She was the Scottish Labour minister who grew up in a Fife mining village during the Depression that over two million people have every reason to thank.

The late Jennie Lee who encouraged fellow Labour MP husband Aneurin (Nye) Bevan to become the chief architect of the National Health Service, was key to the founding of the 'university of the air', a groundbreaking way for people of all ages and from all sections of society to gain a university qualification.

This year the Open University celebrates its 50th anniversary. And to mark the occasion, the miner's daughter from Lochgelly is being celebrated in a new exhibition in Glasgow that opened on Wednesday.

The exhibition which opened at the Glasgow Mitchell Library features personal papers bequeathed to the Open University about her personal and political life, from her childhood until her death.

READ MORE: Play tells the inspiring story of political couple Aneurin Bevan and Jennie Lee

Susan Stewart, director of The Open University in Scotland said: “Jennie Lee fought passionately for a university open to all, regardless of educational background.

“She left a massive legacy, with more than 200,000 Scots and two million people worldwide studying with the OU in its fifty years.

“It’s important to acknowledge the Scottish roots of the OU and I hope that this exhibition will help to keep Jennie’s story alive.”

Educated at Beath Secondary School before going, with support from the Carnegie Trust, to Edinburgh University to study law, education was in her blood.

After gaining her teaching certificate, she eventually decided to stand as an Independent Labour Party candidate in a 1929 North Lanarkshire constituency by-election.

READ MORE: Bevan's backroom boys: the Scottish civil servants who were true architects of NHS

Against the odds, she was propelled to Westminster, and to become the youngest woman ever to have been elected as an MP. She entered the House of Commons at the age of 24, before she was old enough to vote. At the time of the by-election, women under the age of 30 were not yet able to vote.

In Parliament, she would cause uproar during her first speech, in which she accused Winston Churchill of “corruption and incompetence”.

Later she would met Mr Bevan, the Welsh firebrand MP for Ebbw Vale, in South Wales, on the rebound from an affair with a married MP and the couple married in 1934, and had a tempestuous relationship.

Both of them were loved and loathed by their fellow MPs - Mr Bevan, dubbed the Bollinger Bolshevik by Lord Beaverbrook, with Lee, his Lady Macbeth, refusing to allow him to compromise.

A Labour rebel, she would protest against the introduction of prescription and dental charges, and was the first UK Minister for the Arts, and arguably the most influential.

During a career as a politician that spanned three decades, she is perhaps best recognised for what she did while in her 60s.

That was when she produced the White Paper that outlined the plans for what would become The Open University, which was supported enthusiastically by Prime Minister Harold Wilson and called “blithering nonsense” by other MPs.

Claire Baker MSP for Mid Scotland and Fife and a relative of Jennie Lee, who officially opened the exhibition, said: “It is wonderful to see this exhibition on Jennie Lee, celebrating her life and recognising her legacy.

“This display of personal, political and public papers offers a wonderful insight into the life of a ground-breaking woman, from her childhood in Fife to her time in government and latterly the House of Lords.

"In her role as Minister for the Arts, Jennie Lee had a critical role in establishing The Open University, which at the time was a radical idea that challenged tradition and privilege.

“Her wholehearted commitment to the idea was central to its delivery and now here we are, celebrating the OU's 50th anniversary."

The exhibition archive materials bring together hundreds of artefacts from collections from the Open University, Glasgow City Archives and ONFife (Fife Cultural Trust) for the first time to tell the story of Jennie Lee’s life.

It includes material about her political career including her time as Minister for the Arts and also her work as an MP.

There are papers that relate to her personal life, including relationships with family and friends, her marriage to Mr Bevan, and details of her early years, such as her education and teaching career.

The collection also includes a large number of photographs, mostly of Jennie Lee, as well as a small number of Mr Bevan's own papers.

They include a Master of Arts certificate she gained from Edinburgh University, newspaper clippings of her lecture tours in Russia and the US in the early 1930s and photographs from Independent Labour Party conferences in the 1930s.

David McDonald, chairman of Glasgow Life, added: “As the display details, she was a trailblazer in the field of arts and education, like Jennie we continue to believe in the importance of inspiring Glaswegians and visitors to the city to lead richer lives through culture and learning, be that via The Open University or through engaging with the City Archives and discovering more of our city’s incredible history. I hope this exhibition will bring Jennie Lee’s story and her enduring impact to a wider audience.”


The exhibition Jennie Lee: From Lochgelly to The Lords is in Glasgow till November 30 before running at the Lochgelly Centre from December 6 to March 6, next year.

Heather Stuart, chief executive of the Fife Cultural Trust, said: “She was one of our own from Lochgelly, and we are incredibly proud to be so closely associated with her formative years and to be safeguarding her legacy for future generations to know just how much of a trailblazer she was.

"We are particularly proud to have developed the Jennie Lee Library as part of Lochgelly Centre and it is indicative of her impact that it was the local townspeople themselves who chose to name the library after Jennie in order to pay homage to her."