Hated by her many critics and adored by the Tory faithful, she was the grocer’s daughter who divided a nation.

And the stark chasm of emotions remained today as Margaret Thatcher died from a stroke at 87 following a long illness.

Frail and battling dementia, the one-time Iron Lady – Britain’s first and only female Prime Minister – passed away peacefully at the Ritz, where she had been staying since Christmas.

She will be remembered for smashing the miners, leading Britain to victory in the Falklands War… and trying to dismantle the welfare state.

Some praised her as a fearless stateswoman who broke the mould.

Others condemned her ruthless, divisive policies that wrecked lives and devastated communities.

Born in Grantham, Lincolnshire, to a family of shopkeepers, Baroness Thatcher quickly rose through the Tory ranks.

She became Ted Heath’s Education Secretary in the early 70s – notoriously dubbed “Milk Snatcher Thatcher” after axing free school milk.

She served as PM from 1979 to 1990 and was the first to win three successive General Elections.

She was defeated only once – famously weeping as she left Downing Street after being ousted by her own party.

Margaret Thatcher
Last picture: Margaret Thatcher with son Mark and his wife Sarah in October

Her death was announced by her children, Carol and Mark, who had been comforting her following a recent minor operation.

Buckingham Palace said in a statement that the Queen was “saddened” by the news.

David Cameron, who cut short a visit to Madrid, was among the first to pay tribute.

He said: “We have lost a great leader, a great Prime Minister and a great Briton.”

He added: “She did not just lead our country, she saved it. I believe she will go down as the greatest British peace-time Prime Minister.”

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Labour leader Ed Miliband described Lady Thatcher as a “unique figure” who reshaped the politics of a generation.

He added: “The Labour Party disagreed with much of what she did and she will always remain a controversial figure.

“But we can disagree and also greatly respect her political achievements and her personal strength.”

Gordon Brown, who invited Lady Thatcher to No 10 when he was PM, praised her “determination and resilience.”

He said: “Even those who disagreed with her never doubted the strength of her convictions.”

Former Labour PM Tony Blair praised Lady Thatcher’s role in international politics. He said: “Her global impact was vast.

"Some of the changes she made were, in certain respects, retained by the 1997 Labour government, and came to be implemented by governments around the world.”

Sir John Major, who succeeded Lady Thatcher in 1990, said: “She had courage and determination in politics, and humanity and generosity of spirit in private.”

But Liverpool Labour MP Steve Rotheram said: “She was one of the most divisive figures in British political history.

“She was celebrated by big business and the rich and powerful, but reviled by huge sections of a society she didn’t actually believe in.

"For many she leaves a legacy of misery.”

Lady Thatcher had been in poor health since a series of mini strokes in 2002. Her retirement was made lonelier following the death of husband Denis in 2003.

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Daughter Carol, 59, flew to London from the Swiss ski resort of Klosters yesterday to be at her side.

Crowds gathered outside the Ritz today following the news of Lady Thatcher’s death.

A source at the hotel said: “A lot of the staff here didn’t even realise she was one of the guests.

"She was never seen in the dining room, probably because she was so unwell.”

One of Lady Thatcher’s last public appearances was as guest of honour at the 50th birthday party of Tory MP Liam Fox in September 2011.

Recalling the event, Dr Fox said: “She was as she always was – desperate to be at the centre of the action.

“She was supposed to be only coming for 20 minutes, we were told, because she might be very tired.

"After about an hour and 40 minutes we had to push her out the door because she might have got exhausted. She was in her element.”

One of the last to see Lady Thatcher was former adviser Lord Powell, who spent an hour with her on Sunday night.

He said: “It was very private and I am very pleased that I did.”

Tory MP Conor Burns, a friend and regular visitor, added: “We are marking the passing of a political giant.”

Parliament will be recalled on Wednesday to allow MPs to pay their respects.

Today a single daffodil was placed at the foot of Lady Thatcher’s statue in the Commons with the message: “You were an inspiration to women.”

Life and times of Margaret Thatcher

Oct 13, 1925: Margaret Hilda Roberts, born in Grantham, Lincs.

1943: Goes to Somerville College, Oxford, to read chemistry.

June 1947: Graduates from Oxford.

Jan 31, 1949: Selected as the Tory candidate for Dartford, the youngest woman candidate in the country, but is defeated in 1950 and 1951 elections.

Dec 13, 1951: Marries wealthy oil executive Denis Thatcher.

Aug 15, 1953: Gives birth to twins, Mark and Carol.

Dec 1, 1953: Qualifies as a barrister

Oct 8, 1959: Elected as Finchley MP.

June 20, 1970: Becomes the Education ?Secretary.

Sept 1971: Dubbed “Maggie Thatcher Milk Snatcher” after proposals to end free school milk.

Feb 11, 1975: Elected Leader of the Conservative Party.

Jan 24, 1976: A Soviet newspaper nicknames her the Iron Lady.

May 4, 1979: Becomes the UK’s first female prime minister beating Labour’s Jim Callaghan by a 44 seat majority.

Oct 10, 1980: Gives “The lady’s not for turning” speech at Tory conference.

April 2, 1982: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands. Task force leaves Portsmouth three days later.

June 14, 1982: Argentine surrender.

June 9, 1983: Wins second term beating Michael Foot’s Labour.

Oct 12, 1984: Survives IRA bombing of Grand Hotel, Brighton.

Nov 15, 1985: Anglo-Irish Agreement signed by Thatcher and Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald.

Jan 9, 1986: Defence Secretary Michael Heseltine resigns in row over Westland helicopter company.

June 11, 1987: Thatcher wins record third term in office with reduced majority of 102, beating Labour under Neil Kinnock.

Jan 3, 1988: Becomes longest-serving British PM of the 20th century.

Nov 14, 1990: Michael Heseltine ?challenges her for Tory leadership

Nov 27, 1990: Thatcher steps down and John Major becomes leader.

Nov 28, 1990: Tearful Thatcher leaves 10 Downing Street for the last time as prime minister and is succeeded by John Major.

June 26, 1992: She becomes Baroness Thatcher of Kesteven.

March 22, 2002: Ends public speaking after a series of strokes.

June 26, 2003: Husband Denis dies.?

Feb 2007: Becomes first living prime minister to be honoured with a statue in Commons lobby. She unveils it.

April 8, 2013: Dies of stroke.