PD/15 Photograph, Nancy, Lady Astor, 1923

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Keywords: Nancy Astor / Nancy, Lady Astor / Parliament / Government / MP / Plymouth / Devon / Elliot Terrace / Primrose League / Women's Liberation / Politics / Personalities


Nancy Witcher Astor, Viscountess Astor, CH, (19 May 1879 – 2 May 1964) was the first woman to sit as a Member of Parliament (MP) in the British House of Commons. (Constance Markiewicz was the first woman elected to the House of Commons after running for the Sinn Féin party in 1918, but in line with Sinn Féin's abstentionist policy she did not take her seat.)

Born in Danville, Virginia, USA, on May 19th 1879, Nancy Witcher Langhorne was the daughter of Chiswell Dabney Langhorne, who made his fortune in railway development. In 1897 she married Robert Gould Shaw and had one son by that marriage. The couple divorced in 1903 and she moved to England the following year. In 1906 she married another wealthy American, Waldorf Astor, who was Conservative Member of Parliament for the Sutton Division of Plymouth. Their home was at Cliveden in Buckinghamshire.

During her early years in Plymouth she was very concerned about the children of poor mothers who were compelled to work. In April 1912 a day nursery for 26 children was established at number 19 Whimple Street, where in the first six months some 1,854 youngsters were cared for. In December 1916 it was moved to Looe Street. This was followed in December 1912 by another nursery at number 18 Cecil Street, which was financed by Mrs Astor, as she then was, and named the Francis Astor Nursery after her son. A third, named the William Astor Nursery was opened at number 49 Embankment Road in August 1913.

On October 9th 1918 Miss Phyllis Astor, their daughter, opened a convalescent home for delicate children from Plymouth in a large house 15o yards from Dousland Station, on Dartmoor. It could accommodate 20 children, both under as well as over school age, and was entirely fitted and financed by the Astors. Mr J J Judge, Miss Champness, Miss Olive Adams and a Miss Phillips provided practical assistance. It become known as Wissiecott Children's Convalescent Home and survived until 1921, when Lady Astor seemed aggrieved that nobody else seemed interested in providing financial support and agreed to its closure.

When Waldorf succeeded to the title of 2nd Viscount Astor following the death of his Father in 1919, the seat became vacant and his wife was forward as a candidate. The election took place on November 28th 1919, when she defeated the Liberal candidate, Isaac Foot. On December 1st 1919 she became the first woman to take a seat in the House of Commons. Her maiden speech was in support of the Temperance Society.

In 1925 Lord and Lady Astor founded and financed the Virginia House Settlement in Looe Street, Plymouth. The Astor Institute at Mount Gould was also instigated by Lady Astor.

As a Conservative, Lady Astor was strongly in favour of the appeasement of Hitler during the 1930s. However, after the outbreak of the Second World War, she became critical of that policy and voted against the Government of the day, thus bringing Winston Churchill to power.

When Plymouth appointed Lord Astor as Lord Mayor in 1939 she naturally served as Lady Mayoress, which lasted until 1944. In 1945 she was advised that the Labour Party were most likely to win the first post-war General Election and so she declined to stand for re-election as Member of Parliament.

//Nancy, Viscountess Astor was granted the Freedom of the City of Plymouth on July 16rg 1959. Lady Astor died on May 2nd 1964.


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