Black Country peer Baroness Boothroyd received one of Britain's highest honours yesterday, in recognition of her achievements as the first female speaker of the House of Commons.

As Betty Boothroyd, MP for West Bromwich West, she kept unruly MPs in line for eight years and yesterday she joined naturalist Sir David Attenborough and Oxford historian Professor Sir Michael Howard in receiving the Order of Merit, which is given to people of exceptional distinction in the arts, sciences and other areas.

The honour was founded in 1902 by Edward VII, and is now in the personal gift of the Queen.

Lady Boothroyd, better known as Betty, once revealing the secret of her success lay in smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. This was the cause of what she called her "lovely deep voice", which helped her lay down the law with hearty cries of "order! order!"

Last night, she said: "I am greatly honoured that The Queen has conferred on me the Order of Merit.

"I would like to think it is in recognition of my services to Parliament over many years and, of course, my Speakership of the House of Commons.

"It is also, I believe, a reflection of my Chancellorship of the Open University, of which I am very proud."

Lady Boothroyd, aged 75, who famously said "call me madam" when asked how she should be addressed as Speaker, was the first incumbent of the position not to wear the wig.

But apart from the novelty of her gender, history will record her as one of the outstanding holders of the post.

With a cheery Yorkshire quip she could defuse, almost at a stroke, a dangerous or tense situation in the Chamber, and transform the snarls of MPs into gusts of laughter. It was with a winning smile and a raucous shout that she regularly reduced rowdy MPs to silence.

Before her days as a Deputy Speaker and then as Speaker itself, she was an active Labour back-bencher on the right of the party, and scornful of intractable left-wingers.

But shortly before she retired as Speaker, she confessed that "the red blood of socialism" still flowed through her veins.

She unsuccessfully contested four parliamentary seats before being elected to West Bromwich, which later became West Bromwich West, in 1973.

In April 1992 she was elected Speaker, at the age of 62, with the support of Conservative as well as Labour backbenchers.

Lady Boothroyd retired from the Speakership in October, 2000. Afterwards she was went to the House of Lords, and took her seat in January, 2001.