Early life and education
Margaret Hilda Roberts was born on 13 October 1925, in Grantham, Lincolnshire. Her parents were Alfred Roberts (1892–1970), from Northamptonshire, and Beatrice Ethel (née Stephenson, 1888–1960), from Lincolnshire. She spent her childhood in Grantham, where her father owned two grocery shops. In 1938, prior to the Second World War, the Roberts family briefly gave sanctuary to a teenage Jewish girl who had escaped Nazi Germany. Margaret, with her pen-friending elder sister Muriel, saved pocket money to help pay for the teenager's journey.
Alfred Roberts was an alderman and a Methodist local preacher, and brought up his daughter as a strict Wesleyan Methodist, attending the Finkin Street Methodist Church. He came from a Liberal family but stood (as was then customary in local government) as an Independent. He served as Mayor of Grantham in 1945–46 and lost his position as alderman in 1952 after the Labour Party won its first majority on Grantham Council in 1950.
Margaret Roberts attended Huntingtower Road Primary School and won a scholarship to Kesteven and Grantham Girls' School, a grammar school. Her school reports showed hard work and continual improvement; her extracurricular activities included the piano, field hockey, poetry recitals, swimming and walking. She was head girl in 1942–43. In her upper sixth year she applied for a scholarship to study chemistry at the University of Oxford's Somerville College, a women's college at the time, but she was initially rejected and was offered a place only after another candidate withdrew.
Roberts arrived at Oxford in 1943 and graduated in 1947 with Second-Class Honours, in the four-year Chemistry Bachelor of Science degree, specialising in X-ray crystallography under the supervision of Dorothy Hodgkin. Her dissertation was on the structure of the antibiotic gramicidin. Thatcher did not devote herself entirely to studying chemistry as she only intended to be a chemist for a short period of time. Even while working on the subject, she was already thinking towards law and politics. She was reportedly prouder of becoming the first Prime Minister with a science degree than becoming the first woman, and as Prime Minister attempted to preserve Somerville as a women's college.
During her time at Oxford, she was noted for her isolated and serious attitude. Her first boyfriend, Tony Bray (1926–2014), recalled that she was "very thoughtful and a very good conversationalist. That's probably what interested me. She was good at general subjects". Her enthusiasm for politics as a girl made him think of her as "unusual". Bray later met Roberts' parents and described them as "slightly austere" and "very proper".
At the end of the term at Oxford, Bray gradually became more distant and hoped for their relationship to "fizzle out". Bray later recalled that he thought Roberts had taken the relationship more seriously than he had done. When asked about Bray in later life, Thatcher prevaricated but acknowledged the circumstances between herself and Bray.
Roberts became President of the Oxford University Conservative Association in 1946. She was influenced at university by political works such as Friedrich Hayek's The Road to Serfdom (1944), which condemned economic intervention by government as a precursor to an authoritarian state.
Postgraduate career: 1947–1951
||This woman is headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated.
|— Assessment of Roberts by the ICI in 1948
After graduating, Roberts moved to Colchester in Essex to work as a research chemist for BX Plastics near Manningtree. In 1948 she applied for a job at Imperial Chemical Industries (ICI), but was rejected after the personnel department assessed her as "headstrong, obstinate and dangerously self-opinionated". Agar (2011) argues that her understanding of modern scientific research would later impact her views as Prime Minister.
Roberts joined the local Conservative Association and attended the party conference at Llandudno, Wales, in 1948, as a representative of the University Graduate Conservative Association. Meanwhile, she became a high-ranking affiliate of the Vermin Club, a group of grassroots Conservatives formed in response to a derogatory comment made by Aneurin Bevan. One of her Oxford friends was also a friend of the Chair of the Dartford Conservative Association in Kent, who were looking for candidates. Officials of the association were so impressed by her that they asked her to apply, even though she was not on the party's approved list; she was selected in January 1950 (aged 24) and added to the approved list post ante.
At a dinner following her formal adoption as Conservative candidate for Dartford in February 1949 she met divorcé Denis Thatcher, a successful and wealthy businessman, who drove her to her Essex train. After their first meeting she described him to Muriel as "not a very attractive creature – very reserved but quite nice". In preparation for the election Roberts moved to Dartford, where she supported herself by working as a research chemist for J. Lyons and Co. in Hammersmith, part of a team developing emulsifiers for ice cream. Shortly after her marriage to Denis, she and her husband began attending Anglican services and would later convert to Anglicanism.