Baroness Betty Boothroyd, the only woman to become Speaker of the House of Commons, is set to part with personal treasures which tell her life story.
Around 40 decorative art items and mementos from the former West Bromwich MP’s London apartment – including a gift from former Russia president Boris Yeltsin – are set to go under the hammer at Hansons London on April 24.
And though parting with items gathered over a lifetime has been hard, her down-to-earth Yorkshire roots come roaring through. She said: “I’ve just got to get on with it. I’ve cherished every single thing but I have to let go. I have loved everything. They’re a reminder of a colourful life. But I am downsizing. It’s an awful thing but that’s the way it is, and there’s no alternative.
“I am moving to a country cottage in South Cambridgeshire. It’s a lovely old place with beams but it hasn’t got the deep windowsills or space I would need to display all the items I have in London
“It’s taken me a long time to go through everything. I am parting with lovely things I’ve collected over the years, or which were given to me as gifts during my public life. These little mementos, some bought during my travels to colourful countries like Cuba, mean so much. They’re my life story.”
Political provenance shines bright among the items which include an ornamental Russian box given to her by Boris Yeltsin, the first President of Russia from 1991 to 1999.
Baroness Boothroyd, 91, said: “I entertained President Yeltsin during a trip to London. He kissed my hand and gratefully presented me with the little box, which has a note inside from him. That would have been during the time I was Speaker between 1992 and 2000.
“Another object I absolutely love is a large, limited-edition ceramic figure of Lawrence of Arabia riding on a camel. It’s one of only six. It was given to me when I was president of the All-Party Defence Group. When I left, they couldn’t decide whether to give me something relating to the Army, Navy or Airforce so came up with Lawrence.”
Other items set to go under the hammer include Baroness Boothroyd’s mirror from her dressing room which includes a photo of her, costume jewellery, two pairs of Victorian crystal chandeliers and a ship’s flat-bottomed decanter and glasses presented to her by the British Navy in St Petersburg, Russia.
She said: “I’m very sorry to have to part with them. The mirror is beautiful and has a distressed frame and the decanter and its matching glasses are lovely. As for the costume jewellery, I’m someone who likes to wear something different every day and have a little something to match to my outfits.”
Chris Kirkham, associate director of Hansons London, said: “It’s been an absolute pleasure to meet Baroness Boothroyd and catalogue her items. This is an extraordinary opportunity to buy something owned by one of the most impressive women British politics has ever known. She brought order to the House of Commons. Now she’s decided it’s time to bring more order to her life by downsizing.
“For anyone who’s admired her down-to-earth demeaner, remarkable achievements and ability to rise to the top in the male-dominated world of British politics, here’s a unique chance to own a part of her life story.
“Baroness Boothroyd is a woman who’s truly excelled. She’s mixed with the great and the good including royalty and major political leaders like South Africa’s Nelson Mandela and former American president Bill Clinton.
“She’s also received an Order of Merit, a rare honour given at the Queen’s discretion. The Baroness puts her success down to being an only child who had to fight her own battles and just get on with it. That may be the case but her inner strength is extra special. She said lockdown hadn’t bothered her at all as she was used to isolation and had lived through so much.”
Baroness Boothroyd was born in Dewsbury, Yorkshire, in 1929, the only child of Ben Archibald Boothroyd and wife Mary, both textile workers. She was educated at council schools and went on to study at Dewsbury College of Commerce and Art. From 1946 to 1952, she worked as a dancer and performed at the London Palladium. However, a foot infection, brought an end to her dancing career, and she entered politics.
MP for West Bromwich
Running for the Labour Party, Baroness Boothroyd contested several seats before being elected MP for West Bromwich in 1973. In 1992 she was elected Speaker of the House of Commons, the first woman ever to hold the position in 700 years. She has received numerous awards and accolades but is most proud of her Order of Merit, an honour bestowed as a personal gift by the Queen.
It’s restricted to a maximum of 24 living recipients from Commonwealth realms, plus limited honorary admissions. The latter has included Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa. The first woman to receive an OM was Florence Nightingale in 1907. Current beneficiaries include Sir David Attenborough.