IT was May 1968: all over Europe the people were finding their political voice. The Prague Spring was in full bloom and Paris was being shaken to its very foundations by the cataclysmic Evenements.

Across the water in the New Forest, there was no such turbulence. The new Shadow Minister for Power was addressing that most English of occasions; the Conservative Association’s Spring Rally.

Mrs Margaret Thatcher was a curiosity then. Few of those attending the gènteel event could have foreseen how quickly the Kent housewife – as she like to portray herself – would move out of the shadows and into power for real.

All our pictures of Magaret Thatcher in Dorset

Three years later, as Secretary of State for Education, Margaret Thatcher swept into Portchester School to attend its speech day. She spoke about the influence of the media on young lives, and said she was impressed with a lesson that taught pupils to look at the news. “It is most important that the boys are discerning between what is true and what is false,” she declared.

She returned six years later, as party leader, to support David Atkinson, the Tory candidate at the Bournemouth East by-election. Mrs Thatcher did a walkabout in Charminster and visited the now destroyed Shell House in Southbourne.

Mr Atkinson lined up his assistants to meet her. When she got to the third she turned to him and asked, to gales of laughter: “Exactly how many assistants have you got, David?”

By the time she returned to the area, in February 1979, she was within weeks of becoming Britain’s first woman Prime Minister. From this time onwards, all her visits would be connected to party conference appearances, and the occasional official tour.

When she arrived to address the Tory Central Council conference in Bournemouth in March 1980, local party members noted the enormous difference in her dress, her demeanour and her impact.

The town also got a taste of the controversy that permanently raged around the Maggie machine.

She was faced with a 3,000 strong demonstration by key Dorset hospital workers, angry at a pay deal which resulted in a longer working week for them. “It means a pay cut of 14p an hour,” one claimed.

A significant early lesson, perhaps, in the workings of Thatcherite economics.

Inside the hall, Bournemouth West Young Conservative John Hughes presented her with a rose and a kiss and the conference presented her with a four-minute standing ovation.

During a cocktail party for local Tory workers, Mrs Thatcher revealed that she knew the area ‘rather well’ because she used to bring her children, Mark and Caroline, to Bournemouth on holiday. “You’re lucky to represent such a pleasant constituency,” she informed Bournemouth East MP David Atkinson.

As the Maggie phenomenon gathered pace at home and abroad, the Dorset public was no different; they appeared to either love her or loathe her.

In a street poll published around this time, the Daily Echo asked shoppers what they would like to ask Maggie.

Questions varied from ‘Are you going to stop selling cheap butter to Russia’ (Mrs Mary Cake of Bournemouth) to the most common; ‘When are you going to take us out of the Common Market?’ The placard wavers were out again in July 1982, when Mrs Thatcher visited Blandford and Wimborne. She avoided the 200 who had gathered at the Kings Head Hotel by nipping in the back entrance, but made sure journalists captured her visit to the Hamworthy marine base and Flight Refuelling, to thank them for the part they played in the Falklands War.

“It’s what you expect from the British people,” she says.

During a visit to the Marden-Edwards factory on the Ferndown Estate, the only female machine operator broke down in tears of nerves, when Mrs Thatcher spoke to her. “I let myself down,” she sobbed. “I never thought she would speak to me. She is such a normal type of person.”

But Maggie was having none of it. She put her hand on the tearful girl and declared: “You’re unique, like I am. It’s unusual to see a woman working on a machine in a factory.”

In July 1982 Mrs Thatcher visited Poole RNLI. The ever-present protesters were swiftly dealt with; she suggested they contribute to the RNLI tin and sent her private secretary Ian Gow to tell them: “She’ll double what you give.”

Controversy swirled round her again, in December 1982, when keen Dorset Tory Christine Reed pronounced herself ‘disgusted’ after her portrait of the premier, which she considered worth £300, was auctioned at a Tory fund-raiser for a mere £25. “It was an insult to Mrs Thatcher and little more than the frame was worth,” she fumed. A Conservative councillor gallantly bought the painting as a gift for his mother.

She returned to Bournemouth later in the Spring, to address the Young Conservatives’ Con-ference at the Winter Gardens.

The political issue du jour was unilateral nuclear disarmament and Mrs Thatcher didn’t skirt it.

“Unilateralism makes war more likely,” she boomed.

In 1985 she used her conference’s Bournemouth platform to attack the miners’ leaders who were engaged in a bitter dispute with the National Coal Board.

“By their actions they have deliberately stopped the investment they say the industry needs,” she blasted. Later that year she flew in to visit Royal Marines again, and a year later arrived back in town for her party’s annual get-together, pronouncing Bournemouth the ‘best conference venue I have ever been to’.

Despite complaints of her arrogance towards any opposition, in her beloved Bournemouth, at least, Mrs Thatcher continued to walk on water. She received a seven-minute ovation with clapping only subsiding after 12 |minutes.

“Millions have become shareholders and soon there will be opportunities for millions more,” she trumpeted.

She visited the new hospital in Castle Lane because: “This just proves what we’re saying, that we really are providing new hospitals for people and raising the overall standards of the health service.”

This was fortunate as she soon required help from that health service after tripping over a manhole cover at the Pier Approach and spraining her ankle.

Wherever, whatever, the merest mention of Mrs Thatch, as her detractors dubbed her, provoked mighty passions and led to an avalanche of readers’ letters to this newspaper.

In August 1986, correspondent Mrs Vera Skeet wrote to the Daily Echo’s letters page, attacking Mrs Thatcher as a woman Prime Minister. Maggie’s fans wrote back.

By way of defence, Pauline Batstone wrote: “If you want something talked about, ask a man. If you want something done, ask a woman.”

A C Woodcock of the Freedom Association declared: “More and more Mrs Thatcher looks like the adult in a playground of spoilt children.”

Mr Stanley Bubb was even more emphatic. “Mrs Thatcher is, without exception, and I mean without exception, the best Prime Minister this country has ever had in my fairly long lifetime,” he said.

Slowly, but surely, however, the tide began to turn against Maggie and almost all that she stood for.

On October 27 1989 her ‘brilliant’ Chancellor Nigel Lawson resigned, after a long-running spat with the PM’s financial policy adviser.

Reflecting the seriousness of the situation, the Daily Echo put out a three-page special, a poll showed that 52 per cent thought she should quit, but Maggie announced: “I am not going to resign”.

East Dorset councillor Max Neill rushed to her aid. “If Maggie goes, I’ll quit too,” he said. “Maggie has to go down as the greatest Prime Minister this country’s ever had.”

A month later, obscure MP Sir Anthony Meyer put himself up as a stalking horse to allow a real challenger to Margaret Thatcher’s leadership to come galloping through.

Others were more loyal. Winton schoolboy John Memmott revealed that his bedroom walls were adorned with pin ups of Maggie. “Politics is my main interest,” he confessed.

And, over in Christchurch, Scouts and Cubs in the Gang Show all dressed up for a Maggie number, complete with golden wigs and vicious handbags. Like it or not Mrs Thatcher had become an icon.

October 1990 saw Maggie back in Bournemouth for the annual conference which, unwittingly, was to become the curtain-raiser to one of the most thrilling chapters in British politics.

It kicked off with a double-helping of controversy, supplied by Bournemouth Labour councillors Ben Grower and the late Lionel Bennett, who were banned from attending the opening ceremony of the Purbeck Hall, in case they embarrassed Maggie with T-shirts protesting about the Poll Tax.

There was comedy when Mrs Thatcher took her cabinet for a ride on the Noddy Train, and drama, when a petrol bomb exploded just a small number of yards away from the heavily-guarded conference door.