There’s so many aspects of being an MP that are really special. But every now and then I get to do something that sends me home at the end of a day smiling from ear to ear.
Unveiling a blue plaque for Margaret Bondfield was one of those days and I want to tell you why.
Way back when I was selected as a candidate a friend gave me a book on important figures of the Labour movement as a gift. One of the chapters was on Margaret Bondfield, someone I knew a little about but the more I learned the more astonishing she seemed.
Margaret was born in Somerset in 1873 and went on to become the first female general secretary of the TUC, the 7th female MP to enter parliament, the first female government minister, first female member of the privy council, and the first female cabinet minister. Wow! I won’t say more because you should go and read a book about her life and achievements, but you get the picture: she was formidable, brilliant, and powerful.
While I was reading about her life one sentence stunned me, ‘from the age of fourteen Margaret served an apprenticeship at a drapers shop in Church Road, Hove’. Crikey!
The next day I read this out to the team of volunteers before we went out campaigning, and being the amazing bunch of people they are one of them went along to the Keep, the archives for Sussex, and looked up the details of shops for every store along Church Road during the period of her apprenticeship. There was only one drapers. Bingo, we found it!
The whole team shot out of the office and we ran along Church Road to see what was there now. That’s how we came to be standing in front of the Nisa store, gawping through the door trying to picture what it must have been like a century ago when Margaret was working there.
Some people giggle at the thought of such history occurring in what is now a Nisa store but I think it’s perfect. We so often associate great people with great backgrounds, like Churchill coming from Blenheim Palace. But when you visit somewhere like that as a kid it hardly makes you feel relatable to your own life. But a convenience store? I think it’s brilliant. I love the thought of a young girl or woman going into the store, something that’s so familiar and ‘everyday’, and realising that within these four walls something truly remarkable came.
Because it was while working at the drapers that Margaret met the women who gave her political grounding and inspired her to become a Suffragist and raise her sights towards a career in politics.
Now that’s relatable!
I’ve been going to that store for years and I know the manager, Apu, very well. The second I told him about this history he joined us in the campaign to have this remarkable history celebrated and commemorated. We needed a blue plaque!
This was back in 2014, and was in fact the first interview I did for the BBC as a candidate. Ever since then I’ve been finding out how to get a plaque, getting the forms and paperwork done and working really closely with the local women’s history society and blue plaque society, all of whom have been just brilliant. And finally, it’s here!
Rachel Reeves is an MP from Leeds and chair of the select committee I sit on. To me, Rachel is the living embodiment of Margaret Bondfield’s legacy through her thoughtful, tenacious approach to politics and a relentless work ethic. She’s also published a book called The Women of Westminster which is an amazing read and includes a whole section on Margaret Bondfield. So I invited Rachel to come down to Hove to unveil the plaque.
It was such a lovely moment for everyone who was there. It’s not often it feel like you’ve truly made a mark, but I do with this, literally! If just one young women notices the plaque, realises the remarkable thing that happened in this everyday place and takes inspiration from it, then that would be worth all the effort a thousand times over!
I hope you notice it when passing. It brings a big smile to my face whenever I see it and I hope it does to yours too. If you have a young daughter or niece, please let me know her reaction when you show her the plaque when you’re passing, I’d love to know.