Monday, 12 January 2009

What a load of cobblers: Margaret Thatcher's ancestry

Margaret Thatcher is commonly associated with the genteel town of Grantham in Lincolnshire, an association which goes hand-in-hand with her label 'the grocer's daughter'. What is not so widely known is her family's historical association with another small town in the county of Northamptonshire.

Born in Grantham on the 13th October 1925, Margaret Hilda Roberts was the younger daughter of Alfred Roberts and Beatrice Stephenson. Beatrice was descended from a line of Lincolnshire rural fen dwellers, known as 'Fen Tigers'. Alfred was originally from Ringstead in Northamptonshire. Comprehensive research on the Roberts family has already been carried out by others, and I find the details intriguing.

It would appear that the first Northamptonshire Roberts of Margaret's lineage was one William Roberts, a cattle drover from Wales, who set up home in the village of Ringstead, Northants in approx. 1789. Ringstead was a largely agricultural community, with a tradition of lacemaking. From the early 1800's, the econonomy of the region switched to production of boots, and specificallt army boots. For William Roberts sons this meant ready employment in the factories centred on the small town of Raunds, some two miles from their village. Between 1791 and 1905 the Roberts clan expanded in number, until the extended family accounted for a significant part of the village population. Virtually every one of the Roberts family was employed in the boot industry, until the town of Raunds was hit by serious industrial action in the early 1900's.

In 1902 the Boer War finally came to an end. This was good news for many, but a serious threat to the army boot industry in Raunds. The factories waged an under-cutting war on each other to win military contracts, which resulted in starvation wages for the boot and shoe workers. By early spring of 1905 things had come to a head, and nearly 600 Raunds workers were on strike for their livelihoods. Violent clashes ensued with the smaller group of strike breakers. One of the leading 'black-legs' was George Henry Roberts, a direct relation of Margaret Thatcher.

George Henry Roberts was obviously a man of principle. He personally endured horrendous threats and physical assault, as did his wife Mary and their young children. At one point the family's home was attacked and windows smashed. What is clear however is the fact that George Henry stood alone amongst the Roberts in his stance on the strike. His own brother William opposed him, and on the event of the Raunds & Ringstead March to Parliment in May 1905 George was one of the only Roberts workers not in attendance or support.

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