Thatcher and Somerville

Harry Challands (Treasurer-Elect, Somerville) is an undergraduate reading Law. He would  like to extend his greatest appreciation to Somerville College Library for their help with research and accessing materials.

When young Margaret Roberts first arrived in Oxford, she could not have foretold the classic love story that was to develop between her and one whose beauty she aptly referred to as 'unpretentious'. This relationship would go on to have all the signs of a romantic chick-flick. The initial fear and heart pounding of the introduction, the good times followed by the big test of the relationship (which of course both parties pulled through) ending on an endorphin inducing high.  I am of course not talking of the love she had for her lifelong partner and lover Dennis Thatcher. I am talking of a love far more important in shaping both the fundamentals of her character and her life: the love between Margaret Thatcher and her college.

Margaret Thatcher first arrived at Somerville College to sit her entrance examination in Chemistry and found it a nerve-racking experience. The relationship began when Thatcher was accepted into the women’s only college. She would later write of “how much [she] owed to four years at Somerville” in an open letter expressing her gratitude to Somerville College.

As in most great relationships, Somerville is noticeably different today compared to when she met Margaret. Apart from the obvious lack of men in Somerville, the college was drastically altered by the on-going war when Margaret arrived on the scene in 1943. Thatcher was treated to three meals a day in return for ration tokens while a large water tank was kept inside the college in case it was bombed. Despite these differences, Margaret never lost her love for Somerville College.

Without a shadow of a doubt one of the biggest match makers in this love affair was the great scientist Dorothy Hodgkin who, as well as being a Nobel Prize winning chemist and an extraordinary scientist, can boast of being Margaret Thatcher’s tutor at Somerville. Margaret never made any attempt to hide her huge respect and admiration for Hodgkin whom she described as 'a brilliant scientist'. It is even said that Margaret claimed she would get more nervous when meeting up with Dorothy Hodgkin than she ever would at the despatch box; such was the desire to impress, even years after she graduated.

A love of politics ran deep in Margaret Thatcher’s time at Somerville but it never seemed to trump her love of Somerville. This can clearly be seen by looking at the admiration and respect she gave to fellow Somervillian Shirley Williams, despite the fact that she sat on the opposite side of the Commons. This love of college was reciprocated in the form of the Madeleine Shaw-Lefevre academic scholarship which allowed her to pursue her love of chemistry without the pressure of worrying about her finances. 

As all of those who have seen Love Actually know, no great relationship can exist without a single moment of melodramatic tension which could risk the future happiness of all those involved, and this great love story does not disappoint here. This drama came in the form of a motion to grant the Oxonian Prime Minister an honorary D.C.L in 1985, just 15 years after she became an honorary fellow of Somerville College along with her fellow politico Shirley Williams. This motion received crucial support from the then principal of Somerville College Daphne Park. Despite Park’s support of the motion, it was unsuccessful and there was potential for an early end to this love story. Despite what can only be viewed as the most turbulent time in this relationship, Margaret showed how deep rooted her love of Somerville was by putting aside her pride and declaring that “if the university does not wish to confer an honorary degree, then I should be the last person to wish to receive it”.

However this relationship has at last had an appropriately happy ending and this happiness has been embodied by the fundraising done in Margaret’s name to fund and open the Margaret Thatcher Conference Centre in Somerville and the new Margaret Thatcher scholarship which the college launched this term. Despite the fact that it has been some time since Margaret roamed the halls of Penrose, where she once spent a year of her undergraduate life as a fresher, the love between Margaret Thatcher and Somerville has never wavered or diminished.