The Last Viscount Taaffe

Taaffe Henry

Henry Taaffe, the last Viscount Taaffe

On Saturday 29 March 1919, under the headline ‘Traitor Peers’, The Times announced that four members of the House of Lords who had ‘adhered to the King’s enemies during the war’ were to lose their titles.

The names of three of these traitor peers came as no surprise. The Dukes of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick were all high-ranking German noblemen whose British titles came to them through their descent from George III or Victoria and Albert. M.P.s had been lobbying George V to strip them of their dukedoms since 1914.

taaffe ellischau

Schloss Ellischau

The fourth name on the blacklist, though, was less well-known. Henry Taaffe, 12th Viscount Taaffe and Baron Ballymote in the Irish peerage, could trace his ancestry back to the Wild Geese, Irish soldiers who left their homeland to serve in European armies during the 17th century. An ancestor was killed fighting for the Jacobites at the Battle of the Boyne; another fought beside Jan Sobieski against the Turks and became prime minister to Leopold the Good, Duke of Lorraine. The 6th Viscount Taaffe, a Count of the Holy Roman Empire, was a brigade commander in the Austrian army and was credited with introducing the potato to Silesia during a famine in 1763; the 11th Viscount, Henry’s father, held a string of political appointments to the Austrian Empire under Francis Joseph I, including Minister of the Interior.

Henry succeeded to the viscountcy (and the title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire) on his father’s death in 1895. The estates in Ireland had long gone. Ballymote in Co. Sligo, a massive medieval castle which the Taaffes had surrendered to Cromwell in 1652, had been in ruins for generations. The family seat now lay in the Silver Mountains of Bohemia, where in 1769 the 6th Viscount Taaffe bought a recently reconstructed 17th-century fortress, Schloss Ellischau. The Taaffes modernised it, laid out an ‘English’ park with orchards and flowerbeds, and built a folly on a nearby hill which was said to be based on Ballymote. In 1840 the Viennese architect Heinrich Koch remodelled Ellischau once again, turning it into a vast and forbidding courtyard house with a high entrance tower and opulent state apartments.

Taaffe ruin of Ballymote in Prasivice

Folly near Ellischau, said to be inspired by Ballymote, the Taaffes’ Irish seat

In the wartime furore over the three German dukes, Viscount Taaffe almost escaped with his Irish titles intact. But in 1917, during the debate over the Titles Deprivation Bill, an anonymous correspondent wrote to The Times to point out that ‘no reference appears to have been made to the fact that an Irish peer, Viscount Taaffe, the 12th of that title, is said to be now serving, with his son, in the Austrian Army’. The writer cited with approval Elizabeth I’s command that ‘her dogs should wear no collars but her own’. That was enough; when the list of peers who were to lose their titles for bearing arms against the King was finally published in the spring of 1919, Henry Taaffe’s name had been added to those of Cumberland, Albany and Brunswick.

Taaffe enfilade

Schloss Ellischau in its heyday

Things went from bad to worse. Four weeks after being stripped of his viscountcy and barony, he learned that the newly established Austrian republic had abolished the nobility altogether, and with it his title of Count of the Holy Roman Empire. In 1918 Bohemia had become part of the new Czechoslovakia, and land reform now took away much of his Ellischau estate. Plain Mr Henry Taaffe died in debt in Vienna in 1928.

There is an odd and inconsequential postscript to this story. Unable to maintain Schloss Ellischau, in 1937 Henry’s son Richard sold up and moved to Ireland, where he became known as a brilliant if unorthodox gemologist. One day in 1945 he went into a watchmaker’s shop down by the Dublin Quays and bought a job lot of zircons, opals, garnets, low-grade emeralds and sapphires. When he got them home, one mauve stone in particular puzzled him. It turned out to be a previously unknown beryllium mineral, one of the rarest in the world. In honour of his discovery, it was named ‘taaffeite’.



Consuelo’s House

Consuelo Crowhurst

Crowhurst Place – a dream come true

In her autobiography, The Glitter and the Gold, Consuelo Vanderbilt recalled her first sight of Crowhurst Place in Surrey. Separated from her husband,the 9th Duke of Marlborough, exiled from Blenheim and living for most of the year in London, she was looking for a small house – small by Vanderbilt standards, anyway – not too far from town, and one summer day in 1910 she found it.

‘With its high roof of Horsham stone, its walls half-timbered with silvered oak, its stone chimneys and leaded casements’, she wrote, Crowhurst ‘was a dream come true’. The owner refused to sell, but he agreed to let the house and to allow Consuelo to add to it. By the time she gave up the lease in 1921 to move to France and marry her second husband, the aviator Jacques Balsan, she had transformed Crowhurst into a vision of perfection, with roses and honeysuckle climbing in at the windows, old oak furniture ‘polished to a honeyed sheen’ and a procession of celebrities from Asquith to Lytton Strachey queuing for the chance to spend a weekend in the dream come true.

Consuelo and Jacques 1930s

Consuelo and her 2nd husband, Jacques Balsan, in the 1930s

That’s her version of events. The story of Crowhurst Place and its rebirth is a little more complicated, involving a creative genius who doesn’t even get a mention in The Glitter and the Gold.

In 1907, three years before Consuelo discovered the moated manor house, it was taken on a repairing lease by George Crawley, an English connoisseur and amateur architect. Crawley had no technical training and no ability to make architectural drawings. But according to a friend, ‘he could yet visualize his designs so vividly as to convey his impressions to intelligent draughtsmen’.

He had just designed Westbury House, a neo-Caroline mansion on Long Island, for the steel magnate John Shaffer Phipps and his British wife Margarita. He was still working for the Phipps family in New York when he took the lease on Crowhurst, then a half-derelict farmhouse with nothing much to recommend it except a timbered great hall of 1423. Over the next three years he ‘restored’ the house and then, when it was almost finished, his wife told him she couldn’t bear to live in a building project for another day and he was forced to give up the lease.

Consuelo Westbury

Westbury House, Long Island

That’s where Consuelo came in. She knew Westbury, and this may have contributed to her decision to ask Crawley to create a new service wing in 1912 and a sitting room and garden room three years later. In any case it made sense to call on Crawley who, after all, knew Crowhurst Place better than anyone living.

His reinvention of Crowhurst, what Pevsner calls his ‘crazy fairy-tale restoration’, is a joy, at once more scholarly than the romantic lyricism of Norman Shaw and the Old English movement, and less restrained than late-Victorian examples like Edward Ould’s Wightwick Manor. The tall chimneys, the gables, the half-timbering, are all new. So is the porch, which derives from the early 16th-century Guildhall at Lavenham in Suffolk. The moulded ceiling of the parlour shown here is original, as is some of the linenfold panelling, although it was moved from an upstairs room; the rest was made to match. The semi-circular oriel which lights the great hall is of teak, ‘which should last for ages’, said Martin Conway, who described the house for Country Life in 1919, soon after it was completed, and who was full of praise for the way in which its battered remains had been ‘re-endowed with a beauty far greater than was ever theirs in the day of its newness’. Almost everything about Crowshurst is invented, imagined. It really is a dream come true, and the dreamer was George Crawley.

Consuelo's parlour

Consuelo’s parlour – re-endowed with a beauty far greater than in the day of its newness

In 1922 Crawley cast his strange spell over another late-medieval manor house, Old Surrey Hall near Lingfield. (‘The architect must have been working quite cut off from reality’, said Pevsner, comparing Crawley’s work admiringly and astutely to the rhapsodies of early 20th-century composers on Tudor and folksong themes.) He died in July 1926 at the age of 62; his obituary in the Times referred in passing to his reputation as an amateur architect, but in rather poor taste the obituarist managed to devote much more space to Crawley’s nephew’s batting prowess at Lords in the Eton-Harrow match the previous Saturday.

Animal Crackers

‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

When the 6th Marquis of Bath stood on the steps of Longleat in 1966 to unveil England’s first drive-through safari park, there was a storm of protest. ‘Cattle, sheep and deer ought to be good enough for a Wiltshire man,’ roared an indignant Times. ‘The proper place for lions in an island that is spared them is in heraldry.’

In fact Lord Bath and his business partner, circus-owner Jimmy Chipperfield, were merely bringing their gift for exploiting a commercial opportunity to bear on a long tradition of exotic animal-keeping in England, a tradition which dated back at least as far as the Middle Ages. Records show that a pair of lions were being kept at the Tower of London in the 13th century, along with a polar bear and an elephant.

Smile! An ostrich poses for pictures at Ampthill.

The practice was popular in Edwardian England. Amateur zoologists used their country estates as settings for the display of live specimens, just as they used their baronial halls to show off the dead ones, stuff and mounted. Lionel Walter Rothschild drove around his estate at Tring Park (and occasionally, around London) in a carriage drawn by his zebras. Sir Anthony Wingfield kept a menagerie at Ampthill House in Bedfordshire; his butler supplemented his wages by photographing house-guests as they perched precariously on camels and ostriches, and selling the pictures to The Tatler. In the park at Woburn Abbey the 11th Duke of Bedford, President of the Zoological Society from 1899 to 1936, kept Père David deer and a herd of wild Mongolian horses captured in the Gobi Desert in 1900.

Mah-jongg – presiding over the Courtaulds’ household like a malignant house-elf.

Between the wars, exotic animals and birds became part of the landscape at a surprising number of country houses. Mah-jongg, Ginie Courtauld’s ring-tailed lemur, who presided over Eltham Palace like some malignant house-elf until his death in 1938, is perhaps the most famous. Rothschild’s collection at Tring Park was open to the public. Woburn was well-known: the Père Davids were saved from extinction by the Duke of Bedford’s action in acquiring them, and their descendants still roam the park. Wingfield maintained parts of his Ampthill menagerie until the outbreak of the Second World War, although he began to wind it down in the 1930s, tranferring some of the animals to nearby Whipsnade Park Zoo, which opened in 1931.

And there were new entries in the field. This was partly because rare creatures were more easily available to those with money – Ginie Courtauld bought Mah-jongg at Harrod’s – but there was also a Medici-like tendency among new country house owners to display their status by demonstrating that their wealth could command all things. Olive, Lady Baillie, the Anglo-American heiress who between 1926 and 1928 spent a fortune restoring Leeds Castle in Kent, stocked its moat with flamingoes (who flew away) and black swans, and kept a toucan, a macaw and various parrots about the place.

Where’s Daddy? Penguins at Trent Park in 1937.

‘The peculiar fascination of waterfowl is now felt by many’, declared Country Life in 1937. At Trent Park in Hertfordshire, Sir Philip Sassoon filled the lake – said to be by Repton – with scarlet ibis and pink flamingoes, who were kept in the pink (and presumably in the park) with a lavish diet of shrimp. Whenever he was at Trent, Sassoon made a point of personally feeding his small flock of king, rock-hopper and black-footed penguins. He also kept a herd of deer in the park and had his stags’ antlers gilded, because he liked the way they glittered in the sunshine.

Who’s a pretty girl, then? Lord Tredegar and friends.

Sometimes an interest in non-indigenous fauna went hand-in-hand with a marked eccentricity. In his autobiography, A Silver-Plated Spoon, the 13th Duke of Bedford recalled a visit to ‘the most extraordinary house I have ever stayed at’, Tredegar in South Wales. Lord Tredegar, as well as having a parrot, a pet owl and an unhealthy interest in black magic, kept kangaroos and other animals which he used to fend off with a stick if they ventured too close while he was walking with guests in the grounds. Tredegar’s mother ‘used to flit round the house with sticks and straws in her mouth making birds’ nests, and then sit on eggs herself and try and hatch them.’

Albert Richardson

Sir Albert Richardson at home

The other day I finished reading The Professor (White Crescent Press, 1980), Simon Houfe’s affectionate biography of his grandfather, the architect Sir Albert Edward Richardson. I’ve been intrigued by Richardson for a while: he often has a passing mention in memoirs and letters produced between the wars although, in spite of an architectural career which lasted from the late 1890s to the early 1960s, his country house output was small. He enlarged or remodelled one or two minor houses – The Hale, near Wendor (1918) and Chevithorne Barton in Devon (1930) are good examples – but the practice he carried on, with C. Lovett Gill until 1939 and from 1945 with his son-in-law, E. A. S. Houfe, focused mainly on commercial premises, usually designed in a light, elegant neo-Georgian style.

Richardson drawings 1

Houses at Chew Magna near Bristol (1765) and Redbourn in Hertfordshire (1778) – examples of Richardson’s distinctive graphic style

Richardson’s real contribution to the period was as a polemicist for the buildings of the past, and in particular for the long eighteenth century – which in his case was even longer than usual, beginning with the Restoration and ending with the death of George IV 170 years later. He travelled the length and breadth of the country in his enormous Rolls Royce, haranguing philistine local authorities to save an England that was in danger of demolition, berating negligent owners of dilapidated mansions. He recorded historic architecture in hundreds, perhaps thousands, of fluid, fluent sketches and in a flood of published work: Georgian England, The Old Inns of England, The Smaller English House of the Later Renaissance. John Betjeman once told him that ‘You have written the two bibles of my life – Monumental Classic Architecture of the 18th and 19th Centuries, and Regional Architecture in the West of England. If I were king, I would give you a peerage.’

Richardson Avenue House

Avenue House, Ampthill

And not content with promoting the past, Richardson lived in it. In 1919 he bought Avenue House in Ampthill, built for a Bedfordshire brewer in 1780 and extended by Henry Holland in 1792-5. Over the next four decades or so the architect filled Avenue House with art and oddities: oils by Philip Mercier and Angelica Kauffmann, exquisite George III furniture in tulipwood and satinwood; a lamp said to belong to the Lady of the Lamp herself, Florence Nightingale; Clive of India’s door knob and a battered baluster from Doctor Johnson’s house. He refused to have electricity installed, and was fond of dressing up in full Georgian costume around the house.

In many ways Richardson was a difficult character – bombastic, self-centred, a reactionary conservative who hated Modernism as much as he loathed modern society. Imagine an architectural G. K. Chesterton, and you have him. But his contribution to the evolving preservationist movement of the 1920s and 1930s was profound.

Richardson Christie's

The Avenue House Sale Catalogue

By a strange coincidence, just as I reached the last page of The Professor, an email came through from Christie’s announcing the sale of the contents of Avenue House. The place had remained more or less intact since Richardson’s death in 1964, and after years of searching for a way of preserving it for posterity, the family has given up the struggle.

The Avenue House sale took place this week. It isn’t a disastrous Mentmore-type dispersal to be remembered and mourned for decades. It is more of a small sadness. But it is a sadness, none the less. Something has been lost, and we’re all a little poorer for it.

Three Machines I’d Like To Live In

Roof garden at the Villa Savoye

Roof garden at the Villa Savoye

This is a departure from the usual – think of it more as  a “What I did on my holidays” post. During a recent Paris trip, Helen and I took the Metro out to the 16th arondissement, partly to look at some of Hector Guimard’s fabulously eccentric art nouveau apartment blocks; partly to stroll down the rue Mallet-Stevens, the gorgeous little Modernist cul de sac designed by Rob Mallet-Stevens in the 1920s (why isn’t Mallet-Stevens better known?); but mainly to visit the house just off the rue du Docteur Blanche that Le Corbusier and his cousin Pierre Jeanneret built in 1923-25 for their friend, the Swiss art collector Raoul La Roche.


Le Corbusier

And we fell in love with it. Maison La Roche is Modernism at its best – simple without being austere, angular but never dull. A double-height hall, with lots of vertical stresses, gives way to the horizontals of the long, bright gallery shown here, its own straight lines relieved by a sweeping curved ramp which leads up to a mezzanine library. The furniture is all designed or chosen (some of it from Maples) by Le Corbusier. And the colours! I had never understood just how important colour was to Le Corbusier. The interiors of Maison La Roche are full of greens and ivories and earthy reds, with walls of pale burnt sienna and woodwork of deep ultramarine. Shame on me for thinking he built white boxes.

Gallery and ramp at Maison La Roche

Gallery and ramp at Maison La Roche

Living room at 24 N.C.

Living room at 24 N.C.

Maison La Roche spurred us to visit 24 rue Nungesser et Coli, the apartment building Corb designed in 1934, to see the 7th-floor studio-apartment where he lived and worked. Here again the polychromy came as a delight and a surprise, with great blocks of yellow and grey and red breaking up the interiors. Corb used a system of vaults which did away with the need for much in the way of internal load-bearing walls, and throughout the apartment there are movable partitions which at a touch can close off or open up, to give different spatial sequences. There are also some great views: Le Corbusier’s bed is much higher than normal, and at first it looks quite odd, until you realise he raised it so that he and his wife could gaze out over the landscape of the Bois de Boulogne without having to get up.

Staircase at 24 N.C.

Staircase at 24 N.C.

After 24 N.C., of course we had to go out to Poissy and see the Villa Savoye, the country home designed for Pierre Savoye and his family in 1928-31. Unlike the other two machines for living in, the Villa Savoye is almost empty, so that although you don’t have the same feeling of a domestic space, you do have the opportunity to enjoy the architecture in the raw. Raised on pilotis, the house seems to float above the ground: Le Corbusier thought this healthier – ‘the soil is unhealthy, damp’ – and it also allowed the Savoyes to survey their estate and to feel part of a rural idyll. ‘The domestic life is inserted into a Virgilian dream,’ he wrote.


Staircase at the Villa Savoye

In early versions of the Villa Savoye, the architect included a straight external staircase up to the first floor, symbolically linking the living area to the ground. But in the finished villa, this disappeared, accentuating the floating quality of the building. Access to the upper floor and the garden terrace is by means of a shallow ramp which winds its way up through the centre of the house, and a spiral staircase which erupts on the roof in a bravura display, disrupting the harmonies of the box.

In Vers une architecture (1923), Le Corbusier wrote:

‘You employ stone, wood and concrete, and with these materials you build houses and palaces; that is construction. Ingenuity is at work. But suddenly you touch my heart, you do me good. I am happy and I say: “This is beautiful.” That is Architecture.’

The Maison La Roche, 24 N.C, the Villa Savoye – they all touched my heart. They all made me happy.


The Villa Savoye, floating

Maison La Roche and the studio-apartment at 24 rue Nungesser et Coli are both cared for by the Fondation Le Corbusier

The Villa Savoye is cared for by the Centre des Monuments Nationaux. More information here

Careful with the Paraffin Wax, Gladys

Gladys Deacon endorses Pond's Vanishing Cream

Gladys, Duchess of Marlborough poses for a Pond’s Cream advertisement. ‘I never have to think of windburn or chapping.’

American beauty. English duke. Disastrous marriage.

To many aficionados of the 20th-century country house, those words conjure up Blenheim Palace and Consuelo Vanderbilt’s ill-starred marriage to ‘Sunny’ Spencer-Churchill, 9th Duke of Marlborough, which ended in divorce in 1920 after the bride’s father had stumped up a dowry of $2.5 million. (It was non-returnable.)

Less well-known is the fact that within months of losing one American wife, Sunny found himself another. Gladys Deacon was a society beauty with a complicated past. Her father, Edward Parker Deacon of Boston, went to prison for shooting dead her mother’s French lover in their suite at the Hotel Splendide in Cannes, and then went mad. Her mother went off with an Italian nobleman. When Gladys was still a teenager, drifting around Europe, Proust and Rodin were captivated by her beauty. Bernard Berenson and the Crown Prince of Prussia wanted to marry her. She later claimed she had slept with every prime minister in Europe – ‘and most kings.’

In the 1890s, when she was only sixteen, Gladys met Sunny, then just married to Consuelo, and decided that she wanted him. It took her nearly twenty-five years, but on 25 June 1921 she finally achieved her objective when the couple were married in Paris. Her bridal gown was ‘of gold tissue specially woven in Italy for the occasion’, announced The Times. ‘The Court train is of gold tissue, and the veil, of old needle-point lace, [is] arranged like a coronet.’ That veil hid a slight but curious secret. Years before, Gladys had tried to improve on her considerable good looks by having paraffin wax injected in her nose. The procedure was not a success: the wax slipped and left her with a permanently bulky jaw.

Sunny and Gladys

Sunny and Gladys on their wedding day.

The newly-weds settled in at Blenheim Palace and Carlton House Terrace, and Gladys took up the role of duchess with ease. There were house parties at Blenheim and receptions at Buckingham Palace – in 1923 she was presented to George V and Queen Alexandra, ‘wearing a classically draped dress of silver lamé with a ceinture of silver embroidered in diamanté’.

Gladys was forty years old when she married, and Sunny was fifty. After spending several decades consorting with some of the world’s most distinguished artists and politicians in the capitals and casinos of Europe, the new duchess soon began to tire of Blenheim and country life, while three miscarriages in four years put an end to any hopes she had of motherhood. In 1927 ‘the charming mistress of historic Blenheim Palace’ raised a few eyebrows by posing in her wedding gown in an American advertisement for Pond’s cosmetic creams: ‘I never have to think of windburn and chapping. These… creams keep my complexion so vigorous and healthy.’

Gladys's Blenheim spaniels

Marriage-wreckers: Gladys’s Blenheim spaniels.

She turned to breeding Blenheim spaniels, and was so successful that they overran the Palace and drove the duke to distraction. This, coupled with Sunny’s conversion to Catholicism and Gladys’s dangerously erratic behaviour – she famously produced a revolver at dinner one night and, when one of her guests asked nervously what it was for, replied ‘Oh, I don’t know. I might just shoot Marlborough’ – led to the break-up of the marriage. In 1931 Sunny fled Blenheim, and for several years Gladys and her spaniels had the place to themselves, while she hired private detectives to follow her husband and report on his various affairs.

In 1933 Sunny had the gas and electricity to Blenheim cut off. Gladys retreated to their London house, but he cut off the power there too, and then had her evicted. Only his sudden death the following year prevented their divorce. In widowhood, Gladys the dowager Duchess of Marlborough moved to a Northamptonshire village where she lived a reclusive and nocturnal life surrounded by cats until 1962, when she was moved – against her will – to a geriatric hospital in Northampton. She died there in 1977, aged 96.

The Curious Case of the Virgin Birth

Oakley House Bedfordshire

Oakley House, Bedfordshire

Oakley House in Bedfordshire is a pleasant if unassuming 13-bedroom mansion built around 1750 for the Dukes of Bedford. At the end of WW1 it passed to a Bedford cousin, Arthur Russell, 2nd Lord Ampthill; and a few years later, Oakley shot to fame as the scene of an event that rocked the nation and made legal history – nothing less than a virginal conception.

The virgin in question was Lord Ampthill’s daughter-in-law. Christabel Hulme Hart, a Mayfair couturier, married the Hon. John Russell, heir to the Ampthill barony, in 1918, to his parents’ dismay and, as it turned out, to his, because just before the wedding Christabel told John that she didn’t want children for a while, and that therefore they weren’t going to be sleeping together in the foreseeable future.

John Russell

The Hon. John Russell. He threatened to shoot her cat.

John took this news surprisingly well. But as the months went by and his wife began frequenting fashionable nightclubs without him and teasing him about her entourage of ‘dark, sleek Argentines and Greeks who dance like dreams of perfection’, the strain began to tell. In 1919 he bought Christabel a copy of Marie Stopes’ Married Love and tentatively suggested they might use some form of birth control? She said ‘no’. In 1920 he appeared in her bedroom brandishing a gun and threatening to shoot her cat if she refused him any longer. She remained unmoved. So he turned the gun on himself and said he would blow his brains out if she did not consummate the marriage. It made no difference. Then in the summer of 1921 Christabel visited a clairvoyant, to be told she was expecting a baby. A doctor confirmed the fact and in October she gave birth to a 10lb. 8oz. boy, Geoffrey.

Christabel Russell

Christabel, the Russell baby and a dog

John Russell’s response was to sue for divorce. The last time they had shared a bed, he said, was when they had been put into the same room while staying with his parents at Oakley the previous December. On that occasion, no physical contact of any kind had taken place. In fact Christabel hadn’t even kissed him since August 1920. The child could not be his.

His wife gave a different version of events. She told the court that while they were at Oakley, there had been ‘Hunnish scenes’ in which her husband had tried and failed to have sex with her. She had also had a soak in a bath recently left by John – perhaps this could have led to her pregnancy? Then her counsel dropped a bombshell: doctors who examined Christabel while she was pregnant found that her hymen was still intact. She was a virgin.

The arguments over what the press called ‘the Russell baby case’ dragged on through two divorce trials. At stake was the boy’s future as heir to the Ampthill barony. Christobel’s counsel urged the jury not to leave him ‘branded with the infamy that cannot be redressed that his mother was a woman of no reputation, and he was a nobody’s child’. John’s barrister begged the jury ‘to free this young man from a tie which he hoped would be a bond of pleasure but is nothing but a rusty chain that burns into his soul’.

The first trial was inconclusive, and the second, described by one of the Sundays as ‘probably the most talked of divorce case of a generation’, ended in defeat for Christabel. The reputations of both husband and wife were in tatters. Their most private and intimate habits had been discussed at length in open court. John was widely regarded as effete and unassertive for allowing Christabel to dictate the terms of their relationship (and a revelation that he liked to dress up in womens’ clothes didn’t help). His wife was seen as unnatural for refusing to accept her wifely duties. Both were condemned for having ‘freakish’ manners and morals. George V was so appalled at the details being aired in public that he lobbied for a change in the law, and as a result, an Act prohibiting detailed press reporting of divorce cases was passed in 1926.

In the meantime Christabel appealed against the verdict, but it was upheld by the Court of Appeal. So she went to the House of Lords, and in a remarkable judgement in May 1924 the Lords overturned the decree nisi, legitimising the two-year-old Geoffrey Russell and his virgin birth.

John and Christabel were finally divorced in 1937; she never remarried. Geoffrey inherited as 4th Lord Ampthill on John’s death in 1973. His right to the title was contested by a son from one of John’s subsequent two marriages, but although he refused to take a DNA test his claim was upheld by the Lords, on the grounds that they should not now overturn the ruling they had made half a century earlier.

The family sold Oakley House in 1935.

The Baronet, the Blackshirt and the Farmer’s Daughter

Sir George Vernon

Sir George Vernon

‘Sir George Vernon was found shot in his bedroom at his country home, Hanbury Hall, near Droitwich, about midday yesterday’, ran the report in the Manchester Guardian of 15 June 1940. ‘A revolver was near the body.’

The Vernon family had lived at Hanbury for centuries. Richard Vernon was rector there before the Spanish Armada. Thomas, a sucessful chancery barrister, marked his success by building Hanbury Hall, a beautiful essay in redbrick Queen Anne, in the early years of the 18th century. Victorian Vernons added to the estates. Now, in the summer of 1940, that was all over. Sir George was the last of his line.

He was a man of pronounced views, and after inheriting Hanbury in 1920 at the age of fifty-five, he took every opportunity to make them known. He wrote to the Times to complain about local taxes; he resigned as a magistrate because his colleagues were too lenient towards motorists who came up before them. He loathed the Church of England and was active in the anti-tithe campaigns of the 1930s, to the extent that in June 1935 his refusal to pay tithes led to a forced sale of his goods in front of the Hall.

It was through the anti-tithe campaign that Sir George became involved with Oswald Mosley and the the British Union of Fascists. In the early 1930s a number of leading British fascists saw the campaign as a way of garnering support among farmers, and the blackshirts were active in organising opposition to tithe seizures all over the country. Sir George was never a member of the BUF, but he sympathised with its aims, and Mosley became a regular visitor to Hanbury.

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir Oswald Mosley

Sir George combined extremist political views with an unconventional private life. In 1927, after separating from his wife of more than twenty years, he turned up at the house of his farm manager, Edward Powick, and asked to borrow Powick’s 16-year-old daughter Ruth for a few months. ‘Things are in a mess up at the Hall,’ he explained. Ruth lived with him for the rest of his life, becoming his secretary and his mistress. In 1938 she changed her name to Vernon and he made her his heir. He had no children of his own. ‘Sir George introduced me everywhere as his daughter’, she recalled.

On 22 May 1940 the British government passed Defence Regulation 18B (1A), allowing the detention without trial of anyone believed to be ‘of hostile origin or associations or to have been recently concerned in acts prejudicial to the public safety or the defence of the realm’. Early the next morning Oswald Mosley was arrested, along with other leading figures in the movement. ‘Britain Swoops on Fascists’, reported the popular press, which carried front-page pictures of BUF members giving defiant salutes as they were led away by police. Over the following months around one thousand active members of the British Union were interned, along with an unknown number of far right sympathisers.

Sir George thought his own arrest was imminent. It was this, coupled with his poor health – he was variously described as having heart disease and throat cancer – that led the 74-year-old squire to close his bedroom door on the world that day in June 1940 and take his own life. Ruth married six years later and lived happily ever after – although not at Hanbury Hall, because Sir George’s widow moved back in after her husband’s death. The house passed to the National Trust in 1953.

Hanbury Hall