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Cambridge: the best university in the world


Heavy morals stopped us being rich
Katharine Whitehorn Writer
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My mother was totally Scottish, and my father was half Scottish. Non-conformist, professional left wing, all of it, which when I came to marry Gavin Lyall was rather lucky because so was his... exactly the same.

My father had been... he was a school master at Mill Hill as I said. He’d been a conscientious objector in the First World War, and it’s quite interesting. In the mid-‘30s when... I can’t remember the year, but the Oxford Union voted that this house wouldn’t vote for king and country, well what was he to do in a school which had a flourishing OTC and was a bit…? This was Mill Hill. And what he did, I only learned about... somebody mentioned it at his memorial service. He went round the class, this was sixth form, not little boys, and asked each of them what they thought. And then he made them all go away and write an essay from the opposite point of view. And that’s the kind of teacher he was.

And my mother’s family was very Presbyterian ministry. Indeed, so was my father’s brother was a minister too. And my grandfather, my mother’s father, was a Presbyterian minister who’d served as a padre in the First World War, been absolutely horrified by it all, was one of the people who was involved starting the Peace Pledge Union, and he was the moving spirit of the person who started the Marriage Guidance Council. Because he’d written a book called Men, Women and God, and got an awful lot of people writing to him, and he realised that there wasn’t anywhere, this was the ‘20s, where you could refer them.

And so he and several others started the Marriage Guidance Council, and that... they were all, I think, involved in professional charitable do-gooding things. Didn’t really, on my mother’s side at all, particularly involve with anything... well, nothing that made a lot of money anyway. Much money, any money. But my father’s father had been a jeweller, and that was a bit better. But again, heavy morals had stopped us being rich, because he ran Collingwoods [?], and when he turned it over to his successor, successor actually vamoosed with the money, and my grandfather went back into the firm, put his own money in, and paid off all the creditors practically entirely.

[Q] So have you had a sense of, kind of, right thinking all your life then, do you think?

Oh well, everybody gets cross at what they perceive to be bad, don’t they? It’s just a question of what do you think is bad. You know? I suppose that sort of background gives you a view that money isn’t everything and I hope to goodness one’s kept that.

A distinguished journalist and renowned author, Katharine Whitehorn (1928-2021) has written for The Spectator and Picture Post. She was the first woman to have her own column in the Observer and was their star columnist for the best part of 40 years. Educated at Newnham College, Cambridge, is recognised as someone who has transformed 20th century women's journalism. She took a keen interest in social welfare issues, was a Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine and was the first woman rector of the University of St Andrews.

Listeners: Bob Bee

Bob Bee is a Scottish documentary maker who has made many films on the Arts and Science for ITV, BBC and Channel Four.

Tags: Mill Hill School, Peace Pledge Union, National Marriage Guidance Council, Men, women and God: a discussion of sex questions, Officers’ Training Corps, OTC, conscientious objector, Presbyterian, Scottish, Gavin Tudor Lyall, Arthur Herbert Gray

Duration: 3 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: September 2010

Date story went live: 16 February 2011