Lord Houghton

There had long been a Crewe family with large estates in Cheshire. These passed to the duchess' father as a result of her grandfather, Richard Monckton-Milnes, marrying in 1851 Annabel Crewe. She became unexpectedly the Crewe heiress and the estates were inherited in 1894 by her son Robert, who became Lord Crewe. 

Monckton-Milnes (1809-85, the duchess' grandfather and my great-great grandfather), was a significant figure in the literary world of the mid-19th century. He was the first to write a biography of Keats and was a friend of most of the leading writers of the next generation, entertaining them at famous Thursday breakfasts in his London house at 16 Upper Brook Street. He was himself an author and a politician. After twenty-six years as the member of parliament for Pontefract he was appointed a baron as Lord Houghton and continued his political career in the House of Lords. But his high ambitions in this context were never realised. A man with many friends, he was convivial, witty, warm-hearted and unconventional. In this, as in his career, he was unlike his son Robert, the Marquess of Crewe. 

Lord Crewe

Lord Crewe (1858-1945), was widely agreed to be stiff and formal but was an extremely successful Liberal politician and diplomat. In 1892, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed Viceroy of Ireland. He was subsequently in Herbert Asquith's reforming Liberal cabinet for its full eight years (1908-1916). In 1910 he became Secretary of State for India and as such was responsible for the immensely successful Indian visit of George V in 1911 with its famous Delhi Durbar. From 1922-28 he was Britain's ambassador in Paris. 

A dinner party in Dublin Castle, the official home of Lord Crewe when Viceroy, required footmen in full regalia. Sotheby's discovered tin trunks in the attics of West Horsley Place, evidently not opened for years, that contained sets of livery for the entire staff from footman (who had to me in more regular contact with guests in the dining room) down to coachman and page boy. 

Two stark personal tragedies marked Lord Crewe's life. He had one son with his first wife, Sybil Graham (1857-87), but the boy died aged eight in 1890. Nine years later Crewe married Peggy Primrose, the beautiful 18-year old daughter of his Liberal colleague in parliament, the Earl of Rosebery. She became an extremely fashionable hostess- a cabinet in the house is full of hundreds of letters from Asquith and other admirers. 

Peggy too had a son, born in 1911 and known in the family as Jack. He was clearly a beautiful child and greatly adored. The house contains numerous photographs of him, together with two busts of his head and an exceptionally sentimental but beautiful painting at about the age of three by the very fashionable society portraitist Philip de Laszlo. 

But history repeated itself. Like the boy from the first marriage Jack died as a child, in this case at the age of eleven in 1922. The death of any child is devastating, but for Crewe there must have been an extra and unusual sorrow. Since the death of his first boy, he had risen in the aristocracy with improbable speed, being created Earl in 1895 and then in 1911 Marquess, only one step short of a Duke. A man of his kind, and that degree of achievement, must have dreamt of being the head of a long aristocratic dynasty. It was not to be. 

MARY ROXBURGHE

The only other child of Peggy's, born in 1915, was four years younger than Jack. She was Mary, who married the 9th Duke of Roxburghe in Westminster Abbey when she was twenty on 24th October 1935. She immediately found herself in a very different world. Two years later, at the coronation of George VI, she was one of the four duchesses carrying the canopy of the Queen, who remained a lifelong friend. 

At first it seems to have been a happy marriage. In the early months of the war she was one of a group of friends (later known as the 'illicit wives'), who somehow managed to secure passage to Palestine to be with their husbands in Jerusalem. Soon they were the centre of a glamorous social life. 'Palestine is more like Ladies' Day at Ascot than ever', noted the ADC to General Wavell. But in early 1941 the authorities lost patience and sent them home. 

Whether or not the marriage was happy at the start, it came in 1953 to a very bitter end. The duke demanded that the duchess should leave Floors Castle, their marital home and Scotland's largest inhabited castle, but her solicitor advised her that she must on no account do so, Scottish law, he said, allowed a divorced wife much better alimony if she had been forced out of her home. She must stay put for as long as she could bear it. 

Her resulting experience was so melodramatic that it made instant headlines in the national press. First the duke told all his servants to leave the castle. The only person who remained with the duchess was her lady's maid, paid by herself. For a few days the two women rattled round in this very strange environment. Then the duke cut off the electricity; they wondered up and down stairs with paraffin lamps. His next attempt, it is said, was to cut off the gas. And finally it was the water. The lady's maid staggered up from the village with a couple of buckets until a friendly neighbour, Lord Home (the future prime minister) pointed out the problem of fire risk and insurance. Water was restored, but the solicitor finally agreed that the point had been made (after six weeks) and she could leave. He was right. The alimony was extremely generous. 

It may be that the marriage had not irretrievably broken down and there was another reason. After twenty years of marriage she had not produced any children, and there is little a 9th Duke desires quite so much as a 10th-who, after a second marriage, duly arrived. 

The duchess didn't marry again. After 1967, when her mother died and she inherited West Horsley Place, her life was divided into two parts- winters in a beautiful Roxburghe flat overlooking Kensington Gardens, and summers at Horsley. Her London life had a grand side. She gave very formal lunch parties, and often among the guests was her friend since the 1937 coronation, by now familiar as the Queen Mother. 

West Horsley Place was more relaxed. She greatly enjoyed playing her part in village life and was involved with numerous local activities and charities. She was a regular member of the congregation in her very local church, St. Mary's, where we have put up a plaque to commemorate her. It gives me great pleasure that her name will have meaning for the community for many generations to come, thanks to the work of West Horsley Place Trust. 

IMAGES:

1) Richard Monckton Milnes, 1st Baron Houghton, by London Stereoscopic & Photographic Company
albumen carte-de-visite, 1860s, © National Portrait Gallery

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

3) Mary Innes-Ker, Duchess of Roxburghe, oil on canvas, Sir Oswald Birley, 1948 © Sotheby's