EXCLUSIVE PHOTOS: Flashback to the day Maggie visited Wisbech and was shocked by the aftermath of serious flooding
00:14 11 April 2013
IN March 1978 Margaret Thatcher, still leader of the Oppositon and a year from becoming Prime Minister, dropped into Wisbech for a visit.
She spent six hours visiting the area that also including being taken to Manea to inspect a pig farm. She also promised pupils at Wisbech Grammar School she would do what she could to keep the school open.
Here’s how we reported that visit.
THE Conservative Party leader, Mrs. Margaret Thatcher, spent six hours at Wisbech yesterday and the amount which she managed to cram into that short space of time was quite astonishing.
Between landing by helicopter outside the Hudson Sports Centre and leaving to visit pig farms at Manea, she had a briefing from Fenland district and Cambridgeshire county councillors on the flood relief measures taken after the January disaster.
She visited homes and industries which had been affected; gave television interviews and addressed a gathering of over 500 Conservative workers from the Isle of Ely and neighbouring constituencies.
Mrs Thatcher met banner-waving members of Wisbech Hospitals Action Group; promised pupils from Wisbech Grammar School to do what she could to see that their school did not close; and had an informal chat with local newspaper editors.
Before arriving at Wisbech, Mrs. Thatcher had been to Peterborough, where she toured the Perkins Engines factory and called on the Mayor, Mrs. Jean Barker. After her visit to Manea she returned to Peterborough by helicopter and then drove to Bradford by car to complete a hectic day.
From the moment that Mrs. Thatcher arrived at Wisbech with her husband it was clear that she was not prepared to stick rigidly to the timetable which had been carefully drawn up.
Before going into the Hudson Sports Centre for her briefing on the flood problems, she strolled across the car park to speak to a Wisbech fire crew, under Station Officer David Rayner, which was standing by.
From the sports centre she went to the Seadyke Freight factory in Nene Parade which was badly affected by the flooding, and was shown round by the managing director, Mr. Hubert Leet.
Among those accompanying Mrs. Thatcher were the Mayor and Mayoress of Wisbech, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Harrold; chairman of Fenland District Council, Mrs. Beryl Petts; vice-chairman, Mr. Robert Wallace; council leader, Mr. Michael Osborn, housing committee chairman, Mr. Peter Skoulding; policy and resources committee chairman, Mrs. Doreen Fleming, and representatives of the county authority.
From there, the Conservative leader was taken to Lime Avenue, part of the vast council housing estate which was under water in January.
There it had been arranged that she would call on Mr. and Mrs. Dan Lock before moving on to Sybil Road, an area of private housing, but Mrs. Thatcher decided to go on a walkabout. She spoke to many residents of the area, discussing with them the problems of insurance and of redecorating flood damaged property.
In Sybil Road, she was due to meet Mr. and Mrs. Richard Ward, whose home had three feet of water on the ground floor and whose 14-month-old daughter is now in hospital suffering from asthma, probably caused by the flooding.
But before calling on the Wards, Mrs. Thatcher made an unscheduled visit to their next-door neighbour, 68-year-old widow Mrs. Mabel Freeman, who lost all her possessions on the ground floor.
This was one of the worst hit roads in the town and Mrs. Thatcher was clearly shocked and moved by the devastation she found there.
She said afterwards that she had been impressed by the stories she had been told of the help which had been given to the flood victims.
“The local authority has been marvellous and the voluntary organisations wonderful,” she said.
Questioned as to her views on the Government aid formula, Mrs. Thatcher said that this was a matter which she was still discussing with the local authorities.
It was clear, however, that, while central government had spent so much time talking before deciding what to do, the local councils had acted very promptly.
By this time, Mrs. Thatcher had spent so long with victims of the flooding, that she was well behind the schedule planned for her.
This meant that she was late arriving at the Hudson Sport Centre to address the party workers assembled there and was not able to spend the amount of time with two groups outside the building which she obviously wanted to do.
One group comprised members of the Wisbech Hospitals Action Group and the other consisted of about 20 sixth-formers from the local grammar school.
The spokesman for the pupils was Louis Backer, who told Mrs. Thatcher: “The grammar school is in danger of being closed because of the Labour Government’s policy and we hope that, when you come to power, you will save it.”
Mrs. Thatcher replied: “If we come into office quickly enough, we can save it. I am all in favour of grammar schools.”
She invited the two protesting groups into the meeting in the sports hall.
The question of the reorganisation of secondary education in Cambridgeshire was one with which Mrs. Thatcher dealt at some length when she met local newspaper editors at the Stewart Rooms after her speech at the sports centre.