Just like today, the political scene in the early 1920s was in a state of turmoil, with three general elections in two years. You may remember how the infamous Brenda from Bristol reacted to news of the snap 2017 general election: “You’re joking – not another one”! Something similar may have been on people’s lips in the 1920s.

It was only a little over 100 years ago (in 1918 to be precise) that women were first allowed to stand as parliamentary candidates and to be elected to the House of Commons. The first woman to take a seat was Nancy Astor at a by-election in December 1919. Two women were elected in the 1922 general election, and the following year eight in total, including Wycombe’s first (and so far only) female MP, Lady Terrington.

Thanks to a rapid succession of elections, Lady Terrington’s parliamentary career was short, lasting less than a year, as she was defeated in the 1924 general election and never stood for parliament again. She then led a long and eventful life, including being three times married.

Early Life

Born Florence Annie Bousher in London in 1889, she married Guy Sebright in 1907, at the tender age of just 18. The couple lived in London but Guy died on July 12 1912, whilst staying in Bexhill, Sussex. He was aged just 29.

Florence, then known as Vera, next married Yorkshireman Harold Woodhouse, on May 8, 1918. It should be noted however that years earlier, in the 1911 census records, the couple are living at the same address in London, with Vera listed as the head of household and Harold, who was a solicitor, as a visitor. This was while she was legally still Mrs Sebright, and he was still married to his first wife. Scandalous behaviour for those days!

After their marriage the couple moved to Marlow. On the death of his father in 1921, Harold became 2nd Baron Terrington, and so Vera Woodhouse became Lady Terrington. Her life was about to get even more eventful.

Living in Marlow

In Marlow Lord and Lady Terrington lived at Spinfield House, just across from General Sir George Higginson at Gyldernscroft. In the early 1920s they would have been Marlow’s two most respected and famous families.

Spinfield was a large Georgian mansion, with a number of guest-bedrooms, and accommodation for the many servants a socially upwardly mobile couple would require. These included a Butler, Footman and 4 servants.

Vera was an instant ‘star’ in the town. She became President of Marlow FC – the first woman to hold that position. She became famous for inventing the forerunner of the “prefab”. This building on Henley Road lasted 6 years, having been erected in only 2 days. A new motorised fire tender was “christened” with the name “Vera” in a ceremony in her presence.

Vera joined the South Bucks Liberal Association and was selected as their candidate for the Wycombe constituency for the 1922 general election. She came a creditable second. At the following general election in December 1923 she campaigned vigorously, using the slogan “Put Terrington on top,” and, if the reports in the Bucks Free Press are anything to go by, she was far more active in electioneering than either of her rival candidates. She was apparently famous for carrying out her electioneering on horseback.

Although not a suffragette as such, she was certainly something of an early feminist. She set out her stance in a speech during the campaign: “We want equality. We want equal rights and responsibilities with men for our own sakes and for our children on the question of divorce, separation and guardianship. I should support legislation which will place on the father of an illegitimate child equal responsibility with the mother and, if they eventually married, legitimise the child or children”. Quite a statement for the period.

She was rewarded with a majority of 1682.

Parliamentary career

In Parliament she was remarkably progressive for the age. She supported animal rights, farmers, local rural housing, and a bill which would have given parents equal rights to the custody of children. Her maiden speech seconded a motion on the abolition of the means test for old age pensions.

In an interview in the national press she was quoted as saying: “If I am elected to Westminster I intend to wear my best clothes. I shall put on my ospreys and my fur coat and my pearls. Everyone here knows I live in a large house and keep men servants, and can afford a motor-car and a fur coat. Every woman would do the same if she could. It is sheer hypocrisy to pretend in public life that you have no nice things and not to display them in your home.” She took great exception to the way the story was presented, which made her look “vain, frivolous, and an extravagant woman”. She sued the newspaper for defamation of character. However, the judge ruled that she had not suffered “a farthing’s worth of damage”, and she lost her case.

The next general election in 1924 was a particularly bad election for the Liberal Party, losing 128 seats across the country, so it was not that surprising that the local Conservative candidate overturned her majority, winning by a margin of more than 8,000 votes . She was re-adopted in 1925 by the Liberals as candidate for the next election but had to withdraw due to ‘personal problems’. Not only was she Wycombe’s first female MP, she was also our last Liberal MP.

Personal life

In 1926 Vera divorced from Harold due to his ‘misconduct’ with another married woman, (but she made sure she retained her title). After the divorce Vera lived for a time in Maidenhead before moving back to London. She considered pursuing a career in the beauty and hairdressing business, announcing in 1927 that she would “train with one of the most famous coiffeurs in the world” before setting up on her own account. But this seems to have come to nothing.

She visited New York in 1937, and then with the approach of WW2 she became more involved in supporting different voluntary organisations. She was chairman of the People’s Dispensary for Sick Animals and was involved in the Air Raid Precautions service. She seemed to have had a hectic social life amongst London’s upper classes during the war and was regularly photographed dining with different gentlemen.

In 1945 she sold her London home and on July 25, 1945 flew to South Africa to stay with her widowed sister in Cape Town, announcing “South Africa appeals to me and I may settle down there for good”. There she married Max Lensvelt in 1949. Eventually she returned to the UK.

Her death was recorded at her home in Sussex in 1973 at the grand old age of 84. The coroner’s inquest concluded that she had committed suicide by poisoning: a sad end to a ground-breaking life.

Not only was she Wycombe’s first (and so far only) female MP, as well as the last from the Liberal Party, but also just the eighth woman ever to sit in the House of Commons, and was one of only six women to be elected as Liberal MPs until the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988.

For such a significant person, it is rather sad that no-one seems to have written a full-length biography of her. The fullest account is an article in the Dictionary of National Biography. If you want to read this, you can access the online version from home through the Buckinghamshire Libraries online resources page, using your library card to log in, although I’m tempted to say that such a pioneering woman deserves better.

In 1968 the Reading Evening Post reported that Peter Uppard of Booker was planning to compile a special memoir of personal reminiscences from friends and acquaintances, to be presented to her on the occasion of her 80th birthday. I wonder if this book was finished, and where it may be now?

We are grateful to Michael Eagleton for sharing his knowledge and photographs of Vera in Marlow with us.