The year was 1915; Britain was at war. At a genteel gathering one evening, the Liberal Prime Minister, Herbert Henry (known as H. H.) Asquith, sat down to a game of bridge with a pretty young woman called Hilda Harrisson, wife of Major Roland Harrisson. He was instantly beguiled.
The following year, on August 22, 1916, Hilda gave birth to a daughter, Anne.
In society circles, there was much talk. Was Anne the illegitimate daughter of the PM?
Following the death of Hilda’s husband in action in 1917, the Prime Minister’s frequent visits to Hilda’s home to see little Anne fuelled the gossip.
Carrie Symonds is famed in Tory circles and had previously been pictured with Stanley Johnson at an anti-whaling protest in central London
Hilda Harrisson (pictured above) had caught the eye of Liberal Prime Minister Herbert Henry
Following the death of Hilda’s husband in action in 1917 Prime Minister Asquith frequently visited Hilda’s home
But why should the story of adulterous passion between the Prime Minister and the Major’s wife be of interest now, more than a hundred years later?
Well, Anne Harrisson, the child at the centre of a discreet scandal in wartime Britain, is none other than the grandmother of Carrie Symonds.
Carrie is the young blonde who was at Boris Johnson’s side when he made his spectacular leadership bid this week — and who will enter Downing Street with him as his consort if, as seems increasingly likely, he becomes Prime Minister.
If the story of Anne’s paternity is true, it means that Ms Symonds is the great-granddaughter of former Prime Minister H. H. Asquith.
Carrie’s family treet shows the key figures which may have influenced Carrie throughout her life
Certainly, Carrie’s father, Matthew Symonds, has told friends he believes it to be true.
The story has been doubted by historians, and by Anne herself. She died two years ago, aged 100, so perhaps we’ll never know now.
But whether it’s true or not, the story of adulterous passion between the Prime Minister and the Major’s wife has passed into legend in the Symonds family.
Early on in Carrie’s life, the story may well have captured her imagination, drawing her irresistibly to the world of power and politics.
Asquith’s devoted friendship with Hilda Harrisson is far from being the only scandal in Carrie’s family history. The Symonds closet is positively rattling with skeletons.
Anne had an affair with the married journalist John Beavan, later Lord Ardwick. The illegitimate son they had together was Matthew Symonds, Carrie’s father.
Matthew himself had an affair with another woman, Josephine McAfee, while he was married to someone else — and Carrie is the product of that illicit affair.
Carrie Symonds pictured above with Boris Johnson, is said to be behind his slender new look
And now Carrie, of course, is in a passionate relationship with a man who is not yet divorced from his wife of 25 years, Marina Wheeler, with whom he has four children.
So then, a long line of illegitimacy through the generations that may have begun in Downing Street more than 100 years ago — and will come full circle if Carrie enters No. 10 with Boris.
And it all began with the arrival of Anne. A charming woman with great strength of personality, she had a career as a broadcaster on culture and politics for the BBC World Service for 30 years.
In both looks and her determined character, Carrie resembles her grandmother to an uncanny degree.
After Anne’s birth in Liverpool on August 22, 1916, Asquith was a regular visitor to the family home. The following year, tragedy struck when Hilda’s husband, Major Harrisson, was killed in action.
According to Anne’s obituary, the Prime Minister ‘became a pillar of support to the young widow, helping her financially and having her to stay in London and Sutton Courtenay [his Oxfordshire home].’
What Asquith’s second wife, Margot, made of Hilda and Anne’s visits has not been recorded.
Growing up in Boars Hill, near Oxford, Anne took a keen interest in politics. As a child, she was a Liberal supporter, but when Asquith died in 1928, she switched her allegiance to Labour. Here, then, is the crucial difference between Carrie and the grandmother, who has been her role model: their politics.
Anne Symonds interviewing the former Conservative Chancellor of the Exchequer Reginald Maudling. Anne had embarked on an affair with journalist John Beavan
Anne, her obituary noted, was ‘a passionate European, with a zest for cultural tourism’. After reading philosophy, politics and economics at Somerville College, Oxford, Anne married an Oxford contemporary, Richard Symonds, in May 1940. But he was posted to India to help the war effort and the marriage foundered.
The stage was set for the next Symonds intrigue. Anne embarked on an affair with journalist John Beavan, a former editor of the Manchester Evening News and political editor of the Daily Mirror, who was married. Their son, Matthew (Carrie’s father), was ‘smuggled into the world without objection from the BBC’, noted Anne’s obituary.
Matthew became a journalist and one of the three founding members of The Independent newspaper, along with Stephen Glover and Andreas Whittam-Smith.
It was when he was working at The Independent as deputy editor in the mid-Eighties that the third Symonds family scandal unfolded.
On this occasion, it was Mr Symonds’s affair with a lawyer on the paper, Josephine McAfee. Both were married to other people.
Matthew, like his daughter, was a hugely ambitious, focused individual; ‘a can-do character’, as a family friend puts it.
Small physically, it was Symonds’s habit to wear Cuban heels to make up for this perceived deficiency. ‘He was quite abrasive and was pretty unpopular with quite a lot of people,’ says a source. ‘He put people’s backs up.’
So when word got out that he was having an affair with Josephine McAfee, one colleague felt a certain malicious glee in giving all the details to the satirical current affairs magazine Private Eye.
There was more schadenfreude for the staff, says the source, when it emerged that Matthew had taken his mistress to New York on a jaunt — and charged the air fare to company expenses.
‘Matthew’s defence was that he was entitled, as a deputy editor, to fly Club Class and that all he had done was buy two cheaper tickets — there was no extra cost to the Independent. It caused a huge fuss, but Matthew stayed on.’
The lovechild from this illicit liaison, Carrie Symonds, was born on March 17, 1988.
Carrie (pictured above earlier this month) was born in 1988 and attended private school
She was brought up by her mother, who is now 71, in East Sheen, South-West London and attended the private £20,000-a-year Godolphin & Latymer School. Her father, meanwhile, lived in a large property not far away in Twickenham with his wife, Alison, with whom he has three children.
Carrie’s relationship with her father is said to be difficult. ‘Carrie has said she considers him to have been a domineering, absentee father from her childhood,’ says a family friend.
‘He did visit, from time to time, but Carrie has complained that he would come in and tell her and her mother what to do.’
Carrie’s current relationship with a Tory Brexiteer is unlikely to improve relations between father and daughter.
Carrie attended the private £20,000-a-year Godolphin & Latymer School (sign pictured above)
‘Matthew has always been madly pro-European,’ says the source. ‘One could be certain he would be very critical of Boris’s politics. That would be another wedge between himself and his daughter.’
Is Carrie’s passionate affiliation with the Conservative Party and Boris Johnson, in part, a rebellion against her father? Very possibly.
And the thought she may be the great-granddaughter of a former Prime Minister may have helped shape Carrie’s thinking that Downing Street was her destiny.
Given what she has achieved to date, it’s hard to believe that Miss Symonds is still only 31.
After gaining a first-class honours degree in theatre studies and history of art from Warwick University, she joined Conservative HQ as a press officer in 2009.
Carrie earned a first-class honours degree from the University of Warwick (pictured above)
It soon became clear that Miss Symonds had ambitions beyond the press office. An associate from this period says: ‘She’s a force of nature. She’s not interested in the slow lane. She wants to get there yesterday.’
The associate says Boris and Carrie have much in common: ambition and self-belief that’s off the scale.
Sources say that Boris has ‘met his match’ with Carrie (pictured above)
‘Yes, I’d say that in Carrie, Boris has met his match,’ says the source.
Some time ago, Carrie acquired the nickname FLOTUS — as in ‘First Lady of the United States’ — by those who feel she has too much ambition for her own good.
The pair met in 2012 when Carrie was one of four people seconded from Tory HQ to work on Boris’s campaign to be re‑elected London Mayor.
When the affair began precisely is not known.
They were officially rumbled on Valentine’s Day last year when they were spotted dining at Rules in Covent Garden. Observers noted that Boris looked smitten.
His girlfriend is known — famed, actually — for having a mesmerising effect on men.
One associate likens her to a cross between Cherie Blair (wife of former Prime Minister Tony) and Carole Caplin, the friend of the Blairs who used to give Tony massages. Cherie was the one with the brains, while Caplin possessed an irresistible sensuality and a hypnotic power over men.
Some people have likened Carrie to Cherrie Blair (pictured above) , former wife of Prime Minister Tony Blair
‘Carrie is not classically or conventionally pretty, but she is certainly quite sexy,’ says a source, who bumped into Boris and Carrie recently.
In September last year, Boris and his wife Marina, announced that they had separated.
A month earlier, Carrie left her job with Conservative HQ, where she was director of communications, to join charitable organisation Oceana (a partner of media and finance giant Bloomberg).
In September last year, Boris and his wife Marina (pictured above), announced that they had separated
Carrie, a passionate environmentalist, is a senior adviser, supporting the Bloomberg Foundation’s Vibrant Oceans Initiative.
Boris and Carrie are now said to be dividing their time between a luxury flat in South London and Boris’s Oxfordshire home.
The past few months have been spent plotting Boris’s leadership bid. It is Carrie who has been credited with Boris’s revamp: he’s lost weight, cut his hair and ditched the bumbling persona.
But Carrie, too, has given herself a makeover. The once provocative clothes, the leaping about in front of cameras, have gone.
This week, when Boris launched his leadership bid, it was a new, soberly dressed Carrie — blonde hair toned down a level — who emerged for the cameras.
The carefree girl who danced to Abba on her 30th birthday with a bevy of admiring male politicians — including fellow Tory leadership contenders Michael Gove and Sajid Javid — is no more.
Nor did she smile for the cameras this week, although we shouldn’t be fooled by her impassive appearance that she wasn’t loving every minute of the spotlight.
She’s in it for the long haul, and she and Boris will almost certainly marry if he becomes Prime Minister. By the end of next month, Boris and Carrie may well be installed in Downing Street.
What, one wonders, would the great Liberal Prime Minister, H. H. Asquith, have made of that?