BRITAIN has a new first lady: Lady Starmer, the wife of the new Labour Prime Minister, Sir Keir Starmer.

For many decades, Darlington had its own first lady: Lady Starmer, the wife of the MP, mayor and businessman, Sir Charles Starmer.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer with his wife, Lady Victoria Starmer

Lady Victoria Starmer hasn’t featured very much in the election campaign, a part from being selfie’d at a Taylor Swift concert and except when her husband dropped into every conversation that his dad was a toolmaker and his wife worked for the NHS. This Lady Starmer, a qualified solicitor who works in occupational health, enjoys a low profile.


Darlington’s Lady Mary Cecilia Starmer was the complete opposite. She enjoyed a high profile. She was Darlington’s Queen Mother. She was president of 38 local organisations and vice-president of 37; she gave huge amounts to charity, including her West End home which is now a sheltered house for elderly people; she was widely loved by the townspeople, even those she ran over with her Bentley due to her erratic driving.

Sir Charles Starmer, as Darlington mayor in 1907

Lady Starmer came to Darlington in 1929 when she became the second wife of Sir Charles. No one ever knew her precise age, but she was into her thirties when she married her husband, who was 59 – their 25-years-plus is far greater than the 11 years between Sir Keir and his Lady Starmer.

By the time they married, Sir Charles, who had grown up in Cleveland and had started out as a journalist, had already saved The Northern Echo from bankruptcy and built a national company of local newspapers around it, for which he was knighted in 1917. He had first been mayor of Darlington in 1907 and for a couple of decades, he was the most powerful man in town, running the council in tough economic times.

Briefly, in 1923, after several unsuccessful attempts he became the Liberal MP for Cleveland.

For all his public success, Sir Charles’s private life was touched by sadness: his wife, Ada, died in 1923 after a long illness, and their only child, Freda, died in 1935 aged 26.

Lady Starmer with Darlington Women's Club and Frank Bough, a consummate TV presenter until stories about drugs and prostitutes caused his downfall

The newspaper cuttings do not explain how Sir Charles met his second Lady Starmer. She was the daughter of the Dean of Norwich, who had started out as a curate in Bishop Auckland in the 1880s and then held posts in Birmingham where Lady Starmer grew up.

During the First World War, she had volunteered with the aid detachment, starting out peeling potatoes and washing greasy mess plates before being sent to France to put her nursing skills to use – she became an ambulance driver near Rouen, on the Western Front.

She became Lady Starmer in 1929, and really hit the town’s consciousness in 1933 when Sir Charles became mayor for a second time. During this spell, he officially opened the Memorial Hospital and the extended library, but six months into his term, he died suddenly at his home in Westminster, aged 62.

This left Lady Starmer a widow after only four years of marriage and still in her mid thirties.

Lady Starmer, third from right, receives a DOS long-service medal at the Masonic Hall in Darlington in 1964. Left to right: Joy Beadell, Marjorie, Countess of Brecknock, FC Murray, TW Jones (chairman), JH Willans, G Todd and L Farrage

She immersed herself in good works, championing local societies, particularly those to do with women, children and the arts.

Her home of Danby Lodge, an Edwardian villa in an ocean of lawn off Coniscliffe Road, was used by her groups for meetings and fund-raising garden parties, and the house was full of lockers in which each group stored their belongings.

Lady Starmer at Darlington Civic Theatre with the mayor and mayoress, Cllr and Mrs Harry Robinson, plus the cast of The Boyfriend in April 1977

From 1964, she quietly donated large sums of money to her groups in a deliberate way that avoided death duties.

“Her full generosity and kindness will probably never be known because of her personal modesty,” said The Northern Echo after her death.

She never missed a Scout gang show; she always attended every first night of Darlington Operatic Society. She was given an OBE in 1948; in 1958, she was made the first female honorary freeman of the borough of Darlington.

People down on their luck would visit her home for advice, and money. Former prisoners and alcoholics were regular visitors. When one stopped calling, she discovered he had been sent to Parkhurst prison on the Isle of Wight for burglary, so when she was visiting her sister in Hampshire, she crossed The Solent to deliver a present to him.

John Neasham and Lady Starmer in the new garage's reception area on opening day in the company's Model T Ford in 1969

She was also renowned for her questionable driving. She liked big cars, but she also liked to regally wave at all the people she knew as she sailed past, so it is fair say that this wartime ambulance driver often left the streets of Darlington looking like a battlefield.

Her most famous victim was the leader of the Darlington Hells Angels, who was known universally as Jungle, whom she knocked off his Kawasaki motorbike with her Vanden Plas. She invited “Mr Jungle”, as she called him, to her home and they struck up an unlikely friendship.


When shopping in the top shops in Skinnergate – for instance, Wildsmith’s grocery store which is now a burned out shell – she would sit in her car waiting for assistants to come out to her. Once, when struggling to find a parking space for her Austin Princess, she left it in the middle of Skinnergate with the engine running and handed the keys to a passing policeman, saying: “You look after the car, my man.”

Lady Starmer at the Darlington Chrysanthemum and Dahlia Society's show in 1977, which was the last show to be held in the Baths Hall in Kendrew Street before its demolition

She died, somewhere in her eighties, a few days before Christmas 1979, and her funeral on December 28 brought the town to standstill.

Lady Starmer's body lies in St Cuthbert's Church ahead of her funeral with a "watch" going on around it

On the morning, her body laid in state in St Cuthbert’s Church for people to pay their respects, while representatives of a few of her organisations held “watches” around her coffin – they came from the Women’s Club, the magistrates court, the Inner Wheel, St John’s Nursing, the Choral Society, the Civic Theatre (now Hippodrome), the Operatic Society and the NSPCC.

The coffin was carried into the church by six policemen, and the service was conducted by three bishops. It was relayed by loudspeaker to the church hall and into the streets for those who couldn’t get a pew in the crowded church.

Two bishops and a canon: Bishop Michael Ramsey, formerly of Durham and Canterbury, plus Bishop George Holderness, of Burnley, and Canon Peter Wansay, at Lady Starmer's funeral

In his address, Bishop Michael Ramsey, formerly of Durham and Canterbury, said: “In every heart in this vast company, there will be the one feeling: gratitude for a wonderful person, a wonderful Christian, a wonderful friend. In a life crowded with causes and organisations and activities, it was always people that she cared about: people, the young and the old, the sick and the vigorous, the happy and the troubled.

“She knew names and faces, she gave happiness, she gave herself.

“What memories of her the people of Darlington will have in every part of the community’s life: the hospitals, the nurses, the Red Cross, the schools, the children, the handicapped, the sports and the games, the theatre and the drama, the clubs of every kind – and this is no complete picture, it is only a glimpse of the great variety of scenes in which Lady Starmer was always there.”

Crowds outside Lady Starmer's funeral at St Cuthbert's Church on December 28, 1979

In her £185,000 will, she left £2,000 to her housekeeper of 30 years, Olive Wilson; £2,500 to her personal companion of 25 years, Dorothy Finch, and £2,000 to her gardener/chauffeur of 22 years, Joe Finch. They also received free accommodation for their rest of their lives.

Danby Lodge is now an Abbeyfield home

She left at least £30,000 to a variety of charities and her home was given to the Abbeyfield Society. It has been converted into sheltered apartments for elderly people.

The newspapers of 1979 refer to Lady Starmer as Darlington’s “favourite lady”, “best loved citizen” and “most respected person”.

Cllr George Priestley, deputy mayor, said: “She was a credit to the town, a lady of great prestige who never failed those people who turned to her. She supported all the good causes.”

The new Lady Starmer, now Britain’s first lady, is a very different character in a very different time, but if she can taken any inspiration from Darlington’s Lady Starmer, the country will be a better place.

Lady Starmer in June 1974