February 2012

The Nation Reviewed

Long in the Tooth

By Paola Totaro
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.
Trixie Gardner

The Baroness Gardner of Parkes, Conservative member of the British House of Lords, waves me through the Peers’ Lobby and with an informal “This way!” called over her shoulder, she presses onward and upward into the Gothic gold and stone splendour of Westminster Palace’s innards. Diminutive, perfectly coiffed, she walks briskly and without the creaky gait characteristic of those in their ninth decade.

We climb stone stairs, whizz past busts of prime ministers and knights, walk through endless labyrinthine corridors and stop, finally, in the riot of red and gilt that is the Royal Gallery. This is the room used for Britain’s most important state occasions, the place where the reigning monarch pauses before entering the Lords Chamber to open a new parliament. “Is this OK?” she asks before sitting down in a red leather chair with an aplomb born of familiarity. “You haven’t seen it before? Incredible isn’t it?”

Baroness Gardner has a rotten cold and deep cough but there’s no mistaking it: an Aussie accent, cultured, but antipodean without doubt. Born Rachel Trixie McGirr in Parkes, rural New South Wales – but known since she was a little girl as Trixie – Baroness Gardner is the only Australian in the House of Lords.

A dentist by profession, she moved to London in 1954 not long after graduating from the University of Sydney. This was a time when 250 new dentists were being turned out each year but only 50 or so could find jobs at home.

“Australians improved the standard of dentistry in the UK. We introduced local anaesthetic for fillings,” she says. “Until then people just used to grin and bear it, or the dentist stopped when it got too painful.”

The young McGirr quickly found a job at a family practice in Putney in the capital’s south-west. She spent all her spare cash and time on travel, making it as far as the Russian border near the Arctic Circle one year: “I went with a girlfriend and we took the cheapest little cabin in the bowels of a small ship. We had a tiny saucepan, boiled water with a cube beneath it and existed on soup and the smell of an oil rag. I remember there was this lovely old American couple travelling first class who smuggled potatoes to us.”

Gardner’s independence probably stemmed from being the second youngest of nine children. She spent most of her childhood in the family home at Cammeray, on Sydney’s north side. All the McGirr kids turned out to be good students, going on to significant careers, some in medicine, others in the law.

Both her parents were political too: her mother, the first woman to graduate with a teaching degree from the University of Sydney and appointed as a high school teacher in Queensland, voted United Australia Party, while her father, Gregory McGirr, “voted Labor until the day he died”.

Gardner recounts her father’s humble origins – and the opportunity offered in one extraordinary moment of luck – with such emotion that her eyes fill with tears. “My father got an education because his father had cows and a milk-run in Parkes. A very rich woman in the town came to my grandfather one day and said: ‘Here, all the education has been fully paid for my boy to go to Saint Stanislaus’ College and he won’t go. I want one of your boys to have it.’ They looked at the eldest boy, Pat, but he said: ‘It’s too late for me, give it to Greg.’ … I shouldn’t get so emotional about it but it pulled the whole family up.”

Greg McGirr not only became one of Sydney Uni’s first graduates in pharmacy in 1905, but later sowed the seed of a property fortune by creating a rabbit poison named ‘Rabbo’. As a young pharmacist he helped fund education for his younger siblings, and three McGirrs ended up in the state parliament.

Gardner’s father contested unsuccessfully one of the first federal elections in 1910 but later, in 1920, became the state’s first and only Labor minister for public health and motherhood. His younger brother, James McGirr, was also a Labor man, and was elected premier in 1947, serving until 1952, while Pat was elected to the state upper house.           

Gardner says her professional life owes much also to her late husband, Kevin Gardner, an Australian dental surgeon she met again in London (they had been fellow students in Sydney). The two married in Paris in 1956 and decided to take on a run-down dental practice in Clerkenwell in central London. They had three daughters – Rachel is a GP, Sarah a solicitor and Joanna, the oldest, worked in politics and advertising and is now patron of a major charity. To her surprise, all three embraced Conservative politics: Rachel and Sarah have been elected councillors while Joanna was Lady Mayoress of Westminster.

Gardner’s own political interest began in 1955 when she wrote a letter to the two major parties asking that they explain their policies. A reply from the legendary Labour figure Hugh Gaitskell enthused her, but it was a home visit from a Tory local MP at a time when no election was in sight that made the biggest impression. Ultimately, she says, the tipping point in her joining the Conservatives was Labour’s inability to embrace the possibility of home ownership for those in public housing.

She describes the transition into professional politics as “really quite strange”: the local Conservatives association asked her to talk to the women’s committee about Australia and her speech, illustrated with “wonderful slides provided by the New South Wales agent-general”, was a hit. She was asked to come back and then to chair the committee itself. She became increasingly involved until 1968 when she ran for Westminster City Council, won and served as a councillor for more than a decade.

She was on the cusp of being the first woman elected Lord Mayor of Westminster when she lost her seat by just 50 votes – her own fault, she says, for not door-knocking enough during one of her sisters’ visits. She remembers the seat loss as “shattering” but she had also run successfully for the Greater London Council and for a time served on two councils concurrently.

Behind it all, however, was the desire to win a place on the Tory candidates list, which she finally managed in 1970. That year, she fought the first of two general elections, both non-Conservative safe seats. She says the experience was priceless. “As it happens, Margaret Thatcher was returned to power and in 1981 I got the peerage.” For her two decades of service, Gardner was conferred the title of Baroness.

“I have loved it here,” she says of her time in the Lords, “the standard of debate, the courtesy. We have always taken the attitude that legislation is reviewed word for word, always with the aim not of playing smart politics but to make the law better.”

“We have, in the crossbenchers, a world expert in nearly everything, scientists, economists, medical specialists … Now there are close to 800 in the House of Lords and it is becoming truly unmanageable. I remember in the days of the hereditaries [hereditary peers] sitting next to the Duke of Marlborough and I said to him: ‘You don’t come very often.’ He said: ‘Yes I do, very regularly.’ What he meant was once a year for the State Opening!”

John Dauth, Australia’s High Commissioner in London, says Trixie Gardner has fitted like a “hand into glove” at the very apex of British society but has managed to retain her Australian heritage “proudly and determinedly”: “She knows everything there is to know about upper-class England but remains refreshingly – and in a very Australian way – free of affectation or side.”

At 84, she continues to be incredibly busy: “Sometimes, it feels like it’s more than you can cope with,” she smiles. “On the other hand, I don’t know what I would do if I didn’t have it. Now, what is the time? Some old Australian dental colleagues are coming to meet me … shall we go now? Just follow me!”

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