Papers of Jennie Lee, Baroness Lee of Asheridge

Reference and contact details: GB 2315 JL
Title: Papers of Jennie Lee, Baroness Lee of Asheridge
Dates of Creation: 1906-1995
Held at: Open University Library, Milton Keynes
Extent: 102 boxes
Name of Creator: Jennie Lee [some material added by Patricia Hollis]
Language of Material: English.
Level of Description: fonds

Administrative/Biographical History

Jennie (Janet) Lee was born in Lochgelly, Fife, on 3rd November 1904, to James Lee and Euphemia Grieg. Two years later, her younger brother Tommy was born. When Jennie was three, her parents reluctantly took over from Euphemia's late mother, the management of a hotel and theatre in Cowdenbeath, Fife. James Lee, never happy there, eventually returned to the pits as a miner and in 1912 the family moved to a house in Foulford Street. For a mining family, they had a comfortable lifestyle. Jennie was rarely expected to cook and clean and instead she became an avid reader.

Jennie became interested in politics at an early age. Her grandfather Michael Lee was deeply involved in local politics, establishing the Fifeshire Federation of the ILP (Independent Labour Party), later chaired by Jennie's father. The ILP became a large part of Lee family life, through which Jennie attended local meetings and met many political figures. She became deeply interested in the Socialist movement and attended the Socialist Sunday School.

Jennie was always a good pupil and she therefore took the only means open to her of continuing her studies, by attending Edinburgh University as a trainee teacher. Jennie began at Edinburgh in 1922 and remained there for five years, largely supported by bursaries. She read widely and soon became involved in University politics, joining the University Labour Club and experiencing public speaking for the first time. It was at University that she met her lifelong friend Suse (Eveline Robertson, later Saemann). In 1927, Jennie graduated with an M.A., a teacher's diploma and a law (LLB) degree. She reluctantly embarked on a career in teaching, whilst continuing her political activities.

By the time Jennie left University, the family had moved to 12 Paul Street just outside Cowdenbeath. Jennie's brother Tommy was no longer at home, having emigrated to Australia at the age of 18. Jennie began teaching at Glencraig school, but she found it unsatisfactory and became increasingly involved in the Scottish ILP circuit. Jennie had grown into a compelling speaker and was regularly invited to speak at meetings across Scotland. In 1927 she was appointed a delegate to the ILP national conference at Leicester, where she met her first lover, a Chinese journalist called T'ang Laing-Li. In 1929, she was nominated by the Labour Movement in Shotts as the ILP candidate for North Lanark and she stormed to victory. At 24, she was to be the youngest member of the House of Commons.

Jennie's maiden speech in the House of Commons caused a great deal of interest - instead of being shy and retiring, she spoke vehemently and attacked the government. Her youthful appearance and forthright views began to attract much attention. Her time as M.P. was to be short-lived however. In 1931 she was defeated in the Conservative landslide of the General Election and despite continued election campaigns in both North Lanark and Bristol, she would not return to the Commons until 1945. This was largely due to her committal to the increasingly isolated ILP, which forced her to renounce the official Labour Party during the Labour ILP split in 1932. It was not until she rejoined the official Labour Party in 1944 that she could hope to re-enter Parliament, a hope that was realised in 1945 when she was elected M.P. for Cannock, Staffordshire, a position she retained until 1970.

In the period between 1931-1945, Jennie kept busy writing articles for left-wing journals and newspapers and lecturing in America, Canada and Europe. She was also involved in the war effort, initially in the manufacture of barrage balloons as part of the Ministry of Aircraft Production under Lord Beaverbrook and then as the House of Commons representative for The Daily Mirror. She also worked for Tribune, a newspaper for the Labour left, co-founded by Aneurin Bevan, Stafford Cripps and G.R.Strauss: the As I Please column became Jennie's in 1945.

It was also during this period that Jennie's personal life developed. While in Parliament, Jennie met Frank Wise, Labour M.P. for Leicester, 20 years her elder and married. Their friendship grew into a passionate affair and although Frank considered divorce, both decided against it for fear of public opinion. In 1933 Frank died tragically of a brain haemorrage. Jennie was devastated, but found solace in Aneurin Bevan, another Labour M.P. and a close friend of Jennie.

Aneurin (Nye) Bevan (1897-1960) came from a similar background to Jennie. Brought up in Tredegar, Wales, he too was the son of a miner and like Jennie, he entered the House of Commons in 1929 as M.P. for Ebbw Vale. Nye and Jennie were always close and within a few weeks of Frank's death Nye moved in to Jennie's flat in Guilford Street. Although Jennie was very fond of Nye, she still loved Frank, but for fear of another public scandal and in need of companionship, she agreed to marry Nye in October 1934 at Holborn Register Office. Jennie never wanted children and Nye was of the view that it was her decision. Although perhaps a marriage of convenience at first, Jennie grew to love Nye deeply and their marriage proved a strong political partnership.

When Jennie and Nye were elected to Parliament in 1929, Jennie was by far the better known, but this was to change. While Jennie struggled to re-enter the House of Commons, Bevan's career flourished. He remained M.P. for Ebbw Vale from 1929-1960 and in 1945 he became Minister for Health and Housing in Clement Atlee's government, where he established the National Health Service. He was later appointed Minister for Labour in 1951, until he resigned months later over the introduction of NHS charges. Despite several altercations with the Labour Party, Bevan became deputy leader of the Party in 1959 and was considered one of their best speakers. His untimely death in 1960 cut short his political career, which may well have seen him as Prime Minister.

Throughout Bevan's career, Jennie took a back-seat in politics, instead supporting her husband in his work. She worked for her constituency of Cannock and, together with Nye, spent time on foreign affairs, travelling abroad and meeting international figures. The couple had a comfortable life. When first married, they lived at Lane End Cottage near Reading, joined by Jennie's parents four years later. In 1945 they moved to Clivedon Place in London, but wanting to get away from London life, eventually bought Asheridge Farm in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, where they spent the majority of their married life.

When Bevan died from cancer in 1960, Jennie was again devestated. Jennie's mother was already living with her at Asheridge Farm and on Nye's death Jennie's cousin Bettina Stafford also moved in, bringing her husband Bill and youngest son Vincent. Bettina and Bill took care of Jennie and Vincent became like a son to her, living not with his parents in the cottage but in the main house with Jennie. Jennie was able to dote on Vincent as she could no longer dote on her brother Tommy who, still living in Australia and married, had by now fallen prey to drink and drugs, proving a constant burden to the family. Jennie and the Staffords remained at Asheridge Farm until she moved to a flat in Chester Row, London, in 1969.

During this time, Jennie was able to resume her political career. She became a member of the National Executive Committee from 1958-1970 and was chairman from 1967-1968. More importantly, in 1964 Harold Wilson became Prime Minister and offered Jennie a job. Unable to think what to do with her, Wilson created a new position, Minister for the Arts. During her period as Minister, Jennie spent much time and energy establishing the Open University, which Harold Wilson later claimed was the greatest achievement of his Labour government. It was also to be Jennie's last great achievement.

In 1970, Harold Wilson was defeated by Edward Heath. Jennie not only lost her ministerial position, but also her seat at Cannock, defeated by Patrick McCormack, the Conservative candidate. Jennie was badly shaken by the result and began to retire from political life. She had one final honour to receive. In late 1970, she was created a Life Peer and took as her title Baroness Lee of Asheridge, after her farm. She continued to attend the House of Lords until the mid-1980s, but otherwise lived a fairly quiet existence. Much of her time was spent writing her book My Life With Nye, published in 1980 to critical acclaim. After suffering a rapid deterioration in health, Jennie Lee died on 16th November 1988, with Bettina and Vincent by her side. She was aged 84.

Scope and Content

The papers cover both the personal and political life of Jennie Lee, from her childhood until her death. The majority of the collection refers to her political career, including her time as an M.P., first for North Lanark and then for Cannock, and also her position as the first Minister for the Arts. A smaller proportion of the papers deal with her more personal lifestlye, including her various relationships with family and friends and also her marriage to Aneurin Bevan, as well as details of her early years, including her education and her teaching career. The collection also includes a large number of photographs, as well as a small number of Aneurin Bevan's own papers.

System of Arrangement

Patricia Hollis re-arranged some of the papers while they were in her custody, although some of the papers were maintained according to Jennie Lee's original order. Patricia Hollis also added some papers to the collection, largely photocopies of relevant material.

Since their arrival at the Open University, this organisation has been largely retained. Contents of folders have remained in their original order, although individual folders have been grouped according to subject. Papers that clearly belonged to Aneurin Bevan have been separated and given a section within the collection, while papers that relate to Aneurin Bevan but are not necessarily his own papers have been kept with the rest of the collection. Papers that were not easily defined as Aneurin Bevan's own, including photographs of Aneurin Bevan, have also been kept with the main body of the papers.

Custodial History

The papers remained with Jennie Lee throughout her lifetime. On her death they were loaned to Patricia Holllis of Norwich, who kept them from 1988-1998 whilst she wrote her biography of Jennie Lee. They were then transferred to the Open University.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

The papers were passed to the Open University Library by Patricia Hollis in September 1998, in accordance with Jennie Lee's bequest.

Appraisal, Destruction, Scheduling

The majority of the collection has been retained, although some small ephemeral items have been destroyed. Duplicate copies have been kept as a security copy, but are stored separately from the main collection.

Access Conditions

Permission to view the collection must be obtained from the Open University archivist.

Note on language

Mostly in English, with some European languages.

Finding Aids

Detailed finding aid available at the Open University Library:

Publication Note

Jennie Lee: A Life - Patricia Hollis, Oxford University Press (1997)