Mystery of Shirley Williams' visit to Shrewsbury

You know the thing about memory – it can play tricks.

Baroness Shirley Williams.
Baroness Shirley Williams.

And so John Donegan is hoping somebody can confirm whether he met Shirley Williams, one of the "gang of four" who founded the Social Democratic Party, at his Shrewsbury home.

Baroness Shirley Williams, one of the first women Cabinet ministers and a former Labour MP before defecting to join the SDP which was launched in 1981, died in April at the age of 90.

John, whose late father Ron Donegan was involved in Shrewsbury Liberal Party, said: "I have a memory which I truly believe to be true, but have not supporting evidence, of the day I met the late Shirley Williams.

"Many years ago the Liberal Party in Shrewsbury had sold the Liberal club, and with an election approaching had nowhere to conduct the election day support.

"My father volunteered the ground floor of our house in Sutton Farm, Shrewsbury. All the furniture was removed and the walls in the front room were covered in notice boards and orange posters.

"My job was to make endless cups of coffee and tea for exhausted canvassers. At one point I turned around and found the room full of cameramen and press and in the middle of it was Shirley Williams and Lord Owen (David Owen, another of the "gang of four.")

"I remember being thanked for the number of teas I had made and for my efforts, and the mass disappeared. I would love to know if anyone has any recollection of this or even a picture. I think it did appear in the local Shropshire Star.

"I am told the above is true. I have hunted a picture, but I am not even aware which election this was."


John, who is Shrewsbury-born but now lives in Telford, added: "I am not politically active but understand the Liberal ideals. Both my parents were active in the political arena, but both died some time ago.

"I'm just interested if this is a true story, or something misremembered."

For our part, we don't have a picture in our archives which matches John's memory, nor have we been able to turn up a joint election visit to Shrewsbury by Shirley Williams and David Owen (but are happy to be corrected).

However, if there was one it would surely either have been in 1983 – the first election fought by the SDP – or 1987.

If they did come, the deployment of these political big hitters did not bring success in Shrewsbury. In the June 1983 general election the Conservative Derek Conway beat Anthony Bowen of the SDP-Liberal Alliance by 8,624 votes.

And in the June 1987 election Derek Conway had a majority of 9,064 over Robert Hutchison of the Liberals.

The SDP merged with the Liberals in 1989 and the Liberal Democrats were born.

Lord Owen was unhappy with the merger and instead continued to lead a scaled-down version of the SDP which limped along briefly before fading into political history.

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