolate Neapolitan room, she selected one with a cafe-au-lait flavour, explaining that it was ‘one of my favourites’.
“As she left the factory, Mrs Thatcher was presented with a 31b casket of chocolate assortments, appropriately wrapped in blue silk.”
Later she visited the Lord Mayor Thomas Hibbert in the Mansion House.
Response to the York Minster fire, July 10, 1984
At Prime Minister’s Questions on the day after the blaze that came close to destroying the Minster, Conservative MP Sir John Farr asked her “what the Government can do towards helping to restore the fabric of this cathedral?”
“It is a great tragedy that the roof of York Minister was severely damaged by fire and parts of the cathedral were seriously burned,” Mrs Thatcher replied. “I have asked for a full report on the damage. I understand that in the first instance it will be for the cathedral authorities and the insurers to decide the financial implications, but I have made it clear that the Government stand ready to help, if help is needed.”
Visit: September 26, 1984
Mrs Thatcher came to York to see the Minster after the fire. She climbed more than 100 stone steps to get to the top of 70ft-high scaffolding to witness the damage for herself. Discounting the suggestion that the blaze was some sort of retribution from God, she said: “The laws of physics were fixed at the beginning of time. It is up to us to try and rebuild, and the way the work is bringing people together is pulling something positive out of the tragedy.”
It was the height of the miners’ strike. The Prime Minister sipped black coffee while talking to police officers at York police station who had returned from duty on the Selby coalfield picket line. She said: “We are extremely grateful for what you have done and so, I think, are the overwhelming majority of the British public.”
She was described as being in “a determined and forceful mood” by The Times as she held a press conference.
The paper went on: “There were a dozen demonstrators among a crowd several hundred strong who chanted slogans in support of the miners as she arrived at York Minster but they were easily drowned by applause and cheers for Mrs Thatcher.”
In her autobiography The Downing Street Years, she wrote: “On Wednesday 26 September I went to York. I visited the Minster, which had recently been struck by lightning and badly damaged in the fire which followed — divine punishment, some suggested, for the wayward theology of leading Anglican clerics. I also discussed with the Yorkshire police and local people the damage the strike was doing to the local community.
“At lunch with Conservative Party activists, some of those from Barnsley confirmed the impression that we had received throughout the strike: that the NCB’s publicity of its case was truly dreadful.
“There were, too, the accounts of intimidation with which I had become all too familiar. Nor could one doubt the economic hardship which Mr Scargill’s obduracy was imposing on his own supporters. I was told that miners were digging up rootcrops from the fields to feed themselves and their families.”
Tory Party Conference speech, October 12, 1984
On the day of the Brighton bombing, when an IRA device ripped through the Grand Hotel, killing five and coming close to assassinating the Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher gave a speech to the Conservative Party Conference.
Naturally much of the speech was given over to the terrorist attack. But it did include a reference to York.
During her visit the previous month (see above), she had toured the National Railway Museum, waving a flag as a signal to send the replica Rocket on a short journey, before climbing on its footplate.
“A few days ago I visited York, where I saw the first railway engine, Stevenson’s Rocket,” she told the Brighton conference. “I thought of the jobs, the prospects and the hope that the new steam engines and the railways then brought to many people. Communities queued up to be on a railway line, to have their own station. Those communities welcomed change and it brought them more jobs.
“I confess I am very glad we have got the railways, but if we were trying to build those same railways today, I wonder if we would ever get planning permission — it sometimes takes so long.”
Visit: February 7, 1987
Still with the railways, Mrs Thatcher visited York Railway station to unveil a plaque commemorating the 12,000th electrification mast. Earlier that year, in a response to a question by York MP Conal Gregory, she told the House of Commons: “We are now seeing the largest ever programme for new trains. In the past three years the Government have approved nearly £1 billion of investment in major railway projects, such as the east coast main line electrification scheme.”
The plaque reads: “On 7th February 1987, this 12,000th mast was put in place by the Prime Minister the Rt Hon Margaret Thatcher MP to mark the completion of one third of the total project and the start of work in the York area.”
There is also a Thatcherite item in the National Railway Museum archives – a trowel presented by Margaret Thatcher to the British Rail Property Board in 1985. Don’t go searching for it – this exciting piece of memorabilia is in the NRM warehouse.
While Mrs Thatcher in person did not make it to York in October 2009, her likeness did. In Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England blog, he describes an interesting product on sale at Mulberry Hall on Stonegate four years ago – a Young Margaret Thatcher candlesnuffer in porcelain.
“Mrs Thatcher is depicted here at the start of her parliamentary career on the evening in 1959 that she successfully contested the Finchley seat,” the catalogue revealed.
“Mrs Thatcher has agreed to personally sign each limited edition certificate that will accompany the model and each process of design has been approved by her personal assistant.”