Society Star: The Life and Times of Lady Massereene

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Easter Monday marks the 102nd anniversary of Edward Carson’s visit to Antrim Castle – a minor but significant event which changed Irish politics forever. Originally published in The Mitford Society: Vol. III, this post looks at the life and times of the Scots-born and Irish peeress, Lady Massereene.

Before she became chatelaine of Antrim Castle at the age of 21, having married the 12th Viscount Massereene, Jean Barbara Ainsworth was a society star. Standing six-feet-tall with black hair and dark eyes, her exotic looks attracted attention from both sexes. Women admired her avant garde fashion sense – she was always something of a style icon – and her penchant for flamboyant clothes, during the Edwardian era, was displayed through backless dresses, bejewelled head-wear and a long string of pearls tied in a knot. Her clothing was daring, as was her behaviour, and men admired her willingness to speak her mind. After a summer of parties in the salons of Mayfair and hunt balls in stately homes, she met her future husband, Algernon William John Clotworthy Skeffington. They married in February 1905, and three months later Algernon succeeded his father as the 12th Viscount Massereene and 5th Viscount Ferrard.

It was a glamourous marriage, reported in the stylish magazines of the day, The Tatler, The Bystander and The Sketch. With her new husband, twelve years her senior and a war hero (Lord Massereene served with the 17th Lancers in the Boer War and was mentioned in Dispatches twice), Lady Massereene had become a celebrity. It was an age when the merits of stardom were weighed against one’s background and breeding, and regardless of her title, she was prime candidate during this new wave of modern media, much like today. She was born in Scotland in 1884, the eldest daughter of Sir John Stirling Ainsworth (he was given a peerage in 1917), a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal politician. She had grown up accustomed to large houses with staff, fascinating house-guests from the political and industrial worlds, and the privileges her father’s money could afford her.

The political element would conjure up discord between father and daughter, for in 1910, Lord and Lady Massereene allayed themselves with Edward Carson to resist Home Rule. John Ainsworth was a Home Ruler, and he accused Lord Massereene of influencing his daughter. But nobody could tell her what to do, and she threw herself into the Unionist cause. The Massereene seat, Antrim Castle, a 17th century dwelling overlooking the parish of Antrim, became a refuge for Carson and his Antrim branch of the Ulster Volunteer Force. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Lady Massereene inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’, and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters. The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Lady Massereene, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Lord Massereene had been arrested and that Carson was at the castle. In a letter to her friend Edith, Lady Londonderry, she described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow the housekeeper who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Lady Massereene founded a corps of nurses, named the Volunteer Aid Attachment Corps. The training consisted of five weeks with the Red Cross or St John Ambulance to ensure the women were equipped to care for volunteers if they went into battle. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, while Antrim Castle and the O’Neill seat, Shane’s Castle, were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle during his task to review 2,800 volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given in his honour, and amongst the UVF hierarchy were a countess, a marquis, a duchess and various lords and ladies. A photograph exists of Lord and Lady Massereene standing on the steps of Antrim Castle with Carson and his cronies. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Lady Massereene on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of 80 members from Antrim, Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. Lady Massereene presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

There were no women in local government and Lady Massereene was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s role in society were made clear when, opening a Bazaar in Dunadry in aid of Muckamore New Schools, she referred to the topical Suffragette movement. The school’s colours of green, blue and orange, were Suffragette colours, and she joked that if any such ladies were presented they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the new schools’, before adding: ‘I believe in the higher education of women – the reason was that education makes them much better wives and mothers. The future of the empire depended to a very large extent, if not altogether, upon the mental training of mothers, and the way in which they brought up their children.’ The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

The arrival of WWI in 1914 saw Lady Massereene move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. Lord Massereene went to the front with the North Irish Horse, and there had been scenes of enthusiasm from the locals as he went to Antrim railway station on the 8 August for France. Accompanied by Lady Massereene and their daughter, Diana, born in 1909, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Lady Massereene’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about her allegiance with Carson. At home, she joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependants of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. In October 1914, Lady Massereene’s second child, a son and heir was born while Lord Massereene was in France. A month after the birth of her son, Lady Massereene hosted a successful fancy dress ball at the Protestant Hall. The fundraiser was for an ambulance, which she planned to send out to the front. Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s League’s Canteens, and dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook her for a streetwalker and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before. With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and relayed the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. By chance, Lady Massereene along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the 1918 Hollywood silent film, The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

Lady Massereene’s postwar life saw her re-emerge on the social scene, and Sir John Lavery painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. On 28 October 1922, Antrim castle held a grand ball, after which a fire broke out. Guests tried to extinguish the fire, to no avail, and locals rallied to the castle, concentrating their efforts on rescuing the servants whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Lady Massereene fled to the nursery to rescue her children, and trapped on a stairwell engulfed by smoke, she warned them they might not live. They watched as their cat caught on fire and perished before their eyes. Eventually, Lt Col Stewart Richardson, a war veteran who was staying at the castle, saved the lives of Lady Massereene and her children by tying sheets together and lowering them down from the roof of the chapel.

In 1923, a claim was made, and eventually rejected, for £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that was full before the fire and now found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to be forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (she showed her husband but not the police) in which Lady Massereene was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’. Such letters were sent in retaliation to Lady Massereene’s pro-Unionist speeches in which she said: ‘Let’s arm ourselves that Ulster will never surrender an inch of her soil or title of right to the insidious bloody foe.’ The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single fire. The water supply in the cisterns had been tampered with and several items that had been saved from the fire were found to be covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Lady Massereene was questioned about the repairs that had been carried out on the fireplaces. She replied that, owing to a dream she had had ten years previously that a fire had broken out in her boudoir, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in her bedroom replaced.

This was not the first time Lady Massereene relied on or spoke openly about her dreams. A decade before, her tiara was stolen from the castle and she ordered the police to comb the banks of the Six Mile river, having dreamt it was discarded there. She was, in fact, the victim of a network of jewel thieves who were eventually caught in London and arrested. She harboured a deep interest in the paranormal and was renowned in London as a ghost expert. A good friend of the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale, Lady Massereene related her paranormal experiences in Tweedale’s book, Ghosts I Have Seen. She also spoke openly to various London newspapers about her psychic abilities and affiliation with the spirit world.

In 1930, Lady Massereene suffered a bitter blow when her eldest child and only daughter, Diana Skeffington died suddenly at the age of twenty-one, after contracting typhoid at a wedding in Scotland. Lord and Lady Massereene never recovered from their daughter’s death, and having once spoke enthusiastically about rebuilding a country house on the site of the castle, Lord Massereene lost interest. They went their separate ways though never divorced, with Lord Massereene residing in apartments at Clotworthy House and Lady Massereene living in London, where in place of her once grand house parties she hosted seances. Many believed her obsession with the supernatural was a source of comfort to her after Diana’s death.

Lady Massereene’s final years were plagued by illness, although she never believed she was seriously ill. After collapsing in Hyde Park, she went up to Knock House, her Scottish residence in Mull, where her condition deteriorated. Five week later, in the winter of 1937, she died at the age of 54. Having championed the existence of ghosts, many of whom she called friends, one assumes, and hopes, Lady Massereene languishes in that spiritual realm.

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