Following the trend of looking at some of the most famous people to have lived in Harrow, this week’s article features a woman who lived in the borough for longer than most, and who, even as a nationally-known celebrity, still took the time to be a staple of the local community. An icon for a generation, and a figure in an issue that continues to have great relevance today, her name was Claire Rayner – the journalist, broadcaster, novelist, and resident of Harrow-on-the-Hill.
Rayner was not born in Harrow, however. Born to Jewish parents in 1931, as the eldest of four children, Rayner was raised in central London, and educated at the City of London School for Girls – until the family moved to Canada in 1945. Recently, Rayner revealed that this childhood was not an easy one – with the young Rayner having been subject to physical and mental abuse from her parents. The insecurity of her adulthood can be attributed to this torment – with it often having been said that, despite her booming voice and theatricality, she was a deeply vulnerable person on the inside, and was especially sensitive to criticism. It was perhaps this precise insecurity that made her such an effective novelist and agony aunt later on in her life.
After returning from Canada in 1951, aged 20, Rayner trained as a nurse at the Royal Northern Hospital and Guy’s Hospital in London. It was from this that she became involved in the issues of the NHS, and, back then, chiefly nurses’ pay and conditions – with Rayner writing her first letter to Nursing Times in 1958 on this subject, and later writing to The Daily Telegraph on similar issues that plagued the NHS. In the decades to follow, Rayner would be appointed to various government committees on health, and, by 1996, she was awarded an OBE for her work and efforts in women’s health and wellbeing.
Rayner was also prolific figure in the Sexual Revolution of the mid-century, and was at the forefront of the development of sex education in the UK – working as an agony aunt to answer the questions that no one else would. Her work as an agony aunt was one that she continued throughout her life, being most famous for her work on TV-am in the 1980s and 1990s. Whilst working here, she made an effort to reply to each and every letter that she received – which, with her significantly raised profile, was no easy task.
Alongside this work, Rayner also developed an impressive writing portfolio as a novelist. Her most famous work was no doubt The Performers and The Poppy Chronicles, both informed in some ways by the turbulent childhood she had experienced – the books having been about the ‘warm family life never had when I [Rayner] was young.’ The success of these books allowed Rayner, much to her delight, to install a swimming pool in her Harrow home.
In 2010, Rayner passed away after being unable to recover from emergency intestinal surgery she had received earlier in the year. Though it is unclear when Rayner came to Harrow, by the time of her death, she was a well-known member of the community. Tim Gosden, the vicar of St. Mary’s Church at the time, said after her passing that, ‘I’ll always remember how two or three years ago promised to come to a service about bereavement and give a talk, and even though she was very unwell and in a wheelchair at the time, she honoured her promise.’ Elsewhere, she was often spotted around the Harrow area, such as in the South Harrow Waitrose.
Yet far from being significant to the Harrow area alone, Claire Rayner had a presence across the nation. Though working out of the borough – often, as it has been reported, from her own Harrow home – Rayner’s influence spanned the nation. Her sensitivity to the issues of others and forward-thinking intrinsically shaped the times she lived through, and through the decades that her career spanned, she can be seen to have transformed countless lives. But perhaps Claire Rayner can be best surmised by her own last words:
‘Tell David Cameron that if he screws up my beloved NHS, I’ll come back and bloody haunt him.’
Do you have any memories of Claire Rayner; whether in person or from her work? Be sure to share them in the comments below.
Written by Harry Turner.
Image Credit: The Times