Me and my school photo: Shirley Williams

Politician and academic Shirley Williams, Baroness Williams of Crosby, was originally a Labour MP and Cabinet Minister. She helped found the Social Democratic Party (SDP) in 1981 and from 2001-2004, she served as Leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords. Shirley has one daughter and lives near Bishops Stortford, Hertfordshire.


Evacuee: Shirley Williams, aged 10, at Summit School in Minnesota, where she spent three years during WWII

This is a picture of me when I was ten and at the Summit School in St Paul, Minnesota - of which more later. I was born in London and grew up, with my older brother, John, in Chelsea and the New Forest - with a great many adventures elsewhere in between. My father was the political scientist and philosopher Sir George Catlin, and my mother was pacifist, feminist and writer Vera Brittain.

I went to a lot of schools - starting, aged two and a half, at the Open Air Nursery in Chelsea. It was the 1930s and it had a very modern ethos. The idea was that we were outside almost all the time. I stayed there until I was five, and it was lovely.

Next came Mrs Spencer's Academy, a small prep school in South Kensington. I was there until I was seven and remember very little about it - except that I didn't like it much. I demanded, instead, to go to Christ Church Elementary - the local Church of England state school, which looked more exciting. I was there until I was almost nine and loved it. It was round the corner from home and I could get there on my own.

I was intrigued by the children I met at school who lived on a big council estate. They looked lively and interesting, and so they were. I much preferred the dynamic challenge and energy of my new school. I even liked it that a lot of the pupils thought, since I lived in a five-storey Georgian house, that my mother's cook was my mother.

Shirley Williams

In the media: Shirley is one of the most quotable politicians of the past 50 years

School discipline was very strict - quite a lot of caning went on for the boys. Girls couldn't be caned - you were banged on the head instead, although not very hard. I was a competitive child. I liked risk, matching myself against challenges, such as climbing my father's bookshelves to the top.

When the war became serious in 1940, my parents decided I should be evacuated to a safer place - Swanage in Dorset. I spent a bit less than a year at a boarding school there.

It was a very good Quaker School, but a fearful lot of bullying went on, and the teachers seemed completely unaware of it. They were upright people, and they probably thought children were nicer than they actually are.

I didn't get bullied too much - I was more on the bullying side. When a school has a culture of bullying you have to decide whether to be tough or a victim. I chose to be a bit of a bully.

A typical example of the tricks we got up to was our game of Truth or Dare. You either had to answer questions you would least like to answer, or take on a dare which could be as lethal as knocking on Matron's door at midnight or climbing a wardrobe with a large jug of water. As for my school work, I think I got reasonable reports.

In July 1940, my brother and I were evacuated even further - to Minnesota in the US. My mother had received a telegram from people she didn't know very well saying, 'Send us your children!' My parents thought it was a good idea to send us away because a German invasion seemed imminent.

So we travelled to Liverpool, en-route first to Canada, on a boat with no name - it had been painted out for safety reasons. It was an official evacuation for children, although it was abandoned when two ships carrying evacuees shortly after ours were torpedoed.

John and I arrived safely in Canada and stayed with one of my mother's fans. Then we travelled by train to Minnesota to stay with our new foster parents - a naval doctor and his wife, a feminist.

I went to the local junior high school - an all-girls school - from the age of ten to 13. I enjoyed it tremendously. Academically I found it a piece of cake. They were about two years behind the UK in traditional subjects. As a result everyone thought I was brilliant.

We returned to London in 1943, because my parents didn't want us to miss the whole war. They were worried that if we didn't live through some of it, we would never really be part of British society again. I went to St Paul's Girls School in west London until it was bombed in 1944.

I was then sent to Cambridge for three months to stay with Rosemary - the girl who was my companion on the boat coming home from the US. I lived with her mother - a GP - and an entire modern dance company from Germany, all refugees, known as the Jooss Ballet. They taught us how to dance.

After that brief Cambridge interlude I went to Talbot Heath Grammar school, near Bournemouth. I stayed there until the summer of 1945, and then I went back to St Paul's in London. At 17, I passed the entrance exam for Oxford.

While I waited to take my place at Somerville College, I spent six months as a cowhand on an Essex farm, and then the summer as a waitress in Whitley Bay on the Northumberland coast.

After graduating in Philosophy, Politics and Economics, I went back to the US for a year to study at Columbia University in New York, before returning to the UK and starting my career as a journalist. So there you have the story of my very varied school days.

Climbing The Bookshelves by Shirley Williams, published by Virago at £20, is out now

No comments have so far been submitted. Why not be the first to send us your thoughts, or debate this issue live on our message boards.

We are no longer accepting comments on this article.

Who is this week's top commenter? Find out now