The Claverley teacher who dedicated herself to cleaning TV of 'utter filth'

Meet Mary Whitehouse, the 'most dangerous woman in Britain'.

Mary Whitehouse at her Claverley home with the petition calling for a "clean up" of television.
Mary Whitehouse at her Claverley home with the petition calling for a "clean up" of television.

Utter filth on television.

And if you lived through the 1960s and 1970s, you'll have a good idea who we are talking about, as the above was virtually her catchphrase in popular imagination.

Improbably she was once described as the most dangerous woman in Britain. She was mocked, derided, ridiculed, and despised, held up by Swinging Sixties liberaldom as a middle class, middle aged, Christian, reactionary force for anti-freedom.

Her very name became a byword for illiberalism.

Who was this enemy of the people? She was Mary Whitehouse, a teacher from Claverley who became a household name as she began a 1960s campaign to clean up television, or "sex and violence on television," to use another of the catchphrases that came to be associated with her.

It put her on a collision course with right-on actors, writers, producers, and television executives, for whom she was at best an irritant, and at worst a threat to what they saw as their creative freedom. They regarded this woman with the Dame Edna Everage glasses standing in the way of what used to be called "the permissive society" (these days it's just "society") as an interfering busybody.

Incidentally she argued that the phrase "permissive society" was badly named, and was in fact an exploited society and in some ways a cruel society which put considerable pressure on the young.

She regularly made headlines as she crossed swords in particular with the BBC, and was a figure of fun for comedians.

Yes, I think it's disgusting too... On the phone at her Claverley home.

Upsetting Mary Whitehouse could be good for business too.

When in 1974 London publisher Dave Sullivan launched what was described as a "girlie magazine" – some of the first copies of which were seized by police in swoops on two Kidderminster newsagents – he deliberately named it "Whitehouse International."

When Chuck Berry's record My Ding-a-Ling went to the top of the charts in 1972 it was suspected that its success had a lot to do with her objections to lyrics like: "I want to play with my ding-a-ling" and "I remember the girl next door... together we played with my ding-a-ling-a-ling."

As everybody knows, allegedly, a ding-a-ling is a bell or some other object that makes a tinkling noise, and not what the nation's "self-appointed moral custodian" seemed to think it meant.

Mrs Whitehouse drew particular hatred for seeking to bring a rare lawsuit alleging blasphemous libel against the magazine Gay News in 1976, "namely an obscene poem and illustration vilifying Christ in His Life and Crucifixion."

Her campaigning saw her touring Soho with hidden microphones and chatting to strippers, investigating porn shops in Denmark (she was suitably shocked), being granted an audience with the Pope to discuss moral pollution, and being serenaded by a gay group from Essex University singing obscene carols outside her home.

She received a letter on black notepaper inviting her not to recover from an attack of malaria caught while visiting Africa, she was bombarded with pies filled with shaving cream and red dye as she got up to speak at a meeting, and, in Australia, where she needed a permanent police escort, a set of posters showed her with a meat cleaver in her back with the slogan "let the blood flow."

She successfully sued for libel when TV producer Ned Sherrin implied that the reason that she was up to watch late night television was because she was working as a prostitute. Another successful libel case was brought against Johnny Speight, scriptwriter of the television series Till Death Us Do Part, and the BBC, after comments he made on a radio programme were held to suggest that Mrs Whitehouse and her fellow campaigners were fascists and were hypocritically concealing their fascism under the cloak of a moral campaign.

Husband Ernest, who was born in Wolverhampton, was not spared. While the couple lived at Claverley he was driving down a dark country lane and hit and killed an airman who had lain down in the road. Ernest, who suffered delayed shock, was cleared of blame. Mary was bitter that the incident was lampooned in a television series in which the couple appeared as Mrs Do-good and Ernest the Postman traumatised by running over a dog.

On another occasion there was a tip-off to police that two men from London were going to travel to Shropshire to beat her up.

In an 1980 interview, by which time she was living in Essex, she hinted that they had effectively been forced out of their home at Far Forest, near Kidderminster, when they were tracked down and pickets arrived on their lane.

Her campaign to clean up TV must, judged by what appears on the screen without adverse comment nowadays, be judged a failure.

If Mrs Whitehouse had lived to see modern television fare, let alone what appears on the internet, she would have been even more appalled than she was all those years ago.

Words like **** and ******** and even **** no longer result in jammed switchboards. It is evidence, some would say, of a coarser world with lower standards, all those things Mrs Whitehouse was fighting against.

But if she lost the battle, there is still a very open question – was she right in thinking that what people, and particularly children, see and hear on the screen can be corrosive, corrupting, damaging, and debasing? Modern concerns about the impact of social media on the young have echoes of the past.

What should not be forgotten is that she was not a lone voice, but the spokeswoman and standardbearer for a tide of popular concern among many ordinary people.

Her motivation was the welfare of young people and for decent standards.

At the House of Commons in June 1965 to hand in a petition of hundreds of thousands of signatures to James Dance, Tory MP for Bromsgrove.

She was born in Croft Road, Nuneaton, in 1910. She wrote in her autobiography – wrongly – that her birthplace had later become a sex shop.

Mrs Whitehouse was teaching in Wolverhampton and lived in a bungalow on the Wednesfield Road when she met her future husband at a local Oxford Group meeting.

"There was a group of fellows standing there and we just clicked straight away," she said.

"We were very happy in Wolverhampton and it was a very friendly place."

According to research by hobby genealogist Mike Grainger of Newport, in 1939 she was living at 56 Rupert Street, Wolverhampton, presumably lodging, as the householders are listed as Fred and Clara Pessol, with Fred being a Special Constable.

Ernest and Mary married in Chester on March 23, 1940. Married life began in Belvedere Road, Penn, and the family later moved to Merridale Road and then to Claverley.

Her background was in teaching. As Miss Mary Hutcheson, she was an art teacher at the then Lichfield Road School in Wednesfield from 1932 to 1940.

She also taught at Brewood Grammar School at some stage. After bringing up a family, she returned to teaching in 1960 as senior mistress and senior art mistress at Madeley Modern School – now called the Abraham Darby Academy, in Madeley, Telford.

Mary, standing centre, at Madeley Modern School in 1964. Picture courtesy of Daphne Roberts.

At the school she took on the role of looking after the moral welfare of the girls.

She dispensed with the school marriage guidance counsellors after she found their sexual education classes “too factual’’.

One young teacher who had joined the school in 1959, Daphne Roberts, was to recall: “The appointment of Mary Whitehouse to the staff meant that life was never dull and we younger teachers thought some of her ideas were a bit strange, to say the least.

"However, as the years have gone by and we have had our own children, we have come to realise that some of her opinions about bad language and violence on TV were correct.”

It was an incident in the Madeley playground involving five students which proved the spark for Mrs Whitehouse’s campaign.

“I’ve never told anyone what they were doing but it was during the advent of a permissive society,” Mrs Whitehouse explained.

“A close friend who was the wife of a rector found the same thing in her parish and we decided to get a petition going.”

What were the children doing? According to the Guardian's obituary the children had been mimicking sexual intercourse and told her they were imitating Christine Keeler and Mandy Rice-Davies, whom they had seen on television.

She strongly believed that television was broadcasting programmes that caused offence to decent people, and with co founder Mrs Norah Buckland of Longton formed a “Clean Up TV” petition in 1964 which collected 500,000 signatures. The BBC rejected her clean-up manifesto and she went on to found the National Viewers and Listeners Association to monitor programmes and raise public awareness of the influence of “bad television”.

Mrs Whitehouse, a woman of strong Christian beliefs, had made an office out of the front bedroom of her home at The Wold, Claverley, and by the end of 1964 had given up her teaching career to devote all her time to the campaign.

Mary Whitehouse at her Claverley home with the petition calling for a “clean up” of television.

She was general secretary of the NVALA from 1965 to 1980 and was made a CBE in 1980. She was president of the association from 1980 to 1994, making her final public speech as president at the age of 83 in May that year after over 30 years of campaigning.

Mrs Whitehouse was guest speaker at Walker Technical College, Wellington, on September 25, 1974, for a course titled "Social Problems of the 70s." From left: college principal Vivian Morris, Ernest Whitehouse, Mary Whitehouse, Jack Wilson (adult education organiser), and course tutor Bill Parkinson.

In some ways she was ahead of her time. It seems unbelievable now, but a group emerged openly, legally, and in plain sight in the 1970s called the Paedophile Information Exchange. Mrs Whitehouse was both disgusted and hostile.

As for lowered standards on television, she thought that one of the problems was a predominance of men on broadcasting advisory councils, resulting in material getting through that was more suitable for men's clubs than family living rooms.

Her views did not mellow with the years and she had nothing but contempt for EastEnders and the decision to show it during family viewing time.

Still indomitable, in her later years she cracked her spine when a swinging garden chair collapsed, leaving her unable to walk unaided, physically frail and in constant pain.

Beloved husband Ernest died in 2000, leaving her bereft, and she died at a nursing home in Essex aged 91 in November 2001.

Battling to the end... Mary in 2001, shortly before her death.

The National Viewers and Listeners Association which she founded became Mediawatch-UK.

We're not sure when she arrived at Claverley but we can track her movements in our region through some old cuttings.

Her address is given in a story of February 2, 1965, as “Plot 18, The Wold, Claverley,” and in a later interview she described her address at Claverley as being “Postman’s Piece”. In February 1967 a story referred to her “leaving her home at Claverley”; a February 1, 1968, story said that she “now lives at Bewdley, near Kidderminster”; and a March 1970 story said that she “now lives at Far Forest, near Cleobury Mortimer.”

In September 1975 she was living on the edge of the Wyre Forest at a four-bedroomed farmhouse called Triangle Farm, Rock.

At the end of that month the couple moved to a six-bedroomed house in the village of Ardleigh, near Colchester, because it was a more convenient base for her work as secretary of the NVLA and she had been finding travelling from the Midlands to London very taxing.

Mary Whitehouse outside her Essex home in the early 1990s.

Fact file

Born: Constance Mary Hutcheson, at Croft Road, Nuneaton, June 13, 1910.

Career: A teacher at various Midlands schools, ultimately Madeley Modern School, before giving it up at Christmas 1964 to concentrate on her television clean-up campaigning.

Beginnings: Launched Clean-Up TV campaign in January 1964 with vicar's wife Norah Buckland, with first public meeting at Birmingham Town Hall on May 5, 1964. Co-founded the National Viewers and Listeners Association in 1965. Stepped down as president in 1994.

Family: Married Wolverhampton-born Ernest Whitehouse in Chester on March 23, 1940, and set up home in Penn, Wolverhampton. They were married for 60 years, celebrating their diamond wedding anniversary shortly before Ernest died in August 2000. Three sons, Chris, Richard, and Paul.

Honours: Appointed CBE in 1980.

Died: November 23, 2001, at Colchester.

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