Miss Smith warned that if the Nazis came to England I'd be a target because I looked like a gypsy. I was determined the Nazis wouldn't get me, and immediately made plans

7th July 2006 at 01:00
I thought Miss Smith was wonderful. She was my form mistress when I was 10.

She travelled a lot and after the summer holidays she would get out the atlas and the globe and tell us where she had been and what she had done.

She'd even been to Australia, which was very unusual in those days. It was an eye opener to me that anybody from my small town of Dewsbury had such an expansive mind and was adventurous enough to do all these things.

Miss Smith took us out and about. She explained how magistrates' courts worked and how the local authority was elected. We went to council meetings and to the Dewsbury Empire, right up in the gods in the threepenny seats to see Gilbert and Sullivan. She had wide interests and she broadened my mind in every way and gave me a thirst for travel.

The war had just begun and one day when she was talking about politics she asked those of us who were Labour supporters to put up our hands. My hand shot up and she went on to talk about the war and the fascist movement in Germany and how they were persecuting the Jews and the gypsies and left-wing people. Because I had dark curly hair and a sallow skin she warned that if the Nazis came to England I'd be a target because I looked like a gypsy. I wasn't frightened by what she said, but I was determined the Nazis wouldn't get me or my friends, and immediately made plans.

My friends and I found out where the nearest police station was and where the air raid shelters were. We decided we'd hide in the caves in Caulms Wood and take sandwiches and apples with us. We had it all worked out.

Miss Smith wasn't glamorous, but she had an attractive personality. She was plump and jolly and loved life. Miss Ganter, the headmistress, was a tough cookie however, and a great one for punctuality, and from her I learned never to be late for anything. She sat at a desk on a raised platform so she could see through the glass partitions that divided the classrooms and spot any latecomers.

I wasn't a particularly good scholar, but I enjoyed school and learned the disciplines of life from my teachers and am thankful to them.

At primary school I was taught by Miss Fox, who was also a Brown Owl. Since I was a Brownie, we got on well. Miss Fox had short, cropped hair held in place with a slide. I remember her teaching me to read and to count with huge playing cards with sums written on them all round the wall.

I failed the 11-plus but I got a scholarship to the technical college, where I had two good teachers. Miss Gregory, who taught typing, and Miss Harvey, who taught shorthand, shared a house. They both wore thick lisle stockings, and Miss Gregory had patches on hers. There was a French teacher whose name I can't remember, but I do remember her making me sit in front of my school dinner until I finished it. It was congealed fatty mutton, which wouldn't have tasted nearly as bad at 12 o'clock as it did when I finally got it down just before school finished at half past four.

I never won any school prizes, but I won prizes at Sunday school. I was quite good at sport and got a medal for life saving. At technical college I was captain of the Spartan house and organised things and jollied people along. My father's ambition for me was a job in the town hall - preferably in the rates department where it was warm and dry and I'd be sure of a pension. I wanted to be a window dresser.

I never got to the rates office. My first job was as a cashier and typist at a posh shop called Bickers for pound;1 a week and a few years later I joined the Labour Party's HQ. But the job that people are never going to let me forget is being a Tiller Girl. Quite frankly, it was 1947 and a lot of young women who were much better dancers than me were in the Forces. I was only a Tiller Girl for about two months. Father didn't approve, but mother wisely thought I should get it out of my system.

Portrait by Richard Lea-Hair

Baroness Betty Boothroyd, first woman Speaker of the House of Commons, was talking to Pamela Coleman

The story so far

1929 Born Dewsbury, Yorkshire

1933-36 Eastborough primary school

1936-41 Eastborough girls' school

1947 Joins Tiller Girls dancing troupe

1954 Works in Labour Party HQ

1956-58 Works for Barbara Castle MP

1959 Joins Kennedy for President campaign team in Washington, US

1965-68 Councillor, London borough of Hammersmith

1973-2000 Labour MP for West Bromwich

1992 Becomes first woman Speaker of the House of Commons

1994 onwards Chancellor, Open University

2001 Created baroness and publishes autobiography

2005 Receives Order of Merit and is patron of charity to erect memorial to women of Second World War

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