Bill and Mary English’s private love story

It took our Prime Minister three years to win the woman of his dreams, but his persistence paid off.
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It was hardly a fairytale start. As a slightly gawky 19-year-old from Southland, Bill English wasn’t sure how to chat up the beautiful, confident woman standing in front of him at an orientation ball during his first week at the University of Otago.

So he didn’t say anything. It also didn’t help he was on crutches after breaking his foot – he’d helped to steal the Knox bath, a long-standing tradition for Selwyn College students, but he dropped the iron tub on his foot. Plus, he had a rather bad case of acne.

“Actually,” begins his now-wife Dr Mary (54) with a grin, “it was the worst acne I have ever seen in my whole clinical life.”

“I was socially unaccomplished,” says Bill (55), laughing. “To say the least!” Mary adds quickly.

The pair had found themselves together after both of their respective dates left – Mary’s bloke had to take Bill’s blind date home as she felt a little under the weather.

“She no doubt found me so boring, she had to overindulge,” quips Bill.

Instead Bill, who had come to Otago after a year working on the family farm in Dipton, found himself with Mary, a vivacious 18-year-old Wellington girl who was starting a medical degree.

“That’s why he was so shy,” says Mary. “He hadn’t talked to a woman for a year.”

“I didn’t really talk to anyone for a year!” he agrees. “I was so shy, I don’t think I spoke for an hour,” adds Bill, turning to his wife. “But you did!”

“I just talked and talked and talked,” she replies. “And he listened.”

In a tender moment of reassurance, Bill reaches out to grasp Mary’s hand as he continues to recall his, well, lack of charm during those early years.

It’s Bill and Mary‘s first in-depth interview together, and talking about their private lives isn’t something the new Prime Minister and Dr English are used to just yet. When Mary begins to list Bill’s best qualities – tolerance, humility, empathy – he blushes a deep scarlet.

It’s been just over two months since former PM John Key shocked the nation by resigning from the top job, a decision that saw Bill, the then Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, catapulted to the highest office in the country.

It’s meant a number of changes for Bill and Mary who, by her own admission, would have preferred to stay out of public life.

But as the Weekly’s photographer sets up in the sumptuous living room of Premier House, while sharp-suited men and women with earpieces and walkie-talkies pace up and down the hallway, Mary shrugs and smiles at what is her new normal.

Did she ever for a moment think that the nervous young man in front of her that night, grasping for a conversation topic that didn’t revolve around farming or sheep, would be her husband, let alone the Prime Minister?

Well, no. In fact, it took almost three years for them to get together following their first meeting – though the delay wasn’t for a lack of trying on Bill’s part. So he upped his game and set about winning over the woman of his dreams.

Knowing she would be in Dunedin’s Octagon the day after the ball, Bill made sure to “bump into her”. Unfortunately, “I think she thought I looked different in the daylight”.

“You did!” exclaims Mary, roaring with laughter.

Instead, they became great friends during their years at university, with Bill completing a double degree in English literature and commerce, while Mary made a dent in her Bachelor of Medicine.

But eventually, Mary realised her closest buddy could be something more.

“He did sort of out-there things for a boy from Southland,” she remembers. “He moved into a vegetarian flat, which appalled everyone, including his mother, who opened his fridge during a visit to find pulses and tofu. But he became my best friend – the person I talked to about everything and anything.

“Anyway, when it was time to leave, I commented to my friend, ‘Oh, if only I could find someone like Bill!’ And she said, ‘What’s wrong with him?’ That got me thinking.

“Then, I noticed the acne had cleared up!” she adds, laughing.

But other women had noticed the same thing.

“I had to get in a queue,” she nods. “Ah, I wouldn’t describe it as a queue…” Bill frowns.

“Well – it was,” Mary grins. “With some out-there girls. Well, I’ll stop there!”

As it turns out, the pair had a lot in common. Both come from big families – Mary is the eldest of 13, while Bill is the third-youngest of 12. They are both deeply intelligent and knew they wanted to do big things with their lives.

A few years of separation followed as Mary went to Wellington to finish her studies, while Bill returned to the farm in the tiny town of Dipton. But Bill realised he couldn’t bear to be separated from Mary, and upped sticks from the farm for the big city. This came with its own set of challenges – such as roundabouts.

“I came up fresh out of the sheepyards – I drove in my old brown HT Holden,” he recalls. “I can still remember, I got on the Basin Reserve roundabout and I’d never really driven in traffic, so I couldn’t get off it. I went round and round and round until I was brave enough to get off the thing.”

After completing an honours degree in English literature in a class with contemporaries such as Sir Paul Holmes, John Campbell and writer Elizabeth Knox, Bill found himself working at the Treasury under the then-Finance Minister Sir Roger Douglas, which heralded the start of his political life. At the time, the MP was implementing his infamous Rogernomics freemarket policies.

But it was Bill’s mum, the late Norah English, who inspired him to get into politics.

“My mother was what you’d now call an activist,” he says. “She was always, despite the fact she had 12 children and her own farm, involved in advocating on a range of things. She was a founding member of the Farm Workers’ Association, she got heavily involved in crop research and she was heavily involved in the National Party.

“She had an incredible physical and intellectual energy. I was the only one of the siblings who saw this all happening and thought, ‘This is great’.”

Their similar upbringings are a big part of what shapes Bill and Mary’s values today. They have six children – Luke (29), Thomas (26), Maria (25), Rory (23), Bart (20) and Xavier (17) – and share the same Catholic faith. Mary’s dad is from Samoa and her mum is from Italy, while Bill is a sixth-generation Southlander.

“Bill was quite keen for a big family and I said I was up for that – as long as they were all girls!” laughs Mary. “It tempted the fates because I ended up with five sons!”

It was their children who had the biggest influence over Bill’s decision to take the top job. Previously, both Bill and Mary, who has her own medical practice in Wellington as a GP, tried to shield their kids from politics. But now, his youngest children are relishing the fact they have the Prime Minister of New Zealand folding their laundry.

“The home environment is the same as anyone else’s,” he nods. “There’s a lot to get done, a lot of socks to find.”

He continues, “For a long time, we had the strong view that we wouldn’t have any politics at home. It was my job to get on as a father, in particular to help a very busy mother, not to sit around pontificating about politics.”

But politics isn’t the chief topic of conversation at the English dinner table. Their second-eldest son Thomas has followed his mum into medicine, “after years of campaigning”, Bill supplies.

Mary interjects, “Well, I sort of hoped one would! He’s finally finished his studies – I just about wept with joy. And relief, because now he can start paying back his loan!”

When Bill was considering whether or not to run for the leadership of the National Party following John’s resignation, it was his family he turned to first for their opinion. While all of the kids were on board, Mary admits she had reservations.

She knew if Bill became Prime Minister, her life would irrevocably change. She even thought John was joking about quitting at first, thanks to his and Bill’s habit of pulling practical jokes on each other.

“I realised he was serious, and I thought, ‘Okay, this is really happening’,” she begins.

The couple went for a long walk around Wellington to discuss the big decision, with Mary eventually putting Bill’s dreams ahead of her hopes for a more private life.

“I thought he’d be excellent. It made sense and I thought it was important. I think it helped that the kids were older, I always used to worry about the effect it had on them.”

Bill doesn’t underestimate Mary’s sacrifice, saying her career is just as important as his.

“When you’re in a relationship and the other person has their own independent way of living and their profession, and their own way of seeing the world, politics is just one of those things where they’re dragged into it. You can’t really avoid it. We’ve been in public life for a long time – we’ve had the best and worst of it. I appreciate for Mary that it was a real choice, and for her to say it’s not the right thing for us to do.”

So she and the kids were right beside Bill as he was sworn in as New Zealand’s 39th Prime Minister and continue to support him as he enters his ninth election year.

As he and Mary ready themselves for our photos, it’s clear that Bill adores his wife. He checks to see if she’s all right as they take up their positions in front of the camera and offers a grin as the camera flashes.

It’s true that Bill is quieter than his predecessor – a humble Southland man through and through. And though Mary is more reluctant to face the glare of the public, the unassailable fact is she’s rather good at it, offering her own brand of quiet confidence and charisma.

“We’re quite different, really,” offers Mary. “Sometimes I’m outgoing and other times I’m the opposite. I may have become a bit more introverted over time and Bill has become a bit more outgoing.”

“I spend a lot of time in public life, she’s one-on-one in her surgery,” explains Bill. “People think politicians work hard – but she’s sitting there in 15 and 20-minute periods and has to get inside people’s lives to help them. I think that’s just remarkable.”

They also approach problem-solving differently.

“I generally tend to ignore problems because eventually they’ll go away,” he grins. “Mary likes to solve them. She’s much more organised, sometimes I would have thought excessively…”

“I was excessive!” she laughs. “I really modified because of you. But you needed to tighten up!”

“If you want chaos, particularly with the family, then I’m your man,” he nods in reply with a slightly sheepish grin.

The couple have just celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, though Mary says it doesn’t feel that long ago that she pulled on her lace and duchess satin gown and walked down the aisle of the St Patrick’s Church in Kilbirnie.

And as for any secrets to a long marriage? Bill reckons it comes down to self-awareness.

“The ability to occasionally see the way you do things, the way someone else sees it,” he explains. “And understanding what you really value together. Lots of things can be distractions or difficulties, but we’ve always had the family and the kids, and that’s been really important, as well as managing both of our jobs together.”

And for Mary it’s compromise, but also remembering when compromises are made for you. In fact, it turns out that Bill is rather thoughtful when it comes to looking out for his wife, especially when she decided to run a marathon a few years ago.

Because of her busy schedule, she was doing her training at night, but Bill wasn’t having that. So he started marathon training too.

“I finished at parliament at around 10pm, so Mary would park up and we’d go for a run for an hour and a half or so.”

The pair also did a lot of the things that test the foundations of a marriage, Bill laughs – such as taking all six kids back down to Southland from Wellington during the school holidays in their van.

“It was Goodbye Pork Pie, three times a year,” he remembers, shaking his head. But those days are well and truly over, with all but their youngest, Xavier, having flown their Kilbirnie nest.

Bill is gearing up for the election on September 23 and Mary, while helping out where she can, is focusing on her patients. But she is keen for the nation to see the Bill she knows and loves.

GALLERY: Mary and Bill English’s love story in pictures. Story continues after the gallery

He’s often described as “boring”, perhaps a hangover of his old role as a Minister of Finance. In fact, in an interview last year, he deadpanned that he “specialises in boring” – but Mary offers this assurance.

“Put it this way, I wouldn’t have lasted 30 years if he was! I can see why people might think he is,” she continues, before Bill interrupts her. “Oh, can you? Please tell me about that!” he laughs, before she adds, “People make assumptions that you have to be a certain way… but there are a lot of treasures that people can miss. Bill is someone who cares very, very deeply.”

And as the photoshoot nears its end, the Weekly’s photographer takes one more shot and asks the Prime Minister to look his way. Instead, Bill’s eyes are on his wife.

“Look at the camera!” she admonishes, before he offers a simple reply. “I’d rather look at you.”

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