Society Star: Jean Viscountess Massereene

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This pen portrait has been extracted from These Great Ladies: Peeresses and Pariahs. Please excuse any formatting errors, as it was copy and pasted from a  template.

Jean Massereene was never going to play by the rules, despite her high birth and place, as a woman, in society. ‘The worst of being a woman is the pre-conceived idea of her that is held by the average man,’ she would say. ‘He has formed a mould into which he would fit all womankind. If she does not take kindly to this mould he tries to force her into it.’¹

She was born Jean Barbara Ainsworth on 3 December 1883 in Kensington,² London, to the Australian-born³ Margaret Catherine (née) Macredie, and Sir John Stirling Ainsworth. Her father was a wealthy industrialist, banker, and Liberal MP, who on his mother’s side (the daughter of a clergyman and industrialist) was Scottish but his paternal roots were firmly established in Cumberland. Likewise, Margaret, although born in Melbourne, was of Scots parentage. Margaret had given birth to a daughter, Janet Mary, in 1880 but the child died shortly after. Jean would be their next child, followed by two brothers, Thomas and John Stirling, and a sister, Margaret Louise. Her childhood was spent at the family’s nineteenth-century manor house, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll on the edge of Loch Awe, and at Cleator, a country house in Cumberland. When in London she lived at her father’s home at 28 Queen’s Gate, and then at 55 Eaton Place.

The family fortune came from Sir John’s ore iron mines, and the flax mills which his mother’s family, the Stirlings, had founded during the Industrial Revolution. Thus, with no shortage of money and nine servants, including a governess, a nurse, and a French lady’s maid, Jean’s upbringing was that of privilege. As with many upper-class girls, she and her younger sister, to whom she was particularly close, were taught by a governess at home while her two brothers attended Eton. And, owing to her father’s mind for business and his political career (he was an MP for Cumberland and Argyll), which was not without controversy, she had a sharp intellect but university was out of the question. Although largely self-educated – she was well-read and followed the latest literary stars – she ‘realised more and more what a blessing it was to have a good education when one was young’. She said there was ‘nothing that so fitted men and women to take part in the battle of life as a really sound education in childhood’. As clever and single-minded as she was, Jean did what was expected of her: she was presented at Court at the age of eighteen, and at twenty-one she was engaged to be married. The man in question was Algernon William John Clotworthy Whyte-Melville Skeffington, the second son of the 11th Viscount Massereene and Ferrard.

The marriage to Algernon, or ‘Algie’ as Jean called him, was not an ambitious one on her behalf. His family had held onto their title as it was demoted from earl to its original status of viscount, owing to the latter title being passed through the female line (hence the earldom was lost) for a generation before returning to a male heir, the 10th viscount. As with the unconventional passing of the title, the family’s money had changed many hands and was long spent. It was largely squandered by the eccentric John Clotworthy, the 1st Viscount, who had been imprisoned in Paris for embezzlement, and who died without a male issue and bequeathed his estate to a London prostitute. John Clotworthy’s brothers challenged the woman and were able to retrieve the money and properties which had been left to her, but had to pay her off with a hefty sum and an annual allowance thereafter. But it is unfair to pin the blame entirely on John, for the family’s wealth was as such, his spendthrift ways merely dented the Massereene money and his debts had been paid off by his mother’s own fortune. However, through the years and as land and tax laws changed, the family’s money dwindled.

As such, Algie was not expected to inherit his father’s title, estate, or money, and would therefore have to find a career. This he did, and upon leaving Sandhurst he was commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 17th Lancers, and he moved up the rank to 1st lieutenant and then to Captain. Between 1900-02 he served as adjutant to his regiment in the Boer War, and he was wounded in the shoulder by a shell splinter. He was twice mentioned in despatches and was awarded a Distinguished Service Order and the rank of brevet-major. He was also ten years Jean’s senior. She came to the marriage with her own fortune: an allowance paid from the Stirling and Ainsworth trust funds. And although her father, a baronet, was a master of the Industrial Revolution, his title was fairly new. Thus, Algie brought a certain pedigree and Jean supplied the money.

They were married on 16 February 1905 at St Margaret’s church, Westminster. The bride wore a gown of white chiffon velours, trimmed with Limerick lace, and an uncommon wreathon her head made of silver wheat-ears mixed with orange blossoms and shamrock. The eight bridesmaids were dressed in Elizabethan style costumes of white satin with the upper part of the bodice and sleeves a lattice work of satin and pearls, with coils of blue velvet from which fell a tulle veil. They were given sapphire shamrock brooches, a gift from Algie. It can be assumed that her father gave her the use of 55 Eaton Place as a wedding present, for the address is listed in various diaries from the period, all crediting Jean with throwing parties at the residence. The newlyweds honeymooned at Algie’s parents’ Irish home, Oriel Temple, in Co. Louth, and in the years before tensions surrounding Home Rule were to flare up, Jean and Algie were very much a part of Dublin society.

In May 1905, three months after the wedding, Algie’s eldest brother and his father’s heir, Oriel, died unexpectedly at a health resort in Scotland. Aged thirty-three, Oriel was not married and had no heir, and so the titles from the Irish Peerage were to pass on to Algie upon his father’s death. This was to happen sooner than either Jean or Algie expected. On 26 June, he succeeded his father, who had died after a short illness (brought on by his alcoholism), to become the 12th Viscount Massereene and the 5h Viscount Ferrard. Using his title from the British Peerage, he sat in the House of Lords as Baron Oriel. At the age of twenty-one, Jean became the chatelaine of the family’s Irish seat, Antrim Castle, a seventeenth-century castle in the province of Ulster, rebuilt in 1813 as a Georgian-Gothic mansion, as well as the nearby Skeffington Lodge, a hunting residence overlooking Lough Neagh. There was also Oriel Temple, and a London townhouse at 108 Lancaster Gate.

Photographs taken of Jean from this period portray an exotic creature; black hair, dark eyes, and pale skin, she stood apart from the typical English roses who were lamented for their fair beauty. And she did not adhere to the fashions of the day, preferring to shun the exaggerated form of the early Edwardian era to wear a straight silhouette, not popular until a decade later. Said to be conspicuous of her tall, slight figure, she was credited with starting the trend for wearing ropes of pearls down to her waist, elaborate headbands, and long, shapeless dresses.

It had also become clear to not only Algie, but to her contemporaries, that she was an eccentric young woman who was far from conventional. Her husband found this charming, but as the years passed her peers dismissed her as being a peculiar individual, and that was not always a welcomed trait within her circle. In the meantime, she courted celebrity as a fashion icon, and was said to be ‘socially ambitious’, which coming from her fellow peeresses was viewed as a put-down. This insult could have been inspired by Jean’s informality and, regardless of her upbringing, she was personable with friends and strangers alike.

In 1909 the Bassano Studio in London produced a book entitled England’s Beautiful Ladies, with an introduction written by Queen Alexandra. Jean featured, photographed wearing a viscountess’s coronet and evening dress over which she draped a net shawl, the caption beneath the image read that she was ‘an ardent follower of hounds’. Her face was devoid of makeup in the shot, but in several photographs taken during WWI and thereafter she began to emphasise her dark looks with cosmetics, and she painted a mole, or beauty spot, on her cheekbone. Often, her style of dressing was deemed ‘inappropriate’, but she ignored her critics and continued to favour strapless and backless dresses, long opera coats and furs, and chandelier earrings dangling to her shoulders. Far more scandalous to the sartorial set was the certainty that she was not wearing a corset underneath her flimsy clothes. And, in a more contrasting choice, she opted to wear men’s tailoring – loose fitting trousers, a wax jacket, and brogues – as her country attire, almost two decades before trousers had become acceptable for women working the land. ‘Lady Massereene [looks] very actressy, but certainly pretty . . .’¹ observed a contemporary. But Jean dismissed those who thought her vain, and she said:

What we need is to think less about appearances and more about doing things. It is better to win races surely, and pit our muscles and brains against our fellows in friendly rivalry than to emulate the peacock. The peacock is a brainless bird, and despised by the sparrow, and those who think only of clothes resembles him.¹¹

With Algie’s military career consuming his attention, Jean was left to her own devices, socially speaking. As a viscountess she did what was expected of her and spoke at charity events, attended the local schools’ prize giving ceremonies, and hosted bazaars on the grounds of Antrim Castle. A significant cause was the Women’s National Health Association (WNHA), founded in 1907 by Lady Aberdeen, dedicated to eliminating white scourge¹² (tuberculosis) and reducing high rates of infant mortality in Ireland, with the Antrim branch being led by Jean. Matters relating to health and social conditions would remain a prominent interest, and among the WNHA’s greatest achievements was providing children with free dental and health checks. She also organised the ‘Tooth and Nail’¹³ drive, which encouraged children to care for their teeth and hands, for she believed in educating children in matters relating to their own health. Each year she hosted a party for five-hundred children on the grounds of Antrim Castle and prizes were given to those who demonstrated the best care. She also served as patroness to the Antrim Philharmonic Society, and to the local infant schools.

In London she attended parties and her life carried on much as before. ‘If modern debutantes want to spend hectic days and nights the only sensible plan is to let them do it,’¹ she would say, years later. It was only when Algie retired from active military service in 1907 and accepted the appointment of a major in the North of Ireland Imperial Yemonary that Jean saw herself spending more time at Antrim Castle. However she went to Dublin, which had a social scene as lively as London, whenever possible. And, when in Ireland, she preferred to reside at Oriel Temple in Co. Louth.

The following year, in 1908, Algie transferred to the newly created North Irish Horse and commanded A Squadron (Belfast) from 1907-1914. The military way of life, from the fringes at least, suited Jean and she took an interest in political and world affairs. Algie was content with his wife dabbling in ‘men’s business’, and her quick mind and easy intimacies with strangers and acquaintances worked in his favour.

Despite Jean’s approach to individuals and boundless energy, her general health was always perilous. She was prone to symptoms that would today fall into the mental health category, or at least would be openly spoken about and accepted as mental fatigue. In those days, however, she was merely described as ‘highly strung’ or ‘eccentric’.

In 1909 Jean gave birth to her first child, a daughter named Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington. Judging from newspaper notices and letters written during the period it is clear that she was a modern mother, especially by aristocratic terms. Diana was her mother’s constant companion, and from a young age she accompanied Jean to social functions. She would also call Jean by her first name, which was not coldness on Jean’s behalf, but a demonstration of how close they were. A press photograph of the two exists with the child, aged five, sitting on Jean’s lap while she chatted to Lord Londonderry.

In years to come, Jean granted Diana a certain amount of freedom that was unheard of for its day: she was a member of the local branch of the Girl Guides in the town of Antrim, and she befriended the gardener’s daughter. This is another example of Jean’s informality, which others found unnerving, including that of the gardener’s wife, for when Diana visited their home she entered through the back door. Given her high birth, the gardener’s wife protested at her using the back door, for it meant Diana had to pass through the scullery. But the idiosyncrasies of her aristocratic upbringing were apparent, and when Diana wanted to return to the castle she merely stood up, a signal for her nanny to put her coat on. This was not done out of haughtiness, she had simply known no different. It appeared Diana retained her common touch as she grew older, and in her teens she became a member of Antrim Hockey Club, and was instrumental in aiding local charities and visiting the poor and infirmed.¹ On one occasion, in the 1920s, she accompanied Jean to a fete at Mount Stewart, the Ulster seat of the Marquess of Londonderry, and a guest remarked to Lady Londonderry that a certain ‘tall, good looking girl’ in the refreshments marquee was ‘working harder than any waitress’.

Fourteen months after Diana was born, Jean gave birth to a son, on 24 April 1910, who lived for a day. She had been manning a stall at an exhibition of Irish goods in Dublin the previous month, and a few days before the birth she attended a party at Dublin Castle. It is unclear if the baby, referred to as the Hon. N. Skeffington, was premature or ill, and his death was mentioned in the Court Circular. She convalesced for a month at Oriel Temple, and then spent a week at her father’s house in London.

Returning to Antrim Castle in August, Jean opened a bazaar in aid of a Masonic lodge in Randalstown. She appeared in good humour, and in her speech joked about the secret society and its rituals. In November, she offered the use of the Oak Room to hold a meeting for those in favour of forming an Antirm committee for the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC). Addressing the large numbers who answered Jean’s call, Algie spoke of his personal views on the charity and how he hoped no child would suffer needlessly. It was agreed by the charity’s representative for Ireland that a branch of the NSPCC would be founded for Antrim, and that a ladies committee would also be formed. Jean was appointed secretary of the new committee, and she said it was ‘a sincere pleasure to her to help forward the work of the society in any way’.¹

1912 marked an adventurous year for Jean and Algie, and they went on a three-month ‘pleasure tour’ of Australia, where they received the hospitality of distinguished individuals. In Canberra they stayed at Government House with the Governor-General and Lady Denman, whom Lady Massereene accompanied to a ball hosted by the Young Women’s Christian Association, given in her honour. They ventured to the Tablelands in Queensland, where they were the guests of Mr and Mrs W.F. Ogilvie. Before leaving the region they stayed with Mrs W. Collins at Beaudesert. They also spent a weekend with the opera singer Dame Nellie Melba at Coombe Cottage, Coldstream. There were polo matches, horse racing, and garden parties. At a race meeting, Jean surprised onlookers when she debuted her newest style of dressing – a long skirt, which she left unbuttoned twelve inches above the hem to purposely display her petticoat. ‘At first glance it looks rather odd, not pretty or graceful by any means,’¹ reported a fashion critic.

Three months later, Jean and Algie left Australia for New Zealand, where they stayed for a few weeks, before sailing home. However, with the topic of Jean’s fashion dominating the society columns, before departing for Australia she had attended a ball given at Taplow Court, the home of Lord and Lady Desborough, in which she wore an Assyrian dress. She was photographed striking a pose before an imposing fireplace, her head covered with a veil, her eyes lined with dark pencil, and the midriff and skirt of her dress was sheer with her modesty protected by carefully placed panels and a shawl tied around her hips. It was a daring choice, and newspapers as far away as America printed the photograph.

Before the Australian trip, Jean had taken an interest in the uprising of Irish Nationalists who sought Home Rule for Ireland. She allied herself with the Ulster Unionists and believed Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom and under British rule. With a large protestant stronghold in Antrim, she appealed to those locals who were patriotic, and she spoke at the Protestant Hall about remaining loyal to the king. She said: ‘The people of Antrim had always been noted for their loyalty to their King and Empire.’¹ On one occasion she gave a rousing speech on the 1689 Siege of Londonderry, and afterwards she unveiled a banner which displayed a painting of Algie in his North Irish Horse uniform. She also wrote an article lamenting the fiscal reasons for remaining under British rule:

Assuming, for example, that an Irish Parliament were to impose a duty on foreign corn for the purpose of benefiting the Irish farmer, what effect would this measure have on the artisans and mill hands in Belfast? Are the workers in the shipbuilding yards of Belfast and in the linen mills in the North of Ireland to pay more for their daily bread in order that the farmer in the South of Ireland may obtain a higher price for his corn? . . . Great Britain is the best market for Irish produce in the world, and might conceivably, though improbably enter upon a policy of retaliation.¹

Having returned from their tour, she and Algie threw themselves into Sir Edward Carson’s cause. Her father, a Home Ruler, thought Jean’s decision an ill-judged one and he accused Algie of influencing her. Further wounding Sir John Ainsworth was his daughter’s involvement with Carson and his militant organisation, founded earlier in the year, which he named the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF). Algie was appointed Officer in Command over the 3rd South Antrim Battalion. This marked the beginning of Jean’s affection for Carson, and he was often received at Antrim Castle.

As well as entertaining Carson, Jean and Algie discussed the militant plans and the parts they would play. It was largely a secretive operation, with the Massereenes, the Londonderrys, and Lord O’Neill, of the neighbouring Shane’s Castle, opening their homes and grounds as a meeting point for local men to sign up to the UVF, and to hold fundraisers. The Massereenes land became a parade ground for the UVF, where, after militant marches and various displays of pageantry, Jean inspected the men. Afterwards she passed out cigarettes, known as ‘smokes’,² and gave rousing speeches to the local supporters.

The UVF was breaking the law by holding armed events, and Jean, a participant in their illegal activity, would soon suffer the consequences. A rumour spread through Antrim that Algie had been arrested and that Carson was hiding at the castle. In a letter to her friend Theresa, Lady Londonderry, Jean described how the rumour had provoked an ‘angry’ and ‘over-zealous’ crowd to follow their housekeeper, who was manhandled in an attempt to retrieve information. Owing to the discord, she missed the London season and opted to remain at Antrim Castle with her husband. She wrote:

I’m afraid I will not be in town this season, unless I come with Algie when the [Home Rule] Bill comes up in the Lords as I don’t like leaving him here as they [Irish Nationalists] have threatened to shoot him when they get the chance. Of course I would probably feel anxious all the time if I was living without him.²¹

Indeed, Algie was privy to secret information regarding the UVF, and on an April morning in 1914, he watched from a safe distance in his chauffeur-driven car as guns were smuggled into Larne Harbour. The operation became known as the Larne Gun Run. Its organiser, Captain Wilfrid, and his wife Lilian Spender, held a dim view of Jean, whom they thought of as vain and self-serving. The ill-feeling had been caused when Jean appointed herself in charge of various fundraisers which were to be presided over by Lilian, and she wrote to Wilfrid that her nemesis was ‘looking quite impossible as she always does’.²²

But Algie’s actions were not confined to upsetting the Antrim townsfolk, and he conspired to offend Irish Nationalists in Southern Ireland when he removed his great-great-grandfather John Foster’s (Lord Oriel) chair and mace from the National Museum of Ireland. Foster had been the last Speaker in the Irish House of Commons, and Algie had gifted the items five years prior to removing them to Antrim Castle. He feared Nationalists would claim the items for themselves, and his actions caused outrage, with the Dublin Telegraph accusing him of ‘raping’ the museum of its rightful heritage.

Far from defeated by the heightened tensions in the town, Jean 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 of the UVF if they went into battle with the Nationalists. ‘“We don’t want to fight, but by jingo if we do!” sums up the feeling in the North of Ireland today pretty accurately, and should furnish an answer to the question whether Ulster will fight if the Government succeed in passing a Home Rule bill,’ ²³ she said. A dressing station was established in Randalstown, five miles from the Massereene seat, while Antrim Castle and Shane’s Castle were on standby to be transformed into clearing hospitals.²

On Easter Monday of 1914, Carson returned to Antrim Castle to review almost three-thousand volunteers from the three south Antrim battalions. A luncheon was given at the castle in his honour, and among the UVF hierarchy were the Marquess of Londonderry, the Duchess of Abercorn, and various lords and ladies from the Peerage of Ireland. Afterwards, Carson inspected the nursing corps, led by Jean, on a swarm facing the castle and comprised of eighty members from Antrim and its surrounding towns of Randalstown, Lisburn, Glenavy and Crumlin. Prayers were followed by the formal dedication of the UVF’s colours, made by the Lord Bishop. After which, Jean presented Carson with the King’s colour and the regimental colour of the battalion, a personal gift from her.

As there were no women in local government, Jean was a rare female voice in public life. Her views on women’s roles in society were made clear when, opening a bazaar in the village of 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 present they should not begin ‘operations by destroying the New Schools’. She added: ‘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.’² The speech was an example of her chameleon-like tendencies to appeal to whichever crowd she was addressing.

However, ten years later in 1925, in a column for the Daily Express, Jean championed a woman’s right to work for a living: ‘A right to work should be the privilege of every woman, whether she marries or not, even if she is a rich man’s daughter.’² And, on the topic of her involvement in politics, and what was believed to be ‘men’s business’, she said: ‘Men would give [women] a higher place if she demanded it, and it would be well for her if she did.’²

The arrival of the First World War saw Jean move out of her husband’s shadow and into a role that was entirely her own. On 8 August 1914, Algie went to the Front with the North Irish Horse, and on his departure there had been scenes of gratitude as he travelled to the railway station, a short distance from Antrim Castle. Accompanied by Jean and their five-year-old daughter, Diana, the Massereene Brass and Reed Band, founded by his father, played a number of patriotic tunes on the platform as the train departed.

This was the era in which Jean’s charity work came to the forefront, and divided locals seemed to forget about, or at least forgive, her alliance with Sir Edward Carson. In Algie’s absence, Jean joined a distress committee aimed at helping dependents of soldiers and sailors who had gone to war. She also stepped into the role of welcoming visiting royal representatives and servicemen who came to Antrim, either to speak on behalf of the Empire or to convalesce at Shane’s Castle. Along with members of the local branch of the Red Cross she collected money for wounded soldiers, thousands of which were being cared for in the town. And she performed with her ‘bird like voice’ at a Protestant Hall concert to raise funds for St John Ambulance Society and the Dental Clinic for local schools. The National Institutes of Health presented Jean with a silver salver in 1916, in appreciation for her fund raising work.

On 22 October 1914, Jean gave birth to a son, born at her father’s home at Eaton Place, while Algie was in France with the North Irish Horse. As his birth coincided with the death of her youngest brother, John, who was the first of his regiment to be killed in action while serving in Belgium with the 11th Hussars, Jean named the child after him. He was christened John Clotworthy Talbot Foster Whyte-Melville Skeffington, and was known by his nickname ‘Jock’. His godparents were the Marchioness of Londonderry, his grandmother Florence the Dowager Viscountess Massereene and Ferrard, Mr George Spencer-Churchill and Sir Edward Carson.² It should be noted that, due to a clause Sir John Clotworthy had negotiated when he was given the Viscountcy of Massereene by King Charles II, the title could pass through a female line. Had Jean and Algie not had a son, Diana would have therefore inherited her father’s viscountcy in her own right.

In her typical way Jean shunned tradition not only by refusing to adhere to a decent mourning period, in society at least, following the death of her brother in October and her sister’s husband a month later, but by ignoring the confinement after Jock’s birth. Her baby was only a month old when she began collecting money for a motor ambulance service, which she planned to send out to France.² From her father’s home she arranged for a fancy dress party to be held in Antrim, with the money going to the North Irish Horse Ambulance Fund. Although she could not be there in person, as her son’s christening was taking place in London the day after, she donated plants for the occasion.

Her war work continued in London, where she had been made Commandant of Women’s Legion Canteens. Dressed in her usual flamboyant style, a group of soldiers mistook Jean for a prostitute and asked if she had had much luck at Piccadilly the night before.³ With her usual good humour, she laughed it off and told the anecdote for years to come. She trained as a nurse and volunteered at London hospitals, tending to the wounded. In 1918, Jean, along with other aristocratic nurses appeared as themselves, albeit in uniform, in the Hollywood silent film The Great Love, starring Lilian Gish.

The postwar years saw Jean resume her hedonistic social life. With spiritualism on the rise, and with the fashionable set adopting the movement, she began to speak openly about her psychic experiences. She befriended the society spiritualist Violet Tweedale and contributed to her book Ghosts I have Seen. And she became renowned for her parties at Lancaster Gate, in which her friends partook in seances. The fascination with spiritualism was always there, for at a garden party in 1918, which she hosted in aid of the Women’s National Health Association, Jean hired a palm reader³¹ to tell fortunes. 1918 was also the year that her mother died, and so this might have explained her taking a more serious interest than before.

In the mid-1920s Jean began to write a column, ‘in a most interesting and forceful style’,³² for the Daily Express. Her articles ran the gamut of how to entertain a large number of guests to her personal ghost sightings. The candour in which she wrote was reminiscent of her personality, and although after the war the occult had become a fashionable topic, she still ran the risk of appearing foolish. Perhaps she did not care. Of her ghostly encounters, she wrote:

If you say nowadays you have seen a ghost you are no longer greeted with superior derisive smiles. Scientific research has established beyond a doubt that certain phenomena exist, which, commonly called ghosts, are held by many to be the souls of the departed, and which come back for some reason or other to the earth they once inhabited in human form . . . I was driving back after a long day with the hounds, with two friends, Lady J, with whom I was staying, and a Mr X, who had an estate a few miles away. We were going along a narrow road when I saw just in front of us a man in a pink coat riding on a grey horse. I turned to Mr X and asked if he knew the man in front, as I had not noticed him during the day . . . ‘There is no man there,’ said Mr X. I appealed to Lady J, but she could see nothing. Finally, however, they both became convinced that I saw something . . . Two days later Lady J and I received an invitation to lunch at Mr X’s place. When we arrived, Mr X took us straight to the dining-room and pointed to an oil painting over the fireplace. I gasped. It was a picture of the man I had seen riding on the grey horse before.³³

Before the 1920s, Jean had not only spoken about her psychic experiences, but of her abilities too. This added to the general belief that she was eccentric and somewhat unstable, but this did not deter her. The first of her many confessions was in 1912, and it was prompted by her tiara going missing. She believed it had been stolen by a ‘respectable, although rather seedy looking man’,³ whom she had seen on the grounds of the estate. The tiara itself had been brought from the strong-room at Antrim castle, with the purpose of showing it to a relative. Afterwards, she placed it in its tin box and left it in her bedroom, without returning it to the strong-room. It was only when she sent for the tiara, and a servant brought the empty box, that she realised it had been stolen.

Speaking in a personal statement, Jean recalled going to her bedroom that evening, which was above several empty rooms in the castle. She remembered her dog barking – he often barked at the wind and draughty noises throughout the old castle – and she thought nothing of it. Furthermore, she had a dream on three different occasions in which she saw the tiara lying on the bed of the Six Mile Water, on the banks of which the castle had been built. Following her intuition, she told the police of her dream. Under constabulary supervision, Lough Neagh fishermen were ordered to comb the riverbed in the hope they would find the tiara, but they did not.³ The tiara, worth £2000 and set with white diamonds, was believed to have been stolen by a network of jewel thieves, as their loot had been discovered in London and several accomplices were arrested. Jean, however, did not get her tiara back. She, herself, claimed it would have been broken into pieces³ in order for it to have been smuggled so easily from the castle.

During this period and with the supernatural dominating her interests, Jean found a kindred spirit in the Tredegar family, namely Evan Morgan, the son and heir of Courtenay Morgan, 1st Viscount Tredegar. The family seat, Tredegar Park, in Wales, was a hub for unique individuals, with the family’s interest in the occult well documented among their contemporaries. Viscountess Tredegar, formerly Lady Katharine Carnegie, was a great friend of Jean’s. A renowned eccentric, it was rumoured she sat in an enormous bird’s nest and that the family practiced ‘Monarch Mind Control’.

It is easy to gauge Jean’s attraction to the Tredegars. For despite Evan being a dedicated occultist (perhaps Jean regaled him with her ghost stories), the parties thrown at Tredegar Park were unique, unpredictable, and a world away from the formality of the ‘smart set’ in London. A homosexual, Evan, in years to come, took a fancy to Jock, but his infatuation was one-sided, for Jock preferred the opposite sex. An interesting point relating to Jean’s personality and her open-mindedness in an age when homosexuality was illegal, was her close friendships with men of this persuasion. Many were married to women, for the sake of appearances, but were privately conducting their own affairs. Harold Nicolson was one such individual whom Jean revered, as referred to in Sir Robert Bruce Lockhart’s diary. Reading between the lines of his entries it is clear that she had something of an unrequited crush on him. ‘[Pam Chichester] told Max [Lord Beaverbrook] that she could never get on to me for Harold being rung up by Jean Massereene.’³

However, with much of her social life being spent in the company of peculiar men whose taste ventured to the flamboyant, she felt at home at Tredegar Park. The household was run by handsome menservants, and Evan lived there surrounded by Great Danes and a boxing kangaroo, which visitors had to fend off with a stick. It was common for Evan to tell his guests’ fortunes, and an incident recorded in John Bedford’s memoirs recounts a familiar evening, with Evan undertaking this in his bedroom, accompanied by a few guests, with the flames from the fire illuminating the four-poster bed. An owl flew around the room, and Evan wore clothing which had belonged to a witch from the past, and he also held up the skeleton of a witch’s hand. Despite the theatrics, his guests took his ‘terrifying interest in black magic’ seriously, and there were altars throughout the house. He would become a great friend of Aleister Crowley, and perhaps Jean had met the infamous occultist during her many visits to Tredegar Park, but there is no record of this. Recalling a typical house party there, something which Jean would have experienced, John Bedford wrote:

[Evan’s] notions of hospitality were pretty bizarre. One of the evenings we were there he settled in his house-party of twenty or thirty people down to dinner and then went off to some regimental or local do, abandoning his guests to carry on as best they could. He had asked some Welsh singers to entertain us during dinner. They stood outside the dining-room windows, which we had to keep open. In the end freezing to death in the icy draught, we got up and shut them, leaving the Welsh singers barbling on happily outside. Folk-songs are not exactly the ideal accompaniment to a meal. Lady Cunard was the only one of us who was civil enough to go out and thank them. Lord Tredegar then came back from what had obviously been a liquid occasion, and flew into a terrible rage when he discovered we had shut the windows on his favourite choir.³

The Roaring Twenties saw Jean re-emerge on the social scene, both in Ireland and in London. Sir John Lavery R.A. painted her portrait, a macabre study in black that, in hindsight, foretold the tragedies that were to come. And Algie, whose fighting days were behind him, returned home from the war having spent the remaining three years of conflict at a desk job in Egypt. She continued with her public work, and was appointed by Viscountess Fitzsalan to collect contributions from the people of Ulster to buy Princess Mary a wedding gift. ‘I am authorised to state that all money collected in the Northern Parliamentary area will be spent on household linen manufactured in the North.’³

Years had passed since the Massereenes association with Sir Edward Carson, and during the war years at least, Jean had redeemed herself with locals from both protestant and catholic backgrounds. However Nationalists did not forget, and Antrim Castle became the target of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), particularly those who sided with Sinn Féin. These Irish militants torched many stately homes belonging to the gentry, and what they perceived to be a symbol of English rule. In the spring of 1922 Antrim itself had fallen victim to several attacks of arson, with Lord O’Neill’s seat, Shane’s Castle, being set alight by Sinn Féiners from Co. Tyrone. Lord and Lady O’Neill, both elderly, were taken hostage inside their castle while petrol was poured throughout the building. And Galgorm Castle, in the neighbouring town of Ballymena, had suffered a similar fate.

On the 28 October 1922, the Massereenes hosted a party for their six guests and son, who was belatedly celebrating his eighth birthday. Among the guests were Grace d’Arcy, and Mina Conynham’s (chatelaine of Springhill House) American house guest, whom Jean was putting up before her sailing to the United States. This American woman had also stored her valuable furniture at the castle. At midnight they all went up to bed after a lively game of bridge in the library, during which the thirteen-year-old Diana was present (Jean permitted her daughter to attend parties with the grown-ups long before she came out as a debutante). Before retiring, Algie ensured the fire in the library had been extinguished and he checked that all points of entry were locked. He had been vigilant since the police guard had been removed from outside the castle, and he lost his appeal to have an armed presence on the estate.

Around three o’clock in the morning, Algie’s agent, a former war hero, Col. Richardson, was awakened by smoke coming into his bedroom and he immediately raised the alarm. Algie was the next to rise, and he ran down the landing to Jean’s bedroom, engulfed by a black cloud of smoke. As the heat and smoke made it impossible for him to continue, he went to the other side of the castle and discovered another fire close to the billiard room. There were also independent fires in the Oak Room and dining room. He tried to activate the cistern which held almost two-thousand-gallons of water, but he discovered it had been drained as it produced a mere trickle. And the windows in the boot room and larder had also been tampered with.

Jean had not been asleep long when she heard the voice of Col. Richardson yelling, ‘Wake up, Algie, they’re in below.’⁴⁰ She assumed the arsonists were inside the castle and she jumped out of bed, put on her dressing gown, and lifted the revolver which she kept next to her. Like Algie, she had not felt safe since the recent bouts of sectarian attacks. She rushed to Diana’s bedroom and pulled her under the staircase and into the night nursery, whereupon she managed to get Jock’s nurse out. Then, she became trapped on a burning stairwell with her children. ‘You must be very good and do as you are told and you will be all right,’¹ she had told them. Though, she did not know how they could be saved, and they looked on as the nursery cat’s fur caught on fire and the animal perished. The only chance they had was to climb out of the nursery window, which led to the chapel roof. Fearing they had run out of options, she warned her children they might die. Col. Richardson came to the rescue, and he tied sheets together and lowered Jean to the chapel roof, and he sent Diana and Jock, one by one, down to her. They called out, ‘Help! Help!’² and Algie used the gardener’s tall ladders for pruning the trees to fetch Jean and the children, and they were brought safely to the ground. The American guest ran down a staircase, which was ablaze, and suffered serious burns on her feet and legs. Grace d’Arcy, an athletic woman, dropped from an upstairs window onto the lawn. And a larder boy, who was in a deep sleep, was hauled from his room and thrown onto the damp grass, which brought him round, and having suffered a shock he ran off in his nightshirt and was found ten miles away.

Locals rallied to the castle and concentrated their efforts on rescuing the servants, whose quarters were fifty-feet above the ground. Many paintings were lost, and the locals who had entered the castle had thrown the silver and china out of the windows, and had managed to retrieve a billiards table, thinking the latter was of far more significance to the family. The historical papers from Oriel Temple were destroyed as they were at the castle, following the recent sale of the house. Speaker’s Chair, which Algie had ‘stolen’ from the National Museum of Ireland, was another casualty of the fire, but the mace was safe as it was at his mother’s home in England at the time. And although his family, friends and servants were saved, a maid named Ethel Gillingham succumbed to smoke inhalation and later died in hospital. Her ghost, known as the ‘White Lady’, is said to haunt the grounds of Antrim Castle.

The Massereenes took refuge at Skeffington Lodge. A few months later, Algie travelled to the West Indies to recuperate after the trauma of the fire, and Jean went to Paris.³ At the time of the fire, Algie was reported to have looked on, as his ancestral home burned before his eyes, and said: ‘I have lost everything in the world.’⁴⁴

In 1923 a claim was made, and eventually rejected, totalling £90,000 for malicious damage. Damning evidence was presented before the High Court in Belfast, including a paraffin barrel that had been full before the fire and afterwards was found to be empty. The windows of the basement were also discovered to have been forced open, thus allowing the flames to spread more quickly. Anonymous letters, too, were touched upon (Jean showed her husband but not the police) in which Jean was warned she would soon ‘meet her maker’.⁴⁵ Such letters were sent in retaliation to her pro-Unionist speeches, particularly one she had made in 1920 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.’⁴⁶

The Massereenes believed the fire was started intentionally, as the castle did not burn down as a result of a single blaze but from many independent fires throughout the property. Not only had the water supply in the cisterns been tampered with, several items that had been saved from the fire were found to have been covered in mineral oil. During the investigation, Jean 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 bedroom, she made a conscious effort to have the grate in that room replaced. Her response prompted much laughter from the jury, and had, perhaps, been the deciding factor in the case.

The statement in which Algie had said, ‘I have lost everything in the world,’ was beginning to ring true. Following the end of the war in 1918, the landed gentry were struggling to maintain their stately homes due to a shortage of staff and the government’s new taxation policy for the rich. Before The First World War they paid little tax on their earnings and assets, with the working classes paying a high percentage of tax on their meagre wages. The Massereenes finances had been perilous for years, and Jean’s private income⁴⁷ could no longer sustain the lifestyle they had known before the war. And so, they moved into a suite of rooms at Hall’s Hotel in Antrim town while they waited for Clotworthy House, a large stable block on the grounds of their estate, to be converted into apartments.

This also marked a transitional period for Jean, and always drawn to Scotland, she began to look for a house there. After renting several properties on the Isle of Mull, Algie eventually bought Knock House, the former estate of the Dukes of Argyll, which had a stone lodge situated on its forty-thousand acres. He quickly realised it had been an expensive error and attempted to pass the lease of the lodge on to several of his friends. The Duchess of Leinster⁴⁸ rented it for a summer season, extending her stay until October, but she declined Algie’s offer of taking a longer lease. He was seldom there, as he preferred to remain at Clotworthy House due to his post of H.M. Lieutenant for County Antrim and his serving in the Northern Ireland Senate – Northern Ireland had been created in 1921, formed by the six counties of Ulster and would remain under British rule. In time, Jean became attached to the house and she began to frequent it more often as the years progressed, eventually making it her permanent residence.

The fire had signalled more than an end to their high life, and Jean and Algie had grown somewhat semi-estranged, by distance at least. He permanently set up home at Clotworthy House, and she went to London where she continued to keep up appearances. However their marriage was far from fraught and, following the initial shock of the fire and the aftermath of establishing their respective homes, one for his political life and another for her social pursuits, they remained devoted to one another. When Algie’s political career came to an end in the late 1920s he moved to Knock House, and it became known as their family seat. He continued to make frequent trips to Antrim and held an interest in Northern Irish politics.

In 1922, the year their misfortune began, Jean was named by society photographer E.O. Hoppe as one of the most beautiful women in the world. And she represented Scotland in his comprehensive study of ‘the loveliest living specimens of their sex’.⁴⁹ She continued to attract controversy, whether it was intentional or not. A significant incident occurred in 1924, when she failed to produce her driver’s licence after being stopped by the police in Warwick. She was summoned to Kineton Court and pleaded not guilty, and the case was dismissed with Jean ordered to pay certain costs. It was a petty issue as far as she was concerned, for she was an enthusiastic and competent motorist, and drove herself whenever possible. Two years later, in 1926, she moved at the centre of the General Strike when she drove a lorry transporting vegetables.⁵⁰

In 1926, Jean entered into a partnership with Elspeth Fox-Pitt, a famous costume designer and high society dressmaker. Together they opened a shop in central London. For years she had been designing her own clothes, and the merging of her artistic talent with the skills of Fox-Pitt seemed a natural business venture for her. Their premises attracted attention because, instead of a large showroom, there were a series of small rooms for the individual client. Further cementing the shop’s success was their part in dressing the Duchess of York for her royal tour of Australia in 1927.

The youth of the 1920s caused concern for Jean. Although she gave Diana permission to attend parties and to live an independent life since coming out as a debutante in 1926, she disapproved of the ‘speed age’ of fast motorcars and aeroplanes, and felt society was moving and changing at a rapid pace. She joined in with the Bright Young Things and their parties, and in gossip columns her name appeared alongside Diana’s. Such was their close relationship that Jean was often mistaken as being her older sister rather than her mother. A year later, in 1927, she played a live game of bridge for a London radio broadcast alongside Algie, the Countess of Ossory, and the famous gossip columnist Viscount Castlerosse. In 1928, while attending a debutante ball in Mayfair, given by Mrs Bower Ismay for Miss Del Ismay, a fire broke out in the large marquee and two-hundred guests scrambled to safety. Jean and Diana were among them, and there was scarcely enough time to grab their wraps and cloaks, before the fire blazed through the marquee, threatening to set the surrounding garages on fire.

Interestingly, given Jean’s stance on this new era of excess, she appeared to revel in Diana’s social life. She attended a tropical themed party in 1929, which could have been Bryan and Diana Guinness’s fabled party aboard the Friendship, a moored riverboat on the Thames. For this, she wore a white dress with a white flower in her hair. Following the trend for themed parties, Jean threw a party for Diana in the garden of her London home, which was lit by Chinese lanterns and she hired a group of Italian singing troubadours¹ to entertain her guests. She was also a reliable confidante to her young friends, namely Daphne Vivian when she called on Jean for an alibi during her romance with Henry Thynne, then Viscount Weymouth and heir to the Marquess of Bath. With both Daphne’s and her future husband’s parents disapproving of the relationship, she confided in Jean, and in turn Jean gave her an alibi so she could spend three secret days with Henry before their marriage. A scandalous thing for a young unmarried woman to do, Daphne had Jean say she was staying with her in London. And Jean, a ‘romantically minded woman who delighted in helping frustrated lovers’,² was happy to do so.

In the spring of 1930, and having come of age, Diana had become something of a rising society star in both London and Scotland. Among her chief interests were horse racing, hunt balls, singing, and performing in plays for charity. She was best friends with Lady Georgiana Curzon, and existed on the fringes of Lois Sturt’s³ circle. A society ‘wild child’ and actress, Lois had a fondness for booze and men, and in 1928 she had married Evan Morgan. Lois’s parents, Humphrey Napier ‘Nap’ Sturt and Lady Feo (née Yorke), were friends of Jean’s, and during the war Jean had acted as one of the sultanas alongside Lady Diana Cooper in Nap’s Persian sketch.⁵⁴ Diana had also been friendly with Gwyneth Morgan, the daughter of Courtenay and Katharine Tredegar, but Gwyneth had become entangled with drug dealers and her body was discovered washed up on a riverbank of the Thames.

There were rumours that Diana had caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales, or at least that was the gossip in Antrim. But Edward preferred the company of older, married women, and it seemed the romance had been nothing but a tall tale. She had been close to relatives of the British royal family, namely her mother’s friends, Princess Maud of Wales, and the Prince and Princess of Conaught, who attended her debutante ball given by Jean at Lancaster Gate in 1926. Her lack of scandal (surprising, given her ‘fast’ company) and gentle disposition made her a catch among upper-class men. But aside from her companion Hubert Duggan, son of Grace the Marchioness of Curzon, there were no serious boyfriends and, like Jean, she had many close male friends who were homosexual. As a testament to her popularity, she was asked by her friend Lady Dorothea Murray to be the godmother of her son, the future Earl of Mansfield. With a bright future on the horizon, nobody predicted the storm clouds which lay ahead for Diana. And, in November 1930, the light of Jean’s life would be extinguished forever.

In October 1930, Diana went to Scotland to stay with Lord and Lady Mansfield at Scone Palace. And, during that same month, she served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. The visits to Scotland, and then London, were conventional and it followed her usual round of countryside pursuits and society balls. However, during the last week of the month, she developed a fever and complained of having a sore throat, which nobody, including Diana herself, felt concerned about. A week later she collapsed at Knock House, and Jean sent for a doctor. Diana was diagnosed with typhoid fever, which was believed to have been brought on by drinking contaminated water at a social event.

Jean and Algie took Diana down to their home at 63 Rutland Gate,⁵⁵ which the family had moved to after selling Lancaster Gate in 1928, and a specialist from Harley Street was summoned. It appeared her health was improving, for on Trafalgar Day – she was a member of the Club of the Veterans’ Association – she went out with a group of friends to sell flags in aid of servicemen. The weather was cold, and friends expressed their concern for Diana’s health, but she joked: ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again.’⁵⁶ She developed pneumonia and her condition was deemed serious enough that newspapers printed daily updates regarding her health. Jean continued to cling on to the hope that the specialist from Harley Street could cure Diana, and her spirits were momentarily lifted when her daughter appeared to be getting stronger.

On the evening of 5 November, Diana’s health took a turn for the worse and she died the following afternoon with her parents by her side. Jean and Algie brought Diana’s body back to Antrim, where her funeral commenced. As a mark of respect, all businesses suspended trading that afternoon and the flags at Antrim Castle flew half-mast. Wreaths from her parents, in the shape of a cross and dedicated ‘to our darling’, decorated the coffin. And Jean, swathed in black, carried a bouquet of white roses which she placed inside the grave. The hearse carrying the coffin broke down⁵⁷ as it reached the barbican gate of Antrim Castle, and led by the town’s troupe of Girl Guides, the final journey was made by foot. Jean asked for Diana’s grave on the grounds of their estate to be re-dug, as she wanted it to face her home in Scotland.

Days before Diana had been diagnosed with typhoid fever, Jean wrote a newspaper article, expressing her thoughts on reincarnation. In it, she said:

Would you live your life again if you had the chance? How many of us would answer “yes”, if we had the opportunity?

Very few I believe.

It would be a weary business going over the same ground, and human-beings are ever on the outlook for something new.

Living again, having to go through the same troubles, the same sufferings, even the same joys, would not be a really entrancing prospect. Childhood, adolescence, maturity; illness, mistakes, failures, good times and bad. What is past is past, for good or ill.

I believe it is only the very young who would be willing to start their present existence again. They have not had enough of the world to realise the futility of reliving their former years. If they were cut off abruptly before their prime, reliving to them would be a new life which next time they might continue to its natural end.

People have been known to remember places and persons that they have certainly never come across before in their lives. If reincarnation were a fact it would be quite understandable.

Now that science is investigating many mysteries perhaps we may one day discover whether reincarnation is a fact or not.

It would certainly add to the attractiveness of existence if it were true.

“What shall I be next time?” would be an interesting speculation.

The death of her eldest child and only daughter proved too much for Jean, and in 1932 she suffered a nervous breakdown.⁵⁹ She had previously written in a newspaper article that ‘troubles crumble if you laugh at them and lose half their sting. The man who looks on the bright side, come what will, is the one who gets the best out of life. As for the rest, it is on the knees of the gods’.⁶⁰ But Jean, despite her strong belief in the spirit world, could not seek comfort from this. After Diana’s death, she did not wish to live, and in many ways it marked the beginning of the end for her. Algie himself, also shattered by grief, was at a loss to comfort her, and they began to drift apart. She was admitted to a nursing home for several months, during which time she missed the London season. On her doctor’s orders she spent the remainder of her convalescence at Knock House, where she was forbidden to do any entertaining. But she was feeling better by September, and planned to greet the Argyll gathering the following month.¹ This marked a period of ongoing ill-health for her, and newspaper reports often wrote about her bouts of sickness, and how she had collapsed in Hyde Park from a ‘mystery illness’.² Such illnesses were said to have taken weeks to recover from.

After Diana’s death, Jean seldom went to Antrim unless it was for an official engagement. And she did not stay for any length of time, perhaps finding the memories of their happy lives together too much to bear. Algie spoke of rebuilding the castle on a smaller scale and he commissioned Belfast architects to draw up the plans but, after all that had happened, he lost heart. Although she was not as politically active in Ulster as she had been years before, she paid short visits to the province to carry out duties, such as giving speeches at charity fundraisers and handing out prizes at schools. She went over to welcome visiting royals, and for the annual garden party at Stormont Estate, the seat of the Northern Ireland parliament. In November 1936 she went to Clotworthy House, the occasion was to acknowledge her son’s coming of age and repay the kindness the locals had shown him upon reaching that milestone. She was warmly received, and spent her brief visit becoming reacquainted with her friends in the town. It would mark her last visit to Northern Ireland.

Politics continued to hold Jean’s fascination, and it was rumoured she had considered a career as a politician. With Nancy, Viscountess Astor taking her seat in the House of Lords in 1919 (the first woman to do so), Jean’s supposed ambition would have been challenging but plausible. In 1935 she was enrolled as Justice of the Peace for Argyll, in the Sheriff Court at Oban. She continued to influence public opinion and in 1936, following the Munich Agreement she, along with various noble ladies, wrote an open letter to the Belfast Newsletter, claiming they were ‘prepared to defend that quarter of the world which we call the British Empire’.

During one of her many speeches, she advised young women at Glasgow University to act as ‘recruiting agents’ among their boyfriends. ‘I believe that no young man in this country should be asked to risk his life for a quarrel which is no concern of his,’ she said. ‘But I do think every young man ought to join the Territorials or the regular Army; and I appeal to you girls to persuade your boyfriends and your brothers to at least join the Territorials.’⁶⁴ She undertook many speaking engagements at women’s meetings, and she asked them to influence their menfolk in the defense against Adolf Hitler. ‘I cannot understand the mentality of any able-bodied young man who does not, at any rate, join the Territorials because it is a monstrous thing that people who have the advantage of being citizens of the greatest country in the world should take all the advantages and then do nothing in return.’⁶⁵ She was determined to spread the message of securing the country at all cost, and before a meeting she boarded a ferryboat and in the process lost her footing and fell to the bottom deck. Hurting both of her legs and suffering cuts and bruises, she bore the pain to fulfill a speaking engagement.

As she had done in the 1920s, she expressed her fears for modern life, especially those who sought adventure with little regard to human safety. An article written in 1933 was relevant to her speeches on securing Britain against attack, and she thought of the fast motorcar as a risk towards those wishing to live in peace. She wrote:

Petrol has changed the face of the world. In less than another half century it will have taken complete possession of the air. Will humanity survive? Probably not, if the accidents increase in ratio to the amount of planes and cars. We had as many casualties on the road last year as would occur in a fair-sized war. On the other hand, it is true that the cautious man rarely rises to great heights. He is apt to be so careful that opportunity passes him by.

There is, however, a very great difference between taking a risk and being foolhardy.

We do not yet seem to have got rid of the war-time idea of the cheapness of human life. Human life is not a commodity to be risked at the throw of a dice. It is always the best lives that are lost thus, those we can ill spare.⁶⁶

Although she bypassed a professional career in politics, another occupation presented itself in modelling. In her early fifties she loaned her celebrity and fabled beauty to advertisements for Pond’s cold cream and setting powder. It was a period when many society beauties were paid to endorse the product, and Jean, photographed in a wistful pose with short, shingled hair whose brunette colour she maintained with dye, praised the cream for preserving her good looks. ‘I practically live out-of-doors. Mine is not a hot-house life at all . . . I’d be as weather-beaten as a gillie, if it weren’t for my skin care.’

Towards the end of 1937, Jean’s health began to decline. In November she had a stroke, and was confined to her bed. Her absence was felt on the social scene, and she was notably missing from the annual meeting⁶⁷ of the League of Mercy, of which she was honorary secretary for the Scotland branch.

Newspapers wrote of a ‘mysterious’ illness, which they explained had plagued her for some time. The truth was, the stroke had caused her considerable brain damage and she had been left with aphasia, hemiplegia, and bulbar paralysis.⁶⁸ For someone as lively and active, both mentally and physically, as Jean, this must have been a cruel blow. Five weeks after her stroke, with her husband, son, and sister by her side, she died on 11 December 1937. She was fifty-four. ⁶⁹

Speaking of her death, the Rev. Collis of All Saints Parish Church in Antrim said: ‘Lady Massereene had friends in all positions in life . . . and I am sure there will be widespread and sincere regret at the unexpected death of one who was so kind-hearted and friendly to all around her and so noticeably charitable in her judgment of others.’⁷⁰ One can only hope that, with her belief in the afterlife, she is languishing on a spiritual plane.

Notes

  1. Lancashire Evening Post, 25 May 1931

  2. Jean’s birthplace has often been listed as Scotland. Although of Scottish heritage, she was born in London. Source: 1893 census

  3. Ibid

  4. Ibid

  5. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1918

  6. The Graphic, 25 February 1905

  7. Truth, Volume 63, 1908 p. 63

  8. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  9. Roberts, Pam, PhotoHistorica, Landmarks in Photography: Rare Images from the Royal Photographic Society (Workman Publishing, London 2000 ) p. 125

  10. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 250

  11. The Advertiser, 18 July 1925

  12. Larne Times, 28 October 1911

  13. Belfast Newsletter,, 7 August 1913

  14. The Scone Advocate, 4 May 1928

  15. Ballymena Observer, 11 November 1930

  16. Belfast Newsletter, 19 November 1910

  17. Weekly Times, 16 March 1912

  18. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  19. Ibid

  20. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  21. Letter from Viscountess Massereene to Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry. PRONI

  22. Baguley, Margaret, WWI and the Question of Ulster: The Correspondence of Lilian and Wilfrid Spender (Irish Manuscripts Commissions, 2009) p. 220

  23. Information given to author by Alvin McCaig

  24. Ballymena Observer, 27 January 1911

  25. Ballymena Observer, 8 August 1915

  26. Daily Express, 26 March 1925

  27. North West Champion, 11 March 1926

  28. Daily Express, 3 December 1914

  29. The Witness, 6 November 1914.

  30. Vickers, Hugo, Elizabeth: The Queen Mother (Arrow, London 2006) p. 76

  31. Belfast Newsletter, 6 August 1918

  32. Ibid, 31 May 1928

  33. The Advertiser, 19 June 1925

  34. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  35. Geelong Advertiser, 11 January 1912

  36. Ballymena Observer, 24 November 1911

  37. Young, Kenneth (ed), The Diaries of Sir Bruce Lockhart (Macmillan, London 1973) p. 66

  38. Bedford, John, A Silver Plated Spoon (Cassell, Woodburn Abbey, 1959) pp. 66-7

  39. Belfast Newsletter, 9 January 1922

  40. The Northern Whig and Belfast Post, 9 May 1923

  41. Ibid

  42. Ibid

  43. The Sketch: A Journal of Art and Actuality, Vol, 120, 1922

  44. As reported in several newspapers

  45. Weekly Telegraph, 12 May 1923

  46. New York Herald, 9 February 1920

  47. At the time of her death she had £1143 in savings. Source: The Scotsman, 5 August 1938

  48. Extracts of the Duchess of Leinster’s memoirs, So Brief a Dream, were provided by William Cross

  49. Sacramento Union, 5 November 1922

  50. Courtney, Nicholas, In Society: The Brideshead Years (Pavilion, London 1986) p. 135

  51. The Sun, 25 August 1929

  52. Fielding, Daphne, Mercury Presides (Eyre & Spottiswoode, London 1954) p. 119

  53. Told to author by William Cross, Lois Sturt’s biographer

  54. Ibid

  55. The Massereenes also rented Harrington House at Kensington Palace Gardens, 1929

  56. The Argus, 20 December 1930

  57. Told to me by Lord and Lady Massereene’s chauffeur’s son

  58. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  59. Belfast Newsletter, 6 February 1932

  60. Lincolnshire Echo, 25 October 1930

  61. Dundee Courier, 24 October 1932

  62. Western Daily Press, 9 May 1931

  63. Northern Whig, 17 October 1935

  64. The Scotsman, 13 December 1937

  65. Ballymena Observer, 22 October 1937

  66. Northern Whig, 15 April 1933

  67. The Scotsman, 26 November 1937

  68. Death certificate, with thanks to William Cross for providing this for me

  69. Jean’s Death certificate erroneously listed her age as 52

  70. Belfast Newsletter, 13 December 1937

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These Great Ladies

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‘Oh dear,’ said Evelyn Waugh of his society friends, ‘these great ladies.’ In this book of pen portraits the reader is introduced to obscure ladies who were society stars in their day. From the Churchills to the Mitfords, British and European Royals, to international playboys and film stars, these ladies knew everyone. And everyone knew them, for better or worse.

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Margaret, Duchess of Argyll: Famous for her naughty polaroids, and whose divorce from her Duke saw 88 men named as her lovers.

Mariga Guinness: A bewitching German princess with a harrowing childhood, who fought to preserve Irish buildings and became an icon.

Sylvia Ashley: A girl from the wrong side of the tracks who married two English lords, two Hollywood stars, and a Russian prince.

Joan Wyndham: A bohemian aristocrat who shunned a debutante existence to live a life of debauchery in Chelsea.

Enid Lindeman: An Australian wine heiress who married four rich and titled men, and buried them all.

Venetia Montagu: A society girl who moved at the centre of H.H. Asquith’s wartime government.

Irene Curzon: A ‘poor little rich girl’ who dared to break the rules and challenge her brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley.

Jean Massereene: A dazzling viscountess whose association with Sir Edward Carson almost ruined her reputation. A true eccentric, fashion icon, and champion of the spiritualist movement.

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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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“The Gloomy Shade of Death”

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There are many cliches about death, though one cannot deny that the British upper-class were quite matter-of-fact about their own immortality. In her essay on U and Non-U English, Nancy Mitford teases that, when referring to death, the Non-U lot were prone to using floral euphemisms: passed on, passed away, taken and gone-too-soon; to name a few. However, as she warned, the upper-class were blunt about the entire thing. Died, was their chosen expression when speaking of the death act. Yes, this lot with their hunting, shooting and fishing were well equipped for bloodshed and the sight of a corpse. Though, as silly as Nancy could be, there was no humour to be found when a dark shadow of death fell upon London society in 1930. Perhaps the cliche is true: that death, when it visits, it arrives in threes.

 

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The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington, born in 1911, was the eldest child and only daughter of Viscount Massereene & Ferrard and his wife, the paranormal expert, Jean Barbara nee Ainsworth. Growing up at the family seat, Antrim Castle, in Co. Antrim, Northern Ireland, Diana was often included in her parents trips abroad and she was acquainted with their contemporaries, and was said to have caught the eye of Edward, the Prince of Wales. Though, as romantic as the story seems, there is no proof of their phantom courtship. As a little girl, Diana was a member of the Antrim branch of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol – and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats, and one such friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide and the daughter of Viscount Massereene’s gardener. Escorted by her governess, Miss Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing her mother great embarrassment each time their aristocratic caller entered through the backdoor and passed through the scullery.

 

As much as Lady Massereene (Diana was extremely close to her mother) thought it charming that her daughter had an eclectic mix of friends, for she, too, was a firm favourite amongst the locals, it was time for Diana to grow up and enter the life of a debutante. A dazzling star on the Mayfair scene and equally as popular in hunting circles in Scotland, Diana’s dark looks attracted many admirers and, perhaps, she would have made a splendid society marriage. This seemed to be in the future, when at the age of 20, she became Godmother to the future Earl of Scone. On the 15th  October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, she asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture, but the water was contaminated and a week later, Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel south for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better, and on Trafalgar Day, she took to the streets of London to sell flags in aid of servicemen. It was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to the family home at Rutland Gate. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid – developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worse. The raging fever consumed her and, on the 6th November 1930, she died aged 21.

 

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Although not the daughter of a Peer, Evelyn Colyer gained recognition through her own merits on the tennis court. Alongside Joan Austin, she played doubles in the 1923 Wimbledon final against Suzanne Lenglen and Helen Wills. With her modern looks and model appearance in her tennis-whites, the press nicknamed Evelyn as one of ‘The Babes’. In 1924, she paired with Dorothy Shepherd-Barron to win a bronze medal in the women’s doubles at the Paris Olympics. For nine years Evelyn competed in the Wimbledon Championships, and her final match was in 1929, after which she retired from tennis to marry Hamish Munro, a tea-planter from Assam, British India. Returning to her husband’s homeland, Evelyn died from complications in childbirth on the 6th November 1930, aged twenty-eight.

 

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The Hon. Meriel Catherine Lyttelton was the eldest daughter of John Cavendish Lyttelton, 9th Viscount Cobham and Violet Yolande Leonard. With her brown hair, glassy blue eyes and pale skin, she radiated an ethereal beauty. Although she was a popular debutante and a leading figure of London society, Meriel preferred her life in Gloucestershire where she immersed herself in country life, paying close attention to the social activities in the village and participating in blood sports. When her father, the Viscount, fell ill, she took over his role of Master of the Albright Woodland Hunt, a position she held for two years until his recovery.

 

In 1930, Meriel had been weakened from two bouts of serious illness before she was stricken by tubercular meningitis, for which she received a blood transfusion. Despite it providing some temporary relief, and offering false hope to her parents, this illness proved fatal and Meriel died aged 19 on the 11th November 1930. Her younger sister, Viola, went on to marry Robert Grosvenor, the 5th Duke of Westminster. Although Viola, too, met a tragic end when she died in a car accident in 1987 in Co. Tyrone, Northern Ireland, this was perhaps the fulfilling life Meriel might have lived had she not died young.

Viscountess Massereene, the ghost expert

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Society beauty, Jean Barbara Ainsworth, the 12th Viscountess Massereene, claimed to be an expert in ghost lore, so it must have thrilled her, and fueled her imagination, when she moved into her husband’s family seat, Antrim Castle. Although the only remaining artifact from the castle is the Italian tower, the castle and its surrounding grounds has long been associated with stories of hauntings, gruesome endings, and mystical goings on. The most prominent ghost story was founded during her time as chatelaine of the castle.

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Viscountess Massereene, brought Antrim Castle to life with lively parties, mixing the aristocracy with artists and musicians. It was during a party, on the day of her son, John’s, 7th birthday in 1922, that Antrim Castle was set alight. Guests escaped by jumping from windows and stood on the lawn in their nightclothes. Diana and John, the Viscountess’s children, managed to hide in a stairwell until they were ushered to safety. Their pet cat’s fur caught alight and they watched it perish. A servant, Ethel Gillingham later died from smoke inhalation. It is said that Ethel Gillingham’s spirit haunts the castle grounds, and she is known by locals as ‘the white lady’.

The interior of the castle was completely destroyed with various heirlooms going up in smoke — it was the end of an era for the Skeffington family. Following the fire at their family home, the Skeffingtons took shelter at their hunting lodge on the deer park. The family then moved to private apartments created within a wing of the 10th Viscount’s coach house (Clotworthy House). The Viscount dreamt of restoring the castle, and in 1930 he commissioned Belfast architects to design plans. That same year a bitter blow fell upon the family when their only daughter, the Hon. Diana Skeffington, died of typhoid at the age of 21. The plans were scrapped, and the Viscount lost heart.

Below, is a newspaper clipping in which the Viscountess describes her experiences with ghosts.

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I wonder if her spiritual beliefs was a small consolation to her following the untimely death of her daughter? The Viscountess died relatively young in 1937. I have only just discovered that the Viscountess contributed to the 1919 supernatural novel, ‘Ghosts I have Seen’ by Violet Tweedale. You can read the book by clicking here.

Our forthcoming annual

The Mitford Society’s annual has been a whirlwind of preparation but in the space of a month all of the submissions are in! I can tell you now that you’re in for a treat, the annual is a combination of academic essays, fun reviews, personal stories, photographs, a re-cap of Mitfords Eve at Sutton House and of course, the Mitford murder mystery which opens the book. I wanted to channel something quite unique, though paying homage to Nancy Mitford’s The Water Beetle and A talent to Annoy, and also The Pursuit of Laughter, though with less restraint than Diana’s critical essays. It has turned from a magazine sized vision into a full scale book! I have included the table of contents below, I hope you all approve!

Murder in the Hons Cupboard:- Meredith Whitford & Lyndsy Spence

Stranger than dreams and far more disordered:- An extract from The Fertile Fact

 The Most Charming Duchess:- Charles Twigger

 Pamela’s Irish Castle:- Stephen Kennedy

 Living in a Mitford House:- Debbie Catling

 Nancy’s True Love: Versailles:- Rebecca McWattie

 Nancy in Versailles:- Chiara Martinelli

 Esmond Romilly:-Meredith Mitford

 Diana Mosley :- David Platzer

 Understanding Unity:- Meems Ellenberg

 To the editor of the Daily Mail, a mock letter from Unity Mitford: – Emma Reilly

 Muv’s American Adventure:- Lyndsy Spence

 A Honnish Reunion:- Lyndsy Spence

 Stargazing with the Mitfords:- Astrology Charts by Victor Olliver

 From Countryside to Couture:- Natalie Tilbury

 The Mitford Sisters & The Turbulent Thirties:- by Lyndsy Spence, printed in Vintage Life magazine.

 The Photography Face:-Lyndsy Spence

 Laying the Foundations of The Mitford Industry:– David Ronneburg

 The Mitford Industry: An editor’s point of view:- An interview with Mark Beynon by Lyndsy Spence

 Re-issuing Nancy Mitford:- Emma Howard Capuchin Classics, Series Editor

 In Search of Nancy:- Barbara Cooke

 Evelyn Waugh & The Mitfords:- Jeffrey Manley of the Evelyn Waugh Society

 The American Way of Death & Pop Culture:- Terence Towles Canote

 The Pursuit of Love: The perils of a would-be film:- Lyndsy Spence

 Moths to the Flame: The Mitfords of Mull:- An extract of a play by Willie Orr

 Mitfords Eve:– A Mitford themed event hosted by The Amy Grimehouse in association with The National Trust & the BFI.

 The Mitfords & Modern Writers. Blog interviews with:

 – Meredith Whitford

– Deanna Raybourn

– Tessa Arlen

– Judith Kinghorn

 Extraorder Extras: Those Honnish by association:

 – Joan Wyndham

– Diana Skeffington

– Mariga Guinness

 Mitford sketches commissioned for The Mitford Girls’ Guide to Life:- Tessa Simpson

 

 

‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone’

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Beautiful Diana Skeffington

The Hon. Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington [1909-1930], the only daughter of Viscount Massereene and contemporary of Diana Mitford, spent her childhood at Antrim Castle – once a prominent feature in an area known by locals as The Castle Grounds. As a little girl Diana was a member of the Girl Guides – later becoming the leader of the Primrose Patrol- and many of her childhood companions were the children of local merchants. It was quite unheard of for a girl from her background to mix so freely with non-aristocrats. Diana’s closest friend, Sadie, was a fellow Girl Guide whose father worked as head gardener for Viscount Massereene. Escorted by her governess, Mrs. Molloy, Diana visited Sadie at her home on Castle Street, causing a scene each time she entered through the back door. Sadie’s mother was mortified as Diana passed through the scullery to the parlour; the gentry always entered by the front door and often to a small fanfare.

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Antrim Castle in its heyday. Could this be Diana and her little brother?

Viscount and Viscountess Massereene were not alarmed by Diana’s familiarity with ordinary people. At the age of 17, Diana attended a fete at Mount Stewart – home of Lord and Lady Londonderry- where she did not hesitate to lend a hand, which prompted an astonished Lady to remark: ‘There is a remarkably good looking, tall girl here, I don’t know who she is, but she is working as hard as any waitress in the restaurant.’ A year later, all of London’s high society would know who Diana was when she came out as a debutante in 1927.  Through this social whirlwind, known as The Season, Diana met Edward, Prince of Wales, who would later ascend the throne as King Edward VIII and cause a scandal by abdicating to marry the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson. It was an open secret that Edward had fallen in love with Diana. How different the current royal family’s lives would have been had fate not intervened. Diana might have become Queen consort, and our current Queen Elizabeth II would have faded down the line of succession to live the life of a minor royal.

On 15 October 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the society wedding of her friend Miss Susan Roberts to the Hon. Somerset Maxwell Farnham. On this day, Diana asked for a glass of water – a seemingly harmless gesture. The water was contaminated and a week later Diana collapsed at her mother’s family home, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. The diagnosis was typhoid fever and a doctor in Harley Street had been alerted of her condition and the necessary arrangements were made for her to travel to London for treatment. Hopes were raised when Diana claimed to feel better and it seemed she would be well enough to return to Antrim. On Trafalgar Day, Diana took to the street to sell flags in aid of servicemen, it was a cold day and her friends were concerned about her fragile appearance and urged her to rest. ‘If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall be up again,’ she joked. Suddenly all expectations of a complete recovery were dashed when Diana – still battling typhoid- developed pneumonia and her condition took a turn for the worst. The raging fever consumed her and at the age of 21 she was dead. The words of Downton Abbey’s Mrs. Hughes, following the untimely death of Lady Sybil, could have been applied to Diana’s demise: ‘The sweetest spirit under this roof is gone.’

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Diana’s final resting place

A solemn mood filtered through London’s social scene and, at home, the people of Antrim were in mourning for the girl they had loved so much. The funeral was held at All Saints Parish Church and the town came to a standstill; the local residents and shopkeepers lined the road to pay their respects. In her short life Diana had touched many, and the Girl Guides of Antrim walked alongside her coffin, followed by her parents, Viscount and Viscountess Massereene.

Today the small burial ground is hidden behind hedges and imposing trees and in this quiet, secluded part of the Castle Grounds rests Diana, her body clothed in her bridesmaid’s dress, in a grave purposely angled to face Scotland. Had fate dealt Diana a kinder hand she might have become a prominent figure in the history of the twentieth century. And like the ruins of the castle, and her ornate grave, the name Diana Skeffington should serve as a reminder that Antrim once played a part in a forgotten, gilded age.

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