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I went to bed with your husband six times and it wasn’t satisfactory, Harold Wilson’s top aide Marcia Williams told his wife… But major reassessment of her life argues she was one of the most influential politicians of the age


The two women stood face to face on the doorstep of a London house just north of Oxford Street.

One of them was Mary, wife of the then-leader of the Opposition and former prime minister Harold Wilson. The other was his powerful political and private secretary, Marcia Williams, owner of the property.

Marcia spoke first. ‘I have only one thing to say to you,’ she told Mary. ‘I went to bed with your husband six times in 1956 — and it wasn’t satisfactory.’

History does not relate what Mary said in response to this astounding statement.

But later that evening, in January 1972, Wilson summoned his press spokesman, Joe Haines, to his Commons office. Wilson was, recalled Haines later, somewhat tense and embarrassed.

Marcia and Harold’s campaign was as successful a double act as that of their musical contemporaries Lennon and McCartney. Pictured, Harold Wilson with his wife and Marcia Williams

Marcia and Harold’s campaign was as successful a double act as that of their musical contemporaries Lennon and McCartney. Pictured, Harold Wilson with his wife and Marcia Williams

Pictured, front cover of Marcia Williams: The Life of Lady Falkender by Linda McDougall

Pictured, front cover of Marcia Williams: The Life of Lady Falkender by Linda McDougall

Pictured, Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his secretary Marcia Williams

Pictured, Prime Minister Harold Wilson with his secretary Marcia Williams

Pictured, Harold Wilson and his wife, Mary, on the doorway of 10 Downing Street, September 1974

Pictured, Harold Wilson and his wife, Mary, on the doorway of 10 Downing Street, September 1974

When Mary got home after the meal, Marcia had telephoned and announced that she wanted to see her immediately. Pictured, Harold Wilson and Mary in 10 Downing Street, 1967

When Mary got home after the meal, Marcia had telephoned and announced that she wanted to see her immediately. Pictured, Harold Wilson and Mary in 10 Downing Street, 1967

It emerged that Marcia had flown into a jealous rage when she heard that Wilson had taken his wife out for a birthday lunch to an upmarket Soho restaurant.

When Mary got home after the meal, Marcia had telephoned and announced that she wanted to see her immediately.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mary had complied, setting out straight away for Marcia’s mews home, only to receive the shattering revelation about her husband’s supposed infidelity.

Haines would later describe the event as ‘almost too dreadful to comprehend’. But he recalled that at the end of their conversation Wilson had told him: ‘Well, she has dropped her atomic bombshell at last. She can’t hurt me any more.’

Despite the episode, Marcia would remain at Wilson’s side for the rest of his life, including his second term as prime minister from 1974 to 1976, in what remains one of British history’s most enduring yet puzzling political partnerships.

Perhaps surprisingly, Mary had complied, setting out straight away for Marcia’s mews home, only to receive the shattering revelation about her husband’s supposed infidelity. Pictured, Marcia Falkender on a shopping trip for New Life Peeress, May 1974

Perhaps surprisingly, Mary had complied, setting out straight away for Marcia’s mews home, only to receive the shattering revelation about her husband’s supposed infidelity. Pictured, Marcia Falkender on a shopping trip for New Life Peeress, May 1974

Marcia Williams was a 24-year-old secretary at Transport House, the Labour Party’s HQ, when she met the man she had already talent-spotted as a rising star, former Oxford don Harold Wilson. Pictured, Harold Wilson British Prime Minister with Marcia Williams preparing notes for the Labour Party

Marcia Williams was a 24-year-old secretary at Transport House, the Labour Party’s HQ, when she met the man she had already talent-spotted as a rising star, former Oxford don Harold Wilson. Pictured, Harold Wilson British Prime Minister with Marcia Williams preparing notes for the Labour Party

What was the real nature of their relationship? What was her hold over him, her critics wondered? Why, despite her often erratic, prima donna-like behaviour and the fact that almost all his aides and civil servants loathed her, did he remain steadfastly loyal to her?

Few have heard of Marcia today. Although she lived until 2019, she was out of the public eye long before Wilson died in 1995. But this, I believe, is to do her a grave disservice.

As a journalist and the wife of a former politician, the late Austin Mitchell, I have known many inside the Westminster bubble. But Marcia was in a league of her own, an astute and brilliant tactician whose true contribution to British life has never been fully acknowledged.

Indeed, I believe it is true to say that she was, after Margaret Thatcher, the most significant female politician of the 20th century.

By any measure she was a remarkable woman whose private life was often as intriguing as her public one.

This was a woman who, in the days when illegitimacy was a source of shame and scandal, not only had two sons by a married political journalist during her time at No 10, but managed to keep her pregnancies and the children’s existence secret from even her closest colleagues, all while remaining Wilson’s right-hand woman. As the subject of almost constant media scrutiny, this was a quite extraordinary achievement.

Among those who knew her, she remains a divisive figure. Joe Haines, now 95, did not mince his words when I interviewed him at his home earlier this year. ‘I never met anyone else who approached her on a scale of evil, and I believe in evil,’ he told me, adding that Marcia was a foul-mouthed bully who called Wilson a ‘c***’ in front of him.

The BBC’s late political editor John Cole had a different experience. ‘She had a sharp political brain and was often helpful to me in giving a well-balanced judgment of how the Labour Party would react to some policy,’ he recalled. ‘Although nominally an adviser, she was among the shrewdest Labour politicians of her period.’

So who was right? Her admirers or her detractors? Or both?

The first woman to wield real power in 10 Downing Street, she has been unjustly forgotten by the historical narrative. It is my aim, while recognising her faults and failures, to help put that right.

Tall, slim and blonde with piercing blue eyes, newly-married Marcia Williams was a 24-year-old secretary at Transport House, the Labour Party’s HQ, when she met the man she had already talent-spotted as a rising star, former Oxford don Harold Wilson.

Their special relationship began on April 23, 1956 — a date immortalised by them as ‘23456’ — during a reception for the two most important men in the Soviet Union, Communist Party First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev and his sidekick, Soviet Premier Nikolai Bulganin.

Accounts of what happened that evening vary, with some saying Marcia left the Commons to wait for the night bus to her then home in Golders Green, and that Wilson, 16 years her senior and married, saw her in the queue and stopped to give her a lift on his way home to Hampstead Garden Suburb. 

Election agent George Caunt had a different tale to tell. According to him, Harold had watched Marcia diligently taking shorthand notes of the evening’s speeches, before introducing himself and offering the lift.

‘Marcia Williams returned [home] late, and they were both worried about Mr Williams waiting up for her,’ Caunt claimed. ‘They agreed on a secret sign at the executive committee meeting the next morning [sugar in the saucer] if Mr Williams had been awake and asked questions.’

Whatever the truth of the matter, in October 1956 Wilson appointed Marcia as his personal secretary. Over the next six years she would deftly guide his rapid rise from chairman of the public accounts committee and shadow chancellor to prime minister.

The pair quickly slipped into a routine. Wilson would pick her up on the way to Westminster after he had dropped his sons at school. There they would work together in his Commons office, or in other locations around the House, until late into the evening.

‘She met for a great many years a deep craving within him: for someone else to whom politics was meat and drink and the very air that was breathed,’ remembered Haines. ‘Someone who, at her best, had a political mind capable of testing and matching his; someone who possessed a deadly ability to slash her way through the woolliness and verbiage of a political argument to get to the heart of an issue. Someone who was prepared to devote all her time to Harold Wilson’s service.’

After the death of the previous Labour leader, Hugh Gaitskell, in January 1963, Wilson became leader of the Opposition. A little over a year later, the country was preparing for a general election.

Marcia and Harold’s campaign was as successful a double act as that of their musical contemporaries Lennon and McCartney. Together, they plotted and planned, talking endlessly long after everybody else had gone home. Former Labour minister and peer Bernard Donoughue, whose Downing Street Diary is an important source of information about Marcia’s day-to-day behaviour, told me that Bill Housden, Wilson’s loyal driver over the years, said that he had often delivered Harold to Marcia’s home and picked him up much later.

When I asked Margarete Field, Marcia’s sister-in-law, whether she thought Harold and Marcia had had an affair in the early days of their relationship, she laughed and said, ‘Well, what do you think?’

But whatever it had amounted to, the affair was history. Now, there was a hard-fought and bitterly contested election to be won. Was it a stroke of genius from Marcia that finally got Labour over the line?

John Cole remembered: ‘Just before the 1964 election campaign she was leafing through the Radio Times to check if anything appearing on television on the eve of polling day might reduce the turnout of voters. To her horror she discovered that Steptoe And Son, one of the most popular programmes of the period, which at its peak could draw 28 million viewers, was scheduled an hour before the polls closed, the time when the largest number of Labour supporters traditionally came out to vote.’

Marcia informed Harold, who called the BBC director-general Hugh Carleton Greene to argue that this temptation could reduce the turnout of Conservative as well as Labour voters. Sir Hugh dryly asked the leader of the Opposition to suggest an appropriate alternative programme.

‘Greek drama, preferably in the original,’ joked Harold.

The BBC agreed to move Steptoe. Labour won 317 seats, the Tories 304 and the Liberals nine, a majority of just four seats. Later, Wilson said that but for Marcia and her ingenuity, he would never have become prime minister.

IT IS a tradition that when a new PM and his or her entourage arrive at No 10, the staff line up to clap. No such thing happened in the autumn of 1964. Nobody was there. It was the start of a long battle between Marcia and the ‘Sir Humphreys’ of the civil service.

One hundred per cent male, and often Eton and Oxbridge-educated, they had little time for a builder’s daughter from Northampton. Yes, she had a history degree from London’s Queen Mary University and a secretarial qualification. But she did not fit the mould.

Sir Timothy Bligh, Downing Street’s most senior civil servant, made it clear, according to Marcia, that there was no place for her at No 10. And when an official trip to the U.S. was planned, his successor Derek Mitchell told Marcia she could travel on the prime minister’s plane only as Mary Wilson’s maid.

It was at this point that Marcia began to gain a reputation for being ‘difficult’. She was chief adviser to the prime minister, but she was going to have to fight for recognition. Mitchell and his staff were misogynistic and patronising, but she refused to be cowed. He tried to dismiss her as a constituency secretary-type with not much more to offer.

But Harold Wilson began as he meant to go on and supported Marcia’s demands for a proper office inside No 10 and an official role at his side. ‘It was an unpleasant atmosphere. No one will convince me other than the way I remember it,’ Marcia later recalled. ‘It was cold, unfriendly and not very helpful.’

As the wife of a backbench MP in the 1970s, I can recognise only too well the key role Marcia played in Downing Street. Dozens of letters came in each week, each one requiring research and a reply. She did it all meticulously and often with humour or sympathy, building Harold Wilson’s reputation as a reliable and trustworthy constituency MP and a prime minister who was personally helping people to resolve their problems.

She continued to run his diary, attend meetings and act as his sounding board and gatekeeper, performing a unique solo role that has never been matched. But in her private life she was paying a high price for her — and Wilson’s — immense success.

Her brief marriage had ended in divorce in 1961 and, although she and Harold were together all day and every day, he had his wife Mary and their two sons to go home to — a compartmentalised family life of which Marcia was no part. Early in her time in Downing Street, she had begun an affair with a co-worker, John Schofield Allen. Joe Haines describes him as the most unlikely of lovers: ‘sweaty, overweight and married’.

Wisely, and encouraged by the prime minister and funded by Joe Kagan, a wealthy Yorkshire mill owner who frequently helped Harold out financially, Schofield Allen went away to Africa for three months and the affair petered out.

Two years after their first victory at the polls, Labour won the 1966 election with a huge majority of 98. Marcia, who was by then 34, must have allowed herself the luxury of some time to consider her future and take stock. Family was really important to her and biology — something she couldn’t control — may well have influenced a dramatic change in her behaviour from this point onwards.

After several short and failed relationships, she began a close friendship which turned into a passionate love affair with Walter Terry, who at the time was the chief political correspondent of the Daily Mail (later political editor of the Express). He was still living with his wife Mavis and their young son and daughter.

Gossip began to spread around Westminster when a journalist arrived one evening to see the prime minister and noticed Walter Terry’s car parked in the street outside with someone inside.

He knocked on the window and was shocked and horrified when Walter and Marcia unwrapped themselves from a passionate embrace.

Whatever the truth of the matter, in October 1956 Wilson appointed Marcia as his personal secretary. Pictured, Harold Wilson during a press conference in 1976

Whatever the truth of the matter, in October 1956 Wilson appointed Marcia as his personal secretary. Pictured, Harold Wilson during a press conference in 1976

Harold Wilson announces his resignation as Prime Minister during a press conference at the Ministry of Defence in London

Harold Wilson announces his resignation as Prime Minister during a press conference at the Ministry of Defence in London

Their love affair would go on to last several years and resulted in the birth of her two sons, born during the 1966 Wilson government — Timothy in 1968 and Daniel just ten months later in 1969.

The children arrived unannounced and unacknowledged and for their first five years lived in total secrecy with their mother, their widowed grandmother and aunt Peggy in Central London, by which time Walter Terry had left them all and returned to his wife.

Marcia gave birth to her first son just before journalist Joe Haines’s arrival at No 10.

She had worked steadily throughout her pregnancy in her office right next to the Cabinet Room, dealing with MPs, trade unionists, civil servants and office staff, and it seems unthinkable now that no one ever noticed her changing figure. But then she always turned up early for meetings, so was seated when everyone else arrived, and she kept her coat on.

Timothy Joseph Henry Williams Terry was born in a private hospital in Hendon, North London. There was a blank space on his birth certificate where it asked for the name of the father.

His mother was recorded as Marcia Matilda Williams Terry, a private secretary of 20 Albany Court, Westminster. The informant was J. Ellis Stone, Harold Wilson’s doctor and friend, who is recorded on the certificate as having been present at the delivery.

Just two months after the birth of Timothy, Marcia went with Harold to Gibraltar for talks on board the warship HMS Fearless about the future of Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe and Zambia), the southern African country run by Ian Smith’s apartheid government. Both Marcia and Walter Terry were present (Walter was reporting on the talks) and she was pregnant again.

Daniel Walter Alexander Terry was born on June 24, 1969, at 27 Welbeck Street, still a private hospital. Both of Daniel’s parents signed the birth certificate at Marylebone Register Office.

As with the arrival of his brother, Daniel had visits from Dr Stone, but it was his father who saw him every day, not his mother. Walter came for an hour and sat with the baby while their nanny Pauline did her shopping. Marcia had gone straight back to work.

The arrival of two boys, only ten months apart, to an unmarried woman at the very heart of government was an unbelievable event for Britain of the time. If the story of Marcia’s babies leaked, said those few in the know, who would the world think had fathered them? The obvious choice was Wilson himself.

It was an unimaginable situation and it was Marcia who paid the price for the intense need for secrecy. She often felt scared and alone.

Maybe it was not surprising, then, that as the chorus of disapproval from civil servants and colleagues grew, and the overwhelming need to keep her private life a secret became a virtual obsession, she began a terrifying descent into the drug dependency which would dominate her life for years to come.

Marcia Williams by Linda McDougall (Biteback Publishing, £25) to be published on November 7. © Linda McDougall 2023. To order a copy for £22.50 (offer valid until November 13, 2023; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.



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