ASTOR, Lady Nancy (1879-1964)
Plaque erected in 1987 by English Heritage at 4 St James's Square, St James's, London SW1Y 6JU, City of Westminster
Politics and Administration
NANCY ASTOR 1879-1964 First woman to sit in Parliament lived here
The American politician and society hostess Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit in Parliament, holding her seat for over 25 years. During that time, 4 St James’s Square was her London home.
Nancy Witcher Langhorne, born in Virginia, USA, travelled to England in 1904 and two years later married Waldorf Astor (1879–1952), a wealthy newspaper proprietor and the Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Elected to the peerage on the death of his father in 1919, Waldorf was forced to give up his seat in the House of Commons and promoted Nancy as a candidate in the resulting by-election instead.
Although no woman had yet sat in the Commons, she won with 51% of the vote and remained the Conservative MP for Plymouth Sutton for over 25 years (1919–45).
Her campaigning spirit and enthusiasm for politics were formidable and she championed many causes on behalf of underprivileged women and children. Astor was for example a keen supporter and benefactor of the nursery schools of Margaret McMillan. Her most effective speeches were in support of her legislation to ban the sale of alcohol to anyone under 18, a bill which was passed in 1923.
Astor also developed a reputation for heckling and interrupting speeches, and she later recalled that her fellow MPs ‘would rather have had a rattlesnake than me’ in the House of Commons. Indeed, it seems she made a lasting impression on the former Prime Minister, Winston Churchill: ‘When you entered the House of Commons,’ Astor reported Churchill as saying, ‘I felt as if a woman had entered my bathroom and I had nothing to protect myself with except a sponge.’
ST JAMES’S SQUARE
The Astors’ most famous home was Cliveden in Buckinghamshire, but in 1912 they acquired 4 St James’s Square, the London addition to their portfolio of properties. Built in 1726–8 for the 1st Duke of Kent and now housing the Naval and Military Club, number 4 is the oldest building to survive in St James’s Square.
Bearing a Palladian façade of stock brick, the terraced mansion provided a glittering setting for entertaining, with its magnificent reception rooms and huge ballroom. At a time when such splendour was becoming rare, Lady Astor gave dinner parties for 50 people, a threw a couple of balls a season for up to 600 guests, and held receptions for as many as 1,000.
Having been damaged by bombs and requisitioned during the Second World War, number 4 was finally sold in 1946. It was a moment that heralded both the end of Nancy’s political career and the tradition of a great London house as a centre of political influence. The English Heritage plaque was unveiled in 1987 by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who praised Astor’s courage – from which she herself had taken heart – for going into ‘that totally male-dominated place’.