Joan (Mimi) Frances Dickinson, the younger daughter and second of three children of Willoughby Hyett Dickinson, barrister and Liberal MP, and his wife, Minnie Elizabeth Gordon Cumming, daughter of General Richard John Meade, was born on on 29th May 1894. She was educated at Kensington High School. (1)
Mimi was sent to Germany in 1912 to convalesce after a serious illness. After this experience she spoke German fluently, and shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, was asked to assist the Red Cross in translating lists of prisoners of war. She served in the wounded and missing department and for her work was subsequently awarded the OBE. (2)
Mimi became a friend of one of the daughters of Stanley Baldwin and in April 1918 he introduced her to John C. Davidson. He later recalled: "I was very shy and reluctant to take part in it at all and I thought it was terrible to be wasting time. When I reached the drawing room, I looked around and saw standing on the stairs a girl talking to SB (Stanley Baldwin). I went up to them and he introduced me. And I said to myself then and there, this is the girl I am going to marry. I asked her for a dance and she accepted.... I was invited to stay at Astley with the Baldwins and Mimi was there. I proposed to her and she turned me down. In fact, she turned me down pretty regularly until at long last, on New Year's Eve, 1918... We went back to Portland Place where my parents lived and then to Egerton Gardens where her parents were living and announced our engagement." (3)
At first Elizabeth Dickinson had doubts about Mimi's choice of a husband. Baldwin decided to write her a letter: Mimi has chosen a partner of the right age. She might have married a man of fifty or a boy of twenty. You are spared that. They start equal: with the outlook of the same generation, with the prospect of passing their youth together, of entering middle life and old age together. Then - and for this a father and mother should thank God daily - you are giving your child to a man with a mind as clean as the north wind, whose whole life's attitude towards women makes him worthy of the trust you are placing in him... There is no need of anxiety, believe me. I know them both and love them both, and I believe that in a few years you will look back and bless this day, and, who knows, you may even have a kind word for the man who first brought them together!" (4)
The couple married on 9th April 1919. That day her father wrote in his diary: "The wedding has taken place and Mimi has left us for good. Everything was very happy. St Margaret's Church was lovely and well filled by a sea of familiar faces... Darling Mimi was perfect. Sweet and natural as ever; speaking out plainly what she meant and her absolute trust in John. I hope he is worthy of it. I think he is, but cannot yet say. I do not know him yet... The whole thing starts well. Pray God it will ever continue so." (5)
Baldwin wrote to Davidson about his marriage to Mimi: "God bless you both now and always as you step into the new life together. When I say you are worthy of her, you know what that means (from me) and she knows now and will learn more and more what you will mean to her... Never has a man had such a friend as you have been to me. You can't tell yourself, nor can any other: but I know it and I shall never forget it. I could have fought through alone but I should have been a soured embittered devil." (6)
Davidson later recalled: "Mimi gave him (Baldwin) much affection, understanding and companionship, and he depended upon me for advice of an entirely different kind. I often used to tell her the things that he ought to be doing and wasn't inclined to do, and she would tell him. She has always been like that, and SB (Baldwin) adored her because of it. It was an extraordinary friendship for us both... Usually he could only take a short break at dinner-time from the House of Commons, when he would slip across to our house." (7)
It was a close and happy marriage and resulted in two sons and two daughters (Margaret, Jean, Andrew and Malcolm). Baldwin remained a close friend and he wrote on average three times a week for twenty-five years to her. The two couples spent a lot of time together. Baldwin's wife, Lucy Baldwin, did not share her husband's "intellectual or aesthetic tastes, and did not accompany him on the long walks which were a staple part of his recreation in Worcestershire or at Aix... and she allowed others, notably Mrs Davidson to take the walks." (8)
The Davidsons and Baldwins used to go on holiday together in Aix-les-Bains. John C. Davidson later wrote: "The Baldwins were regular visitors to Aix-les-Bains, and Mimi and I often joined them there. We used to walk with him while Mrs Baldwin took the baths... It is not easy to describe adequately the splendor of the scenery of Aix-les-Bains. The outline in the morning or the evening of Le Col du Chat and the stiff but marvellous walk along the escarpment are both never-to-be-forgotten memories... It gave such relaxation to SB (Baldwin), and constituted an essential contrast with the heat and burden of politics at home." (9)
John C. Davidson entered the House of Commons as MP for Hemel Hempstead in November 1920. Davidson, who was a close friend of Andrew Bonar Law, became his parliamentary private secretary (PPS). When Law retired on health grounds in March 1921, Davidson became parliamentary private secretary to Stanley Baldwin. "Davidson shared with Baldwin and a range of junior ministers an increasingly negative view of the Lloyd George coalition. The revolt against this was a movement at many levels within the Conservative Party involving constituency pressure, back-bench MPs, junior ministers, and restive peers." (10)
The Davidsons started their married life at 10 Barton Street in Westminster. Their first daughter was born in the house. In 1922 the Davidsons moved to 3 Barton Street where their second daughter Jean and the elder son Andrew was born. (11) Barton Street was a short walking distance from the Houses of Commons, and a division bell was installed. It was also almost within the precincts of Westminster Abbey, where she attended services every Sunday. (12)
Stanley Baldwin became prime minister on 22nd May, 1923. Baldwin appointed Davidson a Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster: "Baldwin spent much time in the Davidsons' company; Mimi was a frequent companion in his favourite relaxation of long country walks, and they regularly holidayed with the Baldwins as well. Davidson shared his leader's political aims and moral vision, while being willing to devil on the detail and take care of confidential matters. In Baldwin's first ministry he became chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster; this was outside the cabinet, but an ideal position from which to advise and assist." (13)
In the 1923 General Election Davidson lost his Hemel Hempstead seat by 17 votes. Later, Joan Davidson, explained the defeat: "Our seat was looked on as absolutely safe. We had won our previous election with a satisfactory majority and little difficulty. On this occasion, at the last moment a Mr Le Quesne stood as Liberal candidate... One of the worst fogs of the year occurred on the day of the poll and for some unknown reason the polls closed at 8 p.m. instead of at 9. We drove ourselves back to Hemel Hempstead to experience two recounts and a defeat by seventeen votes to an unknown Liberal. We subsequently discovered that bout 3,000 of our supporters... had been stranded in their trains in the fog, arriving at their destinations too late to vote!" (14)
Mimi Davidson remained close to Stanley Baldwin. He wrote in December, 1923: "This is a time for hanging out signals to our friends. How can I tell you what you have been to me for yet another year? Life has nothing more precious than your friendship and I bless you for it every day. You will never how you help me and what have I done that I should have that amazing friendship that you and David give me, I know not. But I am grateful for it. And this is true, that the love that binds us three together makes it easier to generate that wider love that alone makes it possible to carry on in public life." (15)
However, in the 1924 General Election, the Conservative Party swept home to a conclusive victory. Davidson easily won his Hemel Hempstead seat. Their popular vote was up by nearly 2.5 million, from just over 5.5 million to 8 million. "They too had a larger number of opposed candidates in the field, but even so their average percentage rose from 42.6 to 51.9 (in 1922 it had been 48.6). In terms of seats they had an overwhelming majority over the other two parties combined, 419 out of a total of 615." (16)
In November 1926 Baldwin appointed Davidson as chairman of the Conservative Party organization. "Davidson's period as party chairman was the most important and visible phase of his career. Although there were difficulties, his tenure is considered to have been one of the most significant in the development of the Conservative electoral machine in the twentieth century - a period in which it had been an important factor in the party's success.... He made a significant contribution in three main areas: rationalizing the basic structure, developing new areas, and expanding the scale of operations." (17)
Davidson and Stanley Baldwin wanted to change the image of the Conservative Party in order to make it appear a less right-wing organisation. In March 1927 Baldwin suggested to his Cabinet that the government should propose legislation for the enfranchisement of nearly five million women between the ages of twenty-one and thirty. This measure meant that women would constitute almost 53% of the British electorate. The Daily Mail complained that these impressionable young females would be easily manipulated by the Labour Party. (18)
Winston Churchill was totally opposed to the move and argued that the affairs of the country ought not be put into the hands of a female majority. In order to avoid giving the vote to all adults he proposed that the vote be taken away from all men between twenty-one and thirty. He lost the argument and in Cabinet and asked for a formal note of dissent to be entered in the minutes. There was little opposition in Parliament to the bill and it became law on 2nd July 1928. As a result, all women over the age of 21 could now vote in elections. (19)
Davidson was determined to concentrate his future political campaigns to gain the support of women voters. He employed Marjorie Maxse, as Deputy Chief Agent, to make it quite clear to the Party that the women were to play a "very important part in the development of Conservatism in the country". (20) It has been pointed out by Neal R. McCrillis, the author of The British Conservative Party in the Age of Universal Suffrage (1998), that she told party agents "to teach women to be voters and Conservative voters, not to create a feminist movement within the Conservative party". (21)
In the 1929 General Election the Conservatives won 8,656,000 votes (38%), the Labour Party 8,309,000 (37%) and the Liberals 5,309,000 (23%). However, the bias of the system worked in Labour's favour, and in the House of Commons the party won 287 seats, the Conservatives 261 and the Liberals 59. The Conservatives lost 150 seats and became for the first time a smaller parliamentary party than Labour. David Lloyd George, the leader of the Liberals, admitted that his campaign had been unsuccessful but claimed he held the balance of power: "It would be silly to pretend that we have realised our expectations. It looks for the moment as if we still hold the balance." However, both Baldwin and MacDonald refused to form a coalition government with Lloyd George. Baldwin resigned and once again MacDonald agreed to form a minority government. (22)
John C. Davidson was attacked by some members for his role in the general election campaign. "I have often been heavily criticized for concentrating the attack of the campaign on the Liberals rather than on the Socialists. There is a certain amount of justification in this criticism, but the reason we attacked the Liberals heavily was because they had a far greater nuisance value than they really deserved. They had no policy, they had - so far as one could tell - no political principles differing from ours, and yet they were determined to split the vote in order to get Labour in." (23)
Davidson told Samuel Hoare that being chairman of the Conservative Party was a "thankless task" and "a blind alley" (24) Neville Chamberlain led the attacks on Davidson and criticised the uninspiring campaign themes of "Safety first" and "Trust Baldwin". Davidson had alienated a range of figures, including the two main press barons, Lord Rothermere and Lord Beaverbrook. Rothermere that Baldwin did badly in the election because he was too left-wing and probably a "crypto-socialist". Chamberlain told Davidson bluntly in April that he had to go; after further delay, Chamberlain pressed again and Davidson resigned on 29th May, 1930. (25)
Marjorie Maxse wrote to Joan Davidson about her husband's resignation: "I have felt so boiling with rage and resentment about the Chairman's resignation that I have not known what to write to you and have wanted to very much. I will leave that on one side though and merely tell you what you know already and that is how terribly sorry I am and how much we all feel it. The office is furious and ready to go out and slay all his persecutors. It is all so unjust. He is one of the best Chairmen we have ever hard, and they will all realize it when it is too late. We shall never get anyone like him again. I can't tell you what he has done for the office. It has never been so happy, so loyal, or had such co-operation." (26)
Caroline Bridgeman also wrote to give Davidson her support: "You must not be downhearted. The value of good work is not measured by the applause it elicits nor impaired by disloyal criticism. David has done more good things at the Central Office than anyone I can remember in 40 years! I never wanted him to take it and knew it would be a thankless task, but I never realized how utterly beastly some people could be and I do not now understand how this disaffection was promoted... So cheer up, my dear, and remember that an unmolested career of success is bad for anyone - and to have been popular with everyone would have been proof that David was doing his work badly." (27)
In August 1931, Ramsay MacDonald formed a National Government. It contained only other members of the Labour Party: Philip Snowden (Chancellor of the Exchequer), Jimmy Thomas (Colonial Secretary) and John Sankey (Lord Chancellor). The Conservatives had four places and the Liberals two: Stanley Baldwin (Lord President), Neville Chamberlain (Minister of Health), Samuel Hoare (Secretary for India), Herbert Samuel (Home Secretary), Lord Reading (Foreign Secretary) and Philip Cunliffe-Lister (President of the Board of Trade). (28)
John C. Davidson served outside the cabinet as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. Davidson felt sorry for MacDonald: "I have great sympathy with the PM's position; he has no organization and he has a lot of people who are pin-pricking him and are expecting rewards for their loyalty to him in a field which he cannot touch. No election can be won without an organization and it is therefore useless to run his friends at by-elections in the face of a hostile Conservative or Liberal or both organizations. He feels completely impotent and is inclined to blame us because we have a very efficient, very democratic and unhappily for him almost completely universal Party machine." (29)
John C. Davidson was knighted in 1935. Stanley Baldwin resigned in May 1937, and as he had never got on well with the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, he decided to leave active politics. He was given the title, Viscount Davidson of Little Gaddesden and his wife, Joan Davidson, stood and won his former seat at Hemel Hempstead. He spent his time on his business concerns, and especially the family's Argentine estates, after leaving the House of Commons. (30)
Stanley Baldwin continued to write to Joan Davidson. When he was 72 years old he told her that he was finding life difficult. "I am very lame and hobble about and find it quite a tiring business to get to the Broad Walk (at Astley) and back. I never wished to be younger before or minded the comparative loss of bodily activity. But I do feel being of so little use. There! That's off my chest!" (31)
Lucy Baldwin died on 17th June, 1945. Eight days later Baldwin wrote to Joan Davidson: "I have been stunned by what has happened, and realization only follows slowly: I am not a hermit and I perform little duties towards my neighbours, but I have not yet got that control of myself that I must have before I venture forth even amongst my intimate friends." (32)
The following year Baldwin stayed with the Davidsons. On his return he wrote a letter of thanks: "I hated leaving Norcott and I always have to screw myself up to coming back to Astley... My visit was a great joy to me, but I felt you were both working at full stretch and I think you are both carrying out just as much as you can I feel keenly my incapacity to be of any help... The atmosphere in your loved home has done me good, and the memory I always take away with me is very dear to me and for it I bless you... I can't express my feelings as easily as I used to: my pen runs dry and I have to pause for words." (33)
Baldwin stayed at the Davidson's home for the last time in October 1947: "I was very happy at Norcott, as I always am, and I am grateful for much that you said. There are not many left to tell an octogenarian his faults in the spirit of love and not of criticism. I hope that I may improve and be asked again." Stanley Baldwin died on 14th December 1947. (34)
Joan Davidson was a member of the kitchen committee of the House of Commons during the war years of 1939–45. She started parties in Westminster, to which the leader of the Conservative Party always came, for the wives of Conservative candidates in order to interest them in their husbands' work. In the Labour Party landslide victory in the 1945 General Election, she the only Conservative woman to hold her seat. During that parliament she became the first woman to be a member of the executive of the 1922 committee of the House of Commons. (35)
Davidson was also very good at raising money: "In 1945 the constituency raised sufficient money to pay for her election expenses for the first time. By the 1950s the subscribing members ran into thousands and we had a handsome reserve, so that we could have fought about three elections. The agent was paid and all expenses met, including the office rent and a car, and the expenditure of some £3,000 or £4,000 a year was found by the people of the constituency; Central Office was not asked for anything." (36)
In 1955 Davidson became a member of the council of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations. She started the Young Britons, the junior branch of the Young Conservatives, and she also served on the policy committee of the Conservative Party. Lady Davidson decided to stand down in the 1959 election. In 1963 she was created a life peer, as Baroness Northchurch of Chiswick. In 1964–5 she was president of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, and chairman of the party conference. (37)
Frances Joan Davidson, Viscountess Davidson, Baroness Northchurch, aged 91, died on 25th November 1985.
God bless you both now and always as you step into the new life together. When I say you are wothy of her, you know what that means (from me) and she knows now and will learn more and more what you will mean to her... Never has a man had such a friend as you have been to me. You can't tell yourself, nor can any other: but I know it and I shall never forget it. I could have fought through alone but I should have been a soured embittered devil.
The wedding has taken place and Mimi has left us for good. Everything was very happy. St Margaret's Church was lovely and well filled by a sea of familiar faces... Darling Mimi was perfect. Sweet and natural as ever; speaking out plainly what she meant and her absolute trust in John. I hope he is worthy of it. I think he is, but cannot yet say. I do not know him yet... The whole thing starts well. Pray God it will ever continue so.
Mimi gave him (Baldwin) much affection, understanding and companionship, and he depended upon me for advice of an entirely different kind. I often used to tell her the things that he ought to be doing and wasn't inclined to do, and she would tell him. She has always been like that, and SB adored her because of it. It was an extraordinary friendship for us both... Usually he could only take a short break at dinner-time from the House of Commons, when he would slip across to our house.
When Joan Davidson's husband became first Viscount Davidson in 1937 the Hemel Hempstead constituency unanimously asked her to stand as their MP. Duly elected, after canvassing on horseback, she became the only Conservative woman to hold her seat in the general election of 1945. She also retained it in February 1950, October 1951, and May 1955. Possessing much warmth, enthusiasm, and personal charm, she was greatly loved by her Labour women colleagues and respected by her fellow members and the House of Commons staff.
Davidson was a member of the kitchen committee of the House of Commons during the war years of 1939–45. She started parties in Westminster, to which the leader of the Conservative Party always came, for the wives of Conservative candidates in order to interest them in their husbands' work. She was the only woman MP to be a member of the national expenditure committee throughout the Second World War. After the war she served continuously on the estimates committee of the House of Commons until the beginning of 1957, when she was obliged, through pressure of work, to resign. She was the first woman to be a member of the executive of the 1922 committee of the House of Commons, and was re-elected to it in June 1955. She was also an elected member of the Inter-Parliamentary Union executive committee. Senior officials of her party frequently sought her advice.
In 1955 Joan Davidson became a member of the council of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, a position she held until her death. She started the Young Britons, the junior branch of the Young Conservatives, and she also served on the policy committee of the Conservative Party. In 1964–5 she was president of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations, and chairman of the party conference. She piloted the Anaesthetics for Animals Bill through the House of Commons in 1955, the first act of parliament making it compulsory for anaesthetics to be used when research and experiments were carried out on animals.
Lady Davidson decided to stand down in the 1959 election, after twenty-two years in the Commons (and a period of forty years when she and her husband had represented Hemel Hempstead). She had been appointed DBE in 1952, and in 1963 she was created a life peer, as Baroness Northchurch of Chiswick. The Davidsons were the first husband and wife both to be made peers and to be able to sit together in the Lords.