This is an obituary of Maggie Rae, who died yesterday while on a cruise in the Antarctic.
Maggie was a good friend, and Fiona and I last saw her a few weeks ago for dinner with Charlie and Marianna Falconer, after she had returned home from Iceland, where her husband Alan had died while they were on a cruise. It really is hard to process the fact that she too has now died on a cruise, in the Antarctic, one which he had booked for them, and insisted, when he was clearly very ill, that if he died she went without him.
Though we knew her well, it is not always easy to get all the facts right when writing about someone else’s life and times, but I have checked all the facts below with her family and former colleagues.
Most newspapers and other media outlets do not have obituary writers like they used to, so please feel free to use and/or plunder, and to anyone else reading, and who knew Maggie, or knew of her, please feel free to share.
Given the celebrity world we live in, I suppose the media take on Maggie Rae’s death would be “Princess Diana’s divorce lawyer dies on Antarctic cruise.” For publications less interested in the Royal angle, perhaps “Tony and Cherie Blair lose lifelong friend.”
Maggie certainly moved in the circles of the great and the good. Yet a less celebrity like human being it would be hard to find. Perhaps that part explained why so many of the well-known trusted her so much.
It means that this morning, a lot of people are trying hard to compute the fact that she has gone, in circumstances that are all the more awful when put alongside the recent death of her husband, Labour peer Alan Haworth. Alan died aged 75 at the end of August, after being taken ill on a cruise off Greenland and Iceland. He was helicoptered to hospital, but didn’t make it through.
The cruise that Maggie was on when she was taken ill was one that he booked, insisting in his dying hours that if he did pass away, she was to go without him. Thankfully she was not alone, but with close friend Roz Preston, also a widow, also a good friend of the Blairs and a key part of the New Labour family.
Maggie was taken from the ship to King Edward VII hospital in Port Stanley on the Falkland Islands, but died shortly afterwards. She was 74. Roz Preston, who had been a friend of Maggie’s for almost half a century, said that both on the Fram cruise ship, and at the hospital, Maggie had nothing but praise for the compassion and professionalism of the doctors and nurses.
The eldest of five sisters, Maggie was born in St Albans on 20th September 1949. She is survived by Sheila, 71, Rosie, 70, and Kate who is 63. The fifth child, Susan, who had cystic fibrosis, died young.
At the time of Maggie’s birth, her parents, Harvey and Mary, lived in a council flat in St Albans, but moved to Doddinghurst, near Brentwood, to live in a kit house, Cedar Ridge, built with the help of the neighbour. Her father worked for Unilever in London but later moved to Ghana to work for the United Africa Company. Maggie went to an army school in Cape coast. It was perhaps her first major exposure to what she viewed as social injustice, seeing how badly many black children were treated compared with her.
When the family returned it was to Norfolk, where her father worked for Birds Eye foods in Gt Yarmouth. It was a tough time. Maggie’s sister Susan, who had cystic fibrosis, had died just before the move. Their mother’s grief led to struggles with mental health. Money was short. In addition to the day job, her father ran a smallholding, her mother recovered and they had a new sister, Kate, and animals to look after too. “Esmeralda the pig was the worst,” recalls sister Sheila Smith, “but milking cows in the icy winters was not so good either. I remember Maggie planning to run away to be a ballerina – her bag was all packed, but the moment passed and it was found weeks later in the cupboard under the stairs.”
Maggie’s interest in the law was fired by watching early courtroom dramas on the black and white TV, her father proud to have got the first one in their street. Her lifelong love of Scotland came from her mother’s background, with summer holidays spent around the Moray Firth visiting relatives.
She passed the 11 plus and went to Gt Yarmouth High school for girls. It was the tenth school she had been to in all the family travels, and the one she stayed at longest. She was very clever, and very studious. She and her best friend Denny were chosen to compete in a school version of University Challenge, which was broadcast by Anglia TV. She and Denny both joined Mensa.
At Warwick University, she was active in student politics and anti-war demos. After graduating she got a pupillage to be a barrister. She had to pay for it herself and worked as a waitress and door to door encyclopaedia seller.
Always strong-willed and with strong opinions she was never afraid to voice, she was a natural born lawyer. Having qualified as a barrister she trained as a pupil in 5 Essex Court under Frederic Reynold KC before becoming one of the founder members of Wellington Street chambers in Covent Garden. This was a ground-breaking move, embracing the radical new concept of barristers’ chambers openly espousing their left of centre views and eschewing the traditional idea that barristers had to be in the Inns of Court. This later became Doughty Street chambers.
She soon made her name as a family lawyer. Maggie however grew frustrated with the traditional distance between barrister and client and decided to leave the bar to become a solicitor. With the late Henry Hodge, Patrick Allen and Peter Jones she helped found the firm Hodge Jones and Allen.
She then moved to Mishcon de Reya as a partner which is where she famously became part of Princess Diana’s legal team. It was Maggie who arranged a series of meetings between Diana and the then Opposition leader, Tony Blair.
“Maggie and Alan have been an important part of our life for many decades,” he said in tribute. “Maggie was an enormous character whose warmth and personality lit up any room she entered. She was loved and respected in equal measure and will be missed by all who ever knew her.”
Cherie Blair said: “As a lawyer, Maggie’s clients trusted her because of her knowledge and professionalism, because she had excellent judgment and because she was kind. Her friends loved her because she brought such joy into all of our lives. It is really hard to process the fact that in a matter of weeks both of them have gone like this.”
It was at Alan and Maggie’s home that Tony and Cherie, and Fiona and I, attended dinners with Diana, and our usual greeting, since the publication of my diaries, was “an ordinary house in an ordinary street”, my description of their Hackney home. The respect and fondness that Diana had for her was clear. But while, to quote Alan, Tony couldn’t decide whether to treat Diana like a diplomat or flirt with her (I had no such difficulty choosing) Maggie treated Diana like she treated anyone else – with fondness and respect.
A Communist in her youth, it was when Maggie was sharing a flat with Cherie that she joined the Labour Party and met her future husband through local politics. “It really was a case of them finding the love of their lives,” said Cherie.
Keen walkers, she and were part of the Radical Ramblers group, with Scotland a favoured place for their long walks. Adventurous in their holiday choices to the end, they loved beautiful landscapes, travel and having a lot of fun. She was also a homemaker building that first home in Hackney that she shared with Cherie from a wreck into a wonderful home. She did much of the work herself and subsequently did the same with a house she bought in Miradoux in France, a place where many of the great and the good of New Labour enjoyed their holidays.
Cherie Blair recalled: “Maggie could turn her hand to anything – including making the bridesmaid dresses for my wedding even if they were only finished minutes before we had to leave for the church.”
Maggie was a consultant at family law firm Newton Kearns. Speaking on behalf of the firm’s partners, Paul Newton said: “Maggie was a truly inspirational woman. At the heart of everything she did was her humour, humanity and her kindness. She relentlessly pursued fairness in her work. Despite – or because of – her decades of experience in family law, she was full of humility. A true grande dame of family law who eschewed the moniker at all costs. We will miss her so very deeply – as a lawyer and as our friend – her wisdom, wit and her ability to know precisely the right thing to do in any given situation. Maggie gave us all so much and for that we will be forever grateful.”
When our friend Lindsay Nicholson was going through an unpleasant divorce, we introduced her to Maggie, and this was Lindsay’s judgement of her approach. “Maggie’s brilliance as a divorce lawyer lay in her belief that the sooner it is over, the sooner all parties can get on with rebuilding their lives. She despised the kind of lawyers who drag things out, arguing over every little detail racking up huge court costs. This was, I believe, what led her to advise Princess Diana to let the HRH go. Mind you, if she thought there was abuse then look out – she would turn into an avenging angel! “
She was always viewed as a pioneer, and wherever she worked she saw part of her role as being a mentor to younger lawyers.
She worked tirelessly for women’s rights including a long period as Chair of the Refuge charity. Forever curious she was always looking for new challenges and causes and had recently taken on the Chair of the UK branch of the support Foundation for the Asian University for women.
Maggie split her time between London, the Black Isle in Scotland and Miradoux in France, where she was planning eventually to settle for her retirement.
Another close friend, Labour MP Margaret Hodge, said that plans underway to organise a memorial at Westminster for Alan Haworth would now be adapted so that they could be remembered together. They had no children, but she doted on her four nephews and one niece, who tried and failed to persuade Maggie to build a pool at the house in France. Maggie was not a swimming pool type. She was a devoted cat-lover, her favourite perhaps being the one she took from London to France, called Soixante-dix-neuf.
It is fair to say that Maggie liked a drink. Perhaps my favourite memory of all was when she and Alan were spending New Year with us in the Scottish Highlands. We had seen the New Year in with widespread commitment – including from Maggie – to participating in Dry January.
Come lunchtime on January 1, she poured herself a glass of wine and announced: “I think I’ll do wet January instead.” Followed by that unforgettable chuckle that endeared itself to all, from Royalty and Prime Ministers to, frankly, anyone she ever came across.