Jean Campbell-Harris, the daughter of Arthur Campbell-Harris and his American wife Doris Robson, was born on 23rd October 1922. Major Campbell-Harris was an officer in the Bengal Lancers, who became aide-de-camp to the Viceroy of India. Her mother was an American heiress. Her father owned the Indestructible Paint Company. (1)
Campbell-Harris did not have a happy childhood: "It was awkward. I was the only girl, but not very pretty, and my two younger brothers were adored by my mother. I was daddy's girl, but he wasn't there much. My first nanny was heavenly, but after that, they were just girls and they were horrid to me and nice to the boys.... Nobody loved you! There was absolutely no affection, and this inhibited me for a very long time: how to express affection and how not to overdo it." (2)
The Wall Street Crash meant they had to leave the family home in London and moved to a large house in Sandwich. (3) "The young Jean was now living in a house with no heating or electricity, but there was a still a boy whose job it was to clean the gas lamps, and while her frocks were secondhand, they still came from places like Chanel and Lelong." (4)
Jean Campbell-Harris was not very academic and disliked boarding school. She claims that she was bullied for being built like a galleon? "Oh I never liked it. I hated it, but I was always big. I wanted to be small. At school it was torture. I remember having to do some awful play and I had the role of the prince - in tights, which I didn’t have the figure for - and lead this wretched bride up to the altar. My parents were in the back row and laughed the whole way through. I must have looked too ghastly for words." (5) She went to finishing school in Europe where she learnt French and German.
On the outbreak of the Second World War she went to work as a land girl on a farm owned by David Lloyd George. She lived with Lloyd George's long-term and vastly younger mistress, Frances Stevenson, in her bungalow. "Miss Stevenson was awfully nice: very cosy, I thought. She didn't look like anything of course. She looked like a governess. But she had jolly good taste and she was kind to me. But the secretaries didn't like me being there, and that's when I bit one. She said something rude, and I picked up her arm and I bit it! Oh, what a thing to do! She screamed, and then I had to walk back down to the bungalow on my own in the dark feeling frightened." Jean described Lloyd George as an "old goat" and used to make her stand against a wall while he measured her with a tape. "I suppose that was the nearest to flesh he could get with Miss Stevenson's beady eye on him. But then, there have been so many highly sexed prime ministers." (6)
In 1940, her father, who was now the managing director of the Indestructible Paint Company, arranged for her to be interviewed by the Foreign Office. When it was discovered that she could speak French and German she was sent to the the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) at Bletchley Park. (7) "Life only really began when I went to Bletchley. That's when I made my real friends, and it was exciting being a part of something important... The best part was hitchhiking up to London for a night out... We used to meet up in Claridge's, and throw bread at each other and sing and behave so badly. Five shillings was the most you could spend during the war, so it was as affordable as anywhere." (8)
Bletchley Park was selected because it was more or less equidistant from Oxford University and Cambridge University and the Foreign Office believed that university staff made the best cryptographers. The house itself was a large Victorian Tudor-Gothic mansion, whose ample grounds sloped down to the railway station. Lodgings had to be found for the cryptographers in the town. Some of the key figures in the organization, including its leader, Alfred Dilwyn Knox, always slept in the office. (9)
Lodgings had to be found for the staff in the town. Jean Campbell-Harris disliked the house that she was assigned: "My billet was with a chap who worked on the railways and I noticed when his wife showed me around, that there was no lock on the bedroom door. She said, 'Oh you don't have to worry about that - when you're in the bath, my husband will be working on the railway lines.' Well, I found differently on the very first night. So I changed my billet." (10)
Two of her friends were Sarah Baring and Osla Benning. Baring later recalled: “One afternoon, we decided to give Jean Campbell-Harris, who later became Baroness Trumpington, a ride in a large laundry basket on wheels that was normally used to move secret files. We launched it down the long corridor where it gathered momentum by the second. To our horror, Jean suddenly disappeared, basket and all, through some double swing doors, crashing to a halt in the men’s lavatories. A serious reprimand was administered and our watches were changed so we were distributed among a more sober group.” (11)
After the war she married Alan Barker, a schoolmaster at Eton College. He later became headmaster of Leys School in Cambridge and, later, University College School in London. Their son Adam was born the following year. (12) A member of the Conservative Party she was a local councillor and was made mayor of Cambridge in 1971. "I decided not to make him (Alan Barker) mayoress, I thought that might make things worse." Her husband suffered a stroke in 1982 and died three years later. (12)
Jean Barker attempts to become a MP ended in failure and on 4th February 1980, Margaret Thatcher created her a life peer. She selected the title of Baroness Trumpington, of Sandwich. She was a Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department of Health and Social Security from 1985 to 1987, during which time she was an active smoker, then from 1987 to 1989 Parliamentary Secretary and from 1989 to 1992 Minister of State at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. (13)
Sarah Norton (Baring) worked on the Naval Section index, helping to provide details of the U-boats to Hut 8, run at that time by Alan Turing, of whom she once said: “(He) was immensely shy, especially of girls... I once offered him a cup of tea, (and) he shrank back as if I’d got measles or something. He was wonderful. We were all very proud of him.”The work was gruelling, and Sarah Norton and her colleagues took their pleasures where they could: “One afternoon, we decided to give Jean Campbell-Harris, who later became Baroness Trumpington, a ride in a large laundry basket on wheels that was normally used to move secret files. We launched it down the long corridor where it gathered momentum by the second. To our horror, Jean suddenly disappeared, basket and all, through some double swing doors, crashing to a halt in the men’s lavatories. A serious reprimand was administered and our watches were changed so we were distributed among a more sober group.”
Then there is the black-and-white image of her inspecting raspberry canes with Lloyd George, when she was a land girl on his Sussex farm in 1940. "I hated being a land girl," she says. "There were only old men there. The young ones had joined up. And it was all apples. No animals, which I love. I lived in Miss Stevenson's bungalow (Lloyd George's mistress and later wife). I liked her very much."
The land girl episode was mercifully brief, releasing Baroness Trumpington - or Jean Campbell-Harris, as she was then - for more exciting duties at the cipher intelligence centre at Bletchley Park. She is free now to talk about how she helped to crack the German U-boat code, but decades of imposed silence have calcified into habit. “You can - but you can’t,” she says. “None of us can because we have kept quiet for so long. The shifts were the worst thing: nine to six, four to midnight, midnight to nine. You could never get a sleep pattern. I was tired all the time.”
That didn’t stop her hitch-hiking to London on 48-hour leaves and dancing all night.
Just as it seems as if the subject of Bletchley has run out of steam, she remembers a “very unsuitable” incident from those days. She and her small group specialising in the analysis of German naval signals were punished for singing the Horst-Wessel-Lied, the Nazi Party’s anthem. “You had nothing to do but work so you got up to mischief,” she explains. “I know the whole thing.”
Recently, though, ill-health has affected the former junior agriculture minister. But when I ask her if we can reveal details of her illness she says: ‘Oh absolutely not, that would be ghastly! I do hate it when people overshare.’
But this week she has been back on telly in a Channel 4 Cutting Edge documentary, Fabulous Fashionistas, about older women and fashion.
There is this idea that women of my age should just fade away,’ she muses. ‘And I say “bugger that!”.’
She admits to being ‘absolutely addicted’ to catalogue shopping.
She has lost a serious amount of weight recently - we are talking stones - and while she curses that it’s "not exactly a cause of celebration to be unable to eat", she is delighted to be almost svelte for the first time in her life.
She is nearly 6ft tall ("or I was, until I started shrinking") and at her heaviest was a size 24.
Wasn’t she happy being built like a galleon? "Oh I never liked it. I hated it, but I was always big. I wanted to be small.
At school it was torture. I remember having to do some awful play and I had the role of the prince — in tights, which I didn’t have the figure for - and lead this wretched bride up to the altar.
"My parents were in the back row and laughed the whole way through. I must have looked too ghastly for words."...
During the war, she worked as a Land Girl on former prime minister Lloyd George’s estate, and became quite close to his then mistress, Frances Stevenson.
She tells me about his reputation with the ladies. "He used to like to measure me. He’d stand me up against the wall and would measure me, with a tape measure."
Measure you how? Height? "No! Everywhere!’ she says gesturing up and down her body. It was never explained why, but he was my boss and the grandfather of all my buddies, so I’d never dare ask. Anyway it was a long time ago."
I'm here to talk to the baroness about her new memoir, Coming Up Trumps. However, this may be tricky. "I don't understand all this excitement," she says. "I didn't write the damn book, and I haven't read it either." Well, I tell her, she should read it. Her ghost writer has done her proud. It's heaven, and everyone who opens it will fall in love with her. "Are you sure?" she asks. "Really? Good lord. I'm so glad. But what do you think they'll make of it in the House of Lords? Will they be deeply shocked?" No. They'll adore it, too. "Oh, my God!" she says. She smiles broadly, revealing the gap between her two front teeth. Believe me when I tell you that Trumpers, whose face is quite intimidating in repose, has one of the best and most gratifying smiles I've ever encountered. The approbation of her fellow peers means a lot to Trumpers, for she believes that it's the House of Lords, which she still attends every day when it's sitting, that has kept her going all these years. She was made a peer in 1980, taking the title Baroness Trumpington of Sandwich (she was a Conservative counsellor for Trumpington in Cambridge, and once owned a beloved house in Sandwich, Kent), and thereafter enjoyed a late-life political career courtesy of Margaret Thatcher (joining the Department of Agriculture in 1989, she became the oldest ever female minister, an experience that made her feel like the female equivalent of Lester Piggott). "Well, she had to have somebody to tell her what was what," she says. "Willie Whitelaw was a great friend of friends of mine, and they pushed him and he pushed her [to give her a job]… Oh, he was frightfully nice to me. One of the things I cherish is being brought breakfast in bed in the Lake District by the deputy prime minister and two cocker spaniels."
But Thatcher famously didn't care for other women. How ever did she dare contradict her? "Listen! The answer is that I thought: if I'm not true to myself, I might as well not exist. Therefore, I'll say what I think and if that's wrong, she can sack me. We fought each other verbally and I would stick to my guns and she would provoke me on purpose, and that was useful to her. It meant she was ready for other opponents."
She attended cabinet only once, when her boss was stuck somewhere after the 1987 hurricane. "I only had to say one thing, which was: 'We would like to employ Professor X and the Department of Agriculture agrees.' So I said it three times, after which ridiculousness there was silence." When the meeting was over, Thatcher patted her on the shoulder and said: "We'll see your professor gets the job, dear." How did Trumpers feel about that? "I thought it was very odd to treat someone who is 6ft high like a child. But I didn't care. I felt so lucky." She liked Thatcher. She knew how to manage her, even if she did almost faint when, much later, the former PM once kissed her goodbye. "But I found it very hard to deal with Edwina Currie. What a bitch! She's so pleased with herself. I thought she was dreadful. The eggs! I was always having to pick up her pieces." Seeing the shock – or do I mean delight? – on my face, she loudly and merrily repeats the b-word, after which we both fall quite silent. For a moment, all that can be heard is the faint hum of the drill in the street outside.
As she explains in her book, Trumpington did not have a happy childhood, though she never told anyone this at time: people just didn't, then. "It was awkward," she says. "I was the only girl, but not very pretty, and my two younger brothers were adored by my mother. I was daddy's girl, but he wasn't there much. My first nanny was heavenly, but after that, they were just girls and they were horrid to me and nice to the boys." She clasps a hand to her chest. "Nobody loved you! There was absolutely no affection, and this inhibited me for a very long time: how to express affection and how not to overdo it. Well… I've always overdone it. It's in my nature. I've only got one child (a son, Adam) and you've got to be loving when you've only got one."
Brought up in London in considerable privilege, her parents moved in a fashionable set which included the then Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, and his paramour Wallis Simpson.
But her parents lost everything when her mother's fortune was wiped out in the 1929 Wall Street Crash. They "downsized" in modern parlance, and moved to Kent. Her mother became a successful interior designer, working with society friends.
On leaving the army her father had earlier joined his father-in-law's firm, the Indestructible Paint Co., and worked his way from office boy to director.
Even so, as she says in her newly-published memoirs, Coming Up Trumps, it was not a life of penury: "We used to say my mother's idea of being poor was going to the Ritz on the bus."
Her parents, though, were distant, and the young Jean soon developed the strong independent streak which has characterised her life.
Though she hated her boarding school, the young Jean was good at French, and this was boosted when she was sent to a French finishing school aged 15.
As a land girl during World War II, she worked on the farm of the former prime minister David Lloyd George in Surrey. The famously priapic politician - she calls him a "old goat" - once stood her up against a wall and tried to take all her measurements, but got no further.
And her facility with languages- she was also fluent in German - took the 18-year-old Jean Campbell-Harris to the heart of the secret war, working as a cypher clerk at Bletchley Park, transcribing messages from German submarines for the codebreakers, who were stationed in another part of the park and with whom they never mixed.
Though she recalls the work as "deeply tedious" and tiring, there were compensations. She stayed rent-free in a billet and had a best friend of the same dress size, thus doubling her wardrobe. She spent weekends with her friend, the newspaper proprietor and government minister Lord Beaverbrook and partied at legendary West End watering-holes like the 400, the Embassy and the Bagatelle.
But there were dangers. After the Queen Charlotte Ball in March 1941, she and a friend travelled to the famous Cafe de Paris nightclub in London's West End, arriving just 30 minutes after it was hit by two Luftwaffe bombs which killed 34 people and injured around 80.
After the war she spent time in France. But America, her mother's homeland, beckoned.
"I had an absolute longing to go there," she explains. "In the end I went with four pounds in my pocket. I had a job but I didn't realise it would take two weeks before I was paid. So I was very much thinner by the time the two weeks were ended and full of potato crisps.
"If I hadn't got married I think I'd have stayed there. I love the life. There was always something new to see and experience. Wonderful. And you were taken at your face value."
She found work as secretary to the chief executive of a Manhattan advertising firm. The pay was poor and the job boring but, thanks to well-heeled friends, she partied at the Stork Club, knew Walter Annenberg, later to become US ambassador to Britain, and tap-danced on a table at a shindig in Philadelphia.
While in America she met and fell in love with a fellow Briton, the historian and schoolmaster Alan Barker. They returned to Britain and married in 1954, prior to him becoming headmaster of The Leys School in Cambridge. Their son Adam was born the following year.
After being elected as a Cambridge councillor in the early 1960s, she served as the city's mayor in 1971-72.
Lady Trumpington's affection for the House of Lords, which she joined after being ennobled in 1980 in Margaret Thatcher's first honours list, runs deep.
"It means a huge amount to me. It's really given me a reason for living. To suddenly find yourself in such an enormous arena is wonderful."
And she dismisses as "absolute rubbish" the argument to get rid of the upper house.
"Of the whole, if you look across the benches, people have justified themselves being in the Lords. They've done something."
"In a way, I was lucky, because I was mayor of Cambridge before I went to the Lords. When I first got there I thought 'my goodness, it's just like being in the town hall in Cambridge but much bigger and much grander.'"
Her relations with Mrs Thatcher were warm but she says that she got on with the prime minister because she wasn't afraid to stand up to her.
"We got on terribly well. She was very good to me. I owe her everything. I went on the basis that I would be true to myself, say exactly what I felt, and if I got the sack, so what? But the point was to remain absolutely honest.