Lady Crewe by Glyn Philpot, 1917

Visitors to West Horsley Place admire many of the paintings, but the one which attracts particular interest is the portrait of the Marchioness of Crewe, painted in 1917, by Glyn Philpot. The Marquess and Marchioness of Crewe bought the house from Lady Cooper in 1931, and their daughter was Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe left the house to her nephew Bamber Gascoigne,  who founded the Trust which administers the West Horsley Place estate today.

FAMILY

Lady Crewe as a childMargaret Etienne Hannah (Peggy) Primrose was born on New Year’s Day, in 1881, at The Durdans, Epsom Surrey.  Her father was Archibald Philip Primrose, 5th Earl of Rosebery.  Her mother, Hannah, was the daughter of Baron Mayer de Rothschild.  There were three other children, an older sister and two younger brothers and they enjoyed a family background of wealth and privilege. Her formal title was Lady Margaret Primrose, but she was always known as Peggy. From an early age, she was described as having a gift for friendship.  Lewis Carroll was so fond of her when she was a small child, that he gave her a personal copy of Alice in Wonderland with a letter of dedication.  Sadly her mother died when she was just ten, when she was thirteen her father became Prime Minister.  Rosebery’s declared ambition was to marry an heiress, own a Derby winner and become Prime Minister; he achieved all three.  He was a Liberal and had previously served under Gladstone, to whom he gave his loyal support during the Irish Home Rule crisis at the time when other Whig Lords left the Gladstonian wing of the party.  Rosebery was Prime Minister from 1894 to 1895, his spell in office was difficult as the Cabinet was divided and the House of Lords hostile.  He is often quoted as remarking: ’There are two supreme pleasures in life, one is ideal, the other real.  The ideal is when a man receives the seals of office from his Sovereign. The real pleasure comes when he hands them back.’ Rosebery was a staunch supporter of the British Empire, famously describing it as a ‘commonwealth of nations.’ This commitment to Empire was inherited by Lady Peggy, who was interested in the political life of her country.

THE ASQUITH DINNER PARTY

By the age of eighteen Lady Peggy Primrose was one of the society beauties of her day, greatly admired, but also well educated, intelligent and articulate. She was also noted for her wit, probably inherited from her father.  She was invited to a dinner party by Herbert and Margot Asquith and she met Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, Earl of Crewe, who was actually a political colleague of her father. She describes the event in the foreword of James Pope-Hennessy’s biography of the Earl, remarking that she had known the Earl at a distance when she was a child.

Robert, Earl of Crewe was the only son of Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton and the Hon. Arabella Crewe.  He succeeded to the title after the death of his father in 1885. He joined Gladstone’s Liberal  government and the Home Rule section of the party and was made Liberal whip in 1885. The following year he became Lord-in-Waiting to Queen Victoria.  He was destined for ministerial appointment but the death of his wife was a bitter blow.  After a period of travel and writing, he returned to politics and became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland from 1892-1895. Lady Peggy’s father was Prime Minister during this time. In 1895 his uncle Hungerford Crewe, 3rd Baron Crewe died, and he inherited an estate of 50,000 acres covering four counties.  He became entitled to add the name ‘Crewe’ to his surnames.  In July 1895 he became Earl of Crewe.  The Earl was a close friend of Herbert Asquith and was regarded as an excellent administrator and reliable politician. He was not, however, a good public speaker; his speech was hesitant with long pauses.  (When Lord Rosebery heard that Peggy was in labour with her first child, he is reported to have said: ‘I hope her delivery is not as slow as Crewe’s.’) The Earl, like his father had strong literary interests.  He published a book of poetry and a biography of his father-in-law, Lord Rosebery, and was Chairman of the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association.

At the dinner party, there was an immediate rapport between the couple and they conversed animatedly throughout the meal. Lady Peggy writes that this did not go unnoticed by Margot Asquith, who foretold wedding bells.  The Earl of Crewe was a widower, having lost his wife Sybil Marcia Graham in 1887, as well as a young son, Richard, who died aged eight. He had four daughters by his first marriage and Lady Peggy was just a few months older than the eldest, Lady Annabel.  It was actually at Lady Annabel’s coming-out ball that Lady Peggy and the Earl became engaged, rather to the disapproval of her grandmother, the Duchess of Cleveland, who disliked the similarity of age between Lady Peggy and her prospective step-daughters. Lady Peggy remarked that her grandmother did not seem to understand that age has nothing to do with affinity!                                                                                  

THE WEDDING & EARLY YEARS OF MARRIAGE

The wedding took place on April 20th 1899 at Westminster Abbey.  There is a  lively description of the wedding in The Cheshire Observer of the 22nd April 1899, giving details of the bride’s apparel, her ten bridesmaids, the splendid selection of wedding gifts and the names of some of the guests, one of whom was the Prince of Wales.  The introduction sets the scene colourfully:

            The Crewe-Primrose Marriage: Brilliant Function at Westminster Abbey

            One of the largest crowds – both inside and out – attracted to Westminster Abbey

            in recent years for a fashionable marriage, assembled on Thursday to witness

            the marriage of Lady Margaret Primrose to the Earl of Crewe.  As early as 11.00

            o’clock people began to assemble and  by noon the crowd had assumed

            enormous proportions.  With the exception of a narrow way  for carriages and

            omnibuses the whole of the square surrounding the Abbey,  as far as the Aquarium

            on the west, and almost to the Houses of Parliament on the east was occupied.

            All the windows of the buildings which command a view of the north and west doors

            of the Abbey were filled with spectators.’  (2.)

There was much rejoicing in Cheshire;  all the employees of the Earl’s estates were given a holiday, along with children in his schools,   flags were hoisted, and church bells pealed.         

After her wedding, Lady Crewe embraced the role of political hostess at the couple’s houses: Crewe House in Mayfair and Crewe Hall in Cheshire.  In 1907 – in her 20s – she became Vice President of the Victoria League. This organisation was founded during the Second Boer War in 1901, it was named after Queen Victoria, who died in that year, when there was a surge in patriotic support for the Empire in Britain and the white Dominions and Commonwealth.  Women wished to participate, and movements sprang up in Canada and South Africa. The women in these organisations sent members to Britain to seek support and London Society became involved, with an inaugural meeting on 2nd April 1901. The venue was 10 Downing Street at the invitation of Alice Balfour, sister of the Prime Minister, Arthur Balfour. Those present included representatives from the South African Guild of Loyal Women, wives and sisters of the Cabinet Ministers and Opposition leaders, along with other prominent society women. All were in black, out of respect for the recently deceased Queen. The mission was for the Victoria League to be “an association of women of the British Isles who are in sympathy with imperial objects and desire a close union between the different parts of Empire.”  The League would support “any practical work desired by the Colonies and tending to the good of the Empire as a whole.” The Victoria League also aimed to be non-political. The president was Margaret, Countess of Jersey, with Edith Lyttelton as secretary. Five years after the League’s inception, Lady Crewe was chosen as vice-president, serving alongside Lady Jersey. Her political connections were considerable; including members of the Liberal Imperialist Group formed by her father.  Lady Crewe supported other initiatives: she was involved in raising money for Bedford Women’s College of London University, and the Women’s Free-Trade Union. In 1911 her son Richard was born and following her husband’s elevation, she became Marchioness of Crewe. This was the period when Crewe Hall was host to many of the leading Liberals in government and opposition.  The highlight was in April 1913, when George V and Queen Mary were guests of Lord and Lady Crewe for three days, the royal couple visited railway depots, factories and orphanages.

Photograph of Ladty CreweTHE WAR & WOMEN’S ORGANISATIONS

In 1914, just after the outbreak of war, Lady Crewe was asked by the President of the Local Government Board, Herbert Samuel, to chair the Central Committee on Women’s Employment. All the committee members were women. Mary Macarthur, secretary of the Women’s Trade Union League and Mary Tennant, the factory inspector also served on the committee. Three other members: Marion Phillips, Susan Lawrence and Margaret Bondfield were to become Members of Parliament. The remit of the committee was to investigate initiatives that would help to provide work for women and girls who may have lost work because of the war. They supervised employment schemes started by Queen Mary’s Work for Women Fund, which had been set up after the outbreak of war. Lady Crewe worked closely with the Queen and also with Mary Macarthur, who became a friend whom she held in high regard. In 1915, Lady  Crewe gave birth to a daughter, Lady Mary Evelyn (later Duchess of Roxburghe). 

The Central Committee continued its work after the war ended, with Lady Crewe still in the chair, when it was re -named the Central Committee on Women’s Training and Employment. This was a challenging time, as women inevitably lost wartime jobs when the ex-servicemen returned. In 1921, Lady Crewe became President of the Mary Macarthur Holiday Home for Working Women, this was set up following the death of Mary, aged forty.

Lady Crewe’s strong connection with women’s advancement continued, when on Christmas Eve 1919, the law was passed permitting women to enter the legal profession and serve as justices of the peace. She was asked to chair the committee of women appointed by the Lord Chancellor, with the task of submitting the names of women who might serve as justices. She became one of the first female justices of the peace in London, along with Beatrice Webb and Gertrude Tuckwell, fellow committee members.  She was very highly regarded by women who had served with her on various committees.

In 1922 her son Richard sadly died, following an operation. In that same year, the Marquess was appointed Ambassador to France, and the family moved to Paris for six years.

Lord Crewe1930S AND  THE SECOND WORLD WAR

In 1931 the Marquess of Crewe purchased West Horsley Place from Lady Marion Cooper.  Upon the family’s return from France, Lady Crewe continued her involvement in political and public life, becoming chairwoman of the Liberal Social Council, and was active in the establishment of townswoman’s guilds.

 Lord Crewe decided that the upkeep of the Crewe Hall estate was too burdensome; he had previously offered it gratis to Cheshire Country Council, but this was not accepted. It was sold to the Duchy of Lancaster.

During the Second World War, when members of the Free French who had fled to Britain with General de Gaulle needed support, a fund supporting the French in Great Britain was instituted and Lady Crewe became chairwoman.  As a result of her work in this sphere, in August 1946, she was honoured by the General, and made a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.

WEST HORSLEY PLACE

The Marquess carried out considerable, sympathetic work on West Horsley Place.  The house was redecorated and new plumbing  and heating systems installed throughout, including the attic rooms.  The old dining room was transformed into a library to house a brilliantly eclectic collection of books, which included many from his father, Richard Monckton Milnes, who was a well-known 19th century literary figure. Lord Crewe’s study adjoined the library, and the 18th century silk damask on the walls of this room – a very fashionable item of interior décor in the 1930s – is also repeated in the drawing room. 

The garden at West Horsley Place became a special project for Lady Crewe, who was a knowledgeable and accomplished gardener.  She had a clear idea of the effect she wished to create, where ‘each space presents a distinct and charming picture in its season.’ (3.) There were borders of perennials and annuals, winding along the serpentine wall, stocks in the walled garden, a phlox border and an antirrhinum garden, as well as an informal corner of cape hyacinths.

In these years Lord and Lady Crewe frequently walked in the village and surrounding countryside and worshipped regularly at St. Mary’s Parish  Church. When the annual village fete was held in the Old Rectory Garden, Lady Crewe would open the proceedings and spend time visiting the stalls and making purchases.

The Marquess died at West Horsley Place in 1945, aged 87.  He is buried at Saint Bertoline’s Church, Barthomley, Cheshire.  In 1958, Lady Crewe donated her husband’s papers and correspondence to Cambridge University.  She died at 50 Charles St. Westminster on 13th March 1967, and was buried beside the Marquess at Barthomley, Cheshire.  There was a tribute to her in The Times of 14th March which described her as a  ‘unique personality, whose charm fascinated her friends drawn from the widest circle, which includes all ages and interests, political, literary and artistic.' (4.) James Pope-Hennessy wrote in The Times on 17th March 1967:  ‘Neither age nor class was a barrier to her affection – and the friends to whom she gave her loyalty found this total, imaginative and unchanging.’ (5.)

The West Horsley Place estate was inherited by her daughter Mary, Duchess of Roxburghe.

REFERENCES

  1. Pope- Hennessy, James, Lord Crewe, 1858-1945.  The Likeness of a Liberal, London: Constable & Co. 1955
  2. The Cheshire Observer, 22nd April, 1899,British Newspaper Archive www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk
  3. Country Life, 25th March, 1939
  4. The Times, 14th March, 1967, www.thetimes.co.uk
  5. ibid, 15th March, 1967

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Doughan D. & Gordon P., eds. Dictionary of British Women’s Organisations, 1825-1960

London: Routledge

Gascoigne, Bamber,   A New Start, www.westhorsleyplace.org

Logan, Anne, Milnes (nee Primrose, Margaret Etrenne Hannah (Peggy) Crewe, Marchioness of Crewe, https://www.oxforddnb.com/view/101093

Milnes, Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe, http://www.oxforddnb/com/view

Parker, Ian, The Marquess of Crewe. Dictionary of Liberal Biography, ed. Brack et al.

https://liberalhistory.org

Pope-Hennessey, J  .  Lord Crewe, 1858-1945. The Likeness of a Liberal, London: Constable, 1955

IMAGES

1. Portrait of Margaret Crewe-Milnes, Machioness of Crewe, Glyn Philpot, 1917

2. Lady Peggy Primrose by Rupert Potter, 1884 © National Portrait Gallery

3. Margaret Etienne Hannah ('Peggy') Crewe-Milnes (née Primrose), Marchioness of Crewe by Lallie Charles, 1909 © National Portrait Gallery

4. Robert Offley Ashburton Crewe-Milnes, 1st Marquess of Crewe, Walter Frederick Osborne, oil on canvas, circa 1890s © National Portrait Gallery