Isobel Barnett

Isobel, Lady Barnett (born Isobel Morag Marshall; 30 June 1918 – 20 October 1980), popularly known as Lady Isobel Barnett, was a Scottish radio and television personality, who had her highest profile during the 1950s and 1960s.

Isobel, Lady Barnett
Isobel Morag Marshall

(1918-06-30)30 June 1918
Died28 October 1980(1980-10-28) (aged 62)
Radio and television personality
Justice of the peace
Years active1940–1980
Known forBroadcasting career
Notable work
What's My Line

Early life

Barnett was born in Aberdeen, Scotland, the daughter of a doctor. She went to the independent Mount School in York and, following in her father's footsteps, studied medicine at the University of Glasgow. She qualified as a doctor in 1940 and married solicitor and company director Geoffrey Barnett the following year. He was knighted for political and public services to the city of Leicester in 1953. Lady Barnett gave up her medical career in 1948, and for the next 20 years was a Justice of the peace.[1]

Radio and television

In 1953 she arrived on BBC television as one of the panel of What's My Line, which made her a household name. She appeared on the programme for ten years but was not an original panelist, her seat having been previously occupied by Marghanita Laski.

She was regarded by audiences as elegant and witty, the epitome of the British aristocracy, although her title actually came from the fact that her solicitor husband had been knighted; the form Lady Isobel Barnett suggested she possessed a courtesy title, but she was not an aristocrat, nor had she married into the aristocracy. She also made regular appearances on the BBC radio series Any Questions, on the radio panel game Many a Slip and on the women's discussion series Petticoat Line. She was greatly in demand as an after-dinner speaker, a role into which she slipped confidently.

In 1956, a reviewer predicted that an alien visiting from another planet could ask anyone between the ages of seven and 70 "What is What's my Line?" and "Who is Isobel Barnett?" and be confident of getting an answer.[2] She featured in the first revival of What's My Line? which ran for two series from 1973-74.

Later life and death

In her last years, Barnett became reclusive and eccentric. In 1980 she was found guilty of shoplifting, being fined £75 for stealing a can of tuna and a carton of cream worth 87p from her village grocer. This brought her briefly back into the public eye; just four days later on 20 October, she was found dead in Cossington, Leicestershire.

A coroner's inquest subsequently ruled that Barnett killed herself with an overdose of painkillers having electrocuted herself in a bath. During the inquest, police testified that she wore an extra spacious pocket, known as a 'poacher's pocket', inside her coat when caught stealing the groceries in a store near her home. Two days before her death, Lady Barnett told an interviewer she was a compulsive thief and had been shoplifting for years. Finding that Lady Barnett, a trained physician, killed herself deliberately with an overdose of arthritis painkiller, coroner Guy Tooze said, "She had recently suffered one of the most traumatic experiences any woman could suffer". Mr Tooze went on to say, "I am satisfied she took a fatal overdose deliberately and knew what she was doing".[3]

Her story was recounted by several of her friends and colleagues in a 1991 BBC Radio 4 documentary in the Radio Lives series, in which it was said that she gave no indication to any of her friends that she was planning to take her own life, and that she kept up a façade of "business as usual".

Personal life

She had one son, Alastair (born 1944). Her husband Sir Geoffrey died in 1970. Her autobiography, My Life Line, was published in 1956.


  1. "Isobel Barnett". Retrieved 30 January 2019.
  2. Obituary, Lady Barnett, The Times, 21 October 1980 cited in No Such Thing as Society by Andy McSmith, Constable 2011, page 15 ISBN 978-1-84901-979-8
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