Lady Desborough's letters

Jennifer Ayto

The large collection of letters received by Lady Desborough of Panshanger held at HALS includes several from the Royal family.  (HALS/D/EX789).

She was childhood friend of Queen Mary who noted that they had known each other since they were about 5 or 6 years old.  They were born a month apart in 1867.  Ettie and her brother were often invited to White Lodge, Richmond Park, the then Princess Mary’s home.

Lady Desborough became one of her Ladies in Waiting and writing from York Cottage, Sandringham, on 26 December 1910, Queen Mary expressed great pleasure and I believe you are to be gazetted just after the New Year.  I hope and think you will not find the duties too arduous.

The importance of the role is shown by a letter from the Earl Marshall, dated 15 May 1911:

I have the honour to inform you that in the performance of your duties as Lady of the Bedchamber in Waiting, His Majesty has been graciously pleased to appoint you to walk in the Procession in Westminster Abbey, at the Solemnity of the Coronation of Their Majesties on the 22nd of June next.

However, some duties were viewed as too arduous.  On 12 October 1911, Lady Eva Dugdale wrote on behalf of the Queen to ask whether Lady Desborough might be able to accompany the King and Queen on their visit to India.   She was given 24 hours to think about it and it was hoped that having a son out there may be an inducement.  (Julian Grenfell was with the 1st Royal Dragoons and stationed in India).  In the hope of a “yes”, the Queen would send her all directions about clothes and their Majesties were to sail from Portsmouth on 11 November and expect to be back at the end of January.  This was a test of friendship.  Lady Desborough declined and offered to resign.*

The friendship continued as demonstrated by another letter dated 28 June 1914,  I am commanded by the King and Queen to say that Their Majesties will be delighted to go to Panshanger on Tuesday December 8th to stay with you for 2 days shooting.  Other letters reflect the interest in their families.  There are letters of condolence on the deaths of the Desborough sons (Julian and William Grenfell) in 1915 and also notes on Queen Mary’s family.

On 7 September 1934 Queen Mary wrote Marina is pretty and charming and I think George [Duke of Kent] is very lucky to have found a delightful bride and on 2 September 1935, We are delighted with Alice.  She is a dear and I am sure she and Harry [Duke of Gloucester] will be very happy and that she will be a charming addition to our family circle.  She also referred to the engagement of our dear granddaughter on 23 July 1947.  They look radiantly happy.

Lady Desborough also received letters from Queen Mary’s sons.

Edward (later Duke of Windsor) wrote from Princetown on 24 February 1918 to say that he would not be able to visit as he had much to do in London and may have to go away again to visit munition or ship building centres!! …. Now visiting some of my tennants (sic) on Dartmoor; but its all very strenuous & not exactly the way I should choose to spend my leave!!.

After the war he was able to accept an invitation to Panshanger but  …. I am very hard worked nowadays & if you could possibly arrange to have only one of your small & informal parties that I have heard so much about it would be a charming & delightful change & relaxation after all the strenuous engagements that are my lot in life.                                                                                                                               

Panshanger House

His thank you letter suggests the week end was a success.  Writing on 2 May he noted It was divine there & it was all such fun.

The visit was recalled after his abdication.  Writing from Chateau de Conde, Monts on 19 May 1937:

I am very touched by your letter and your kind thoughts of me at this time in wishing to send me that lovely old Sèvres china inkstand.  I well remember admiring it when I stopped a week-end at Panshanger many years ago and it will reach me if addressed in my name c/o The British Embassy, Paris.  I would also like to assure you that Mrs Warfield appreciates your good wishes for our future and this charming wedding present as much as I do.  We have both of us had a long and trying time of waiting but its wonderful to be together again and to have such great happiness to look forward to.

The next letter was typed and signed with a manuscript PS, “Please forgive my using the typewriter”.

Schloss Wasserleonburg, Notsch im Gailtale, Karnten,  13 June 1937:

Your beautiful inkstand arrived yesterday very well packed by Biggs, and we are delighted with it.  It has been given a place of honor (sic) in the drawing room of this charming house, where we are happy and find great peace after all we have been through during the last months.    We take this opportunity of thanking you again for your lovely wedding present, and say how much we appreciate your kind thought.

An interesting letter, dated 15 November 1929, referred to the difficulty Edward had in making a speech.  He noted that although Tommy Lascelles is no longer a member of my staff, he is kind enough to help me sometimes over an especially difficult speech …. I also got Rudyard Kipling to help me whose light literary touch wouldn’t have passed unnoticed in the speech…. Neither myself or any of my brothers have had any chance of learning to speak as compared to our contemporaries who have had the advantage of speaking on political platforms or in the House of Commons.  Not that any of us aspire to oratory but you will agree that we haven’t a hope in this direction .… We know we cant speak but we are honest & try very hard to disguise it.

It was his younger brother, Albert, the future King George VI, who is remembered for having a speech impediment and on 22 February 1920 (some years before the association with Lionel Logue) he wrote to tell Lady Desborough he was trying to overcome this:

I am writing to tell you that I am now having lessons in talking from an Italian, Signor Loria by name.  Knowing that your son Ivo used to go to Mr Macmahon, and who taught me a good deal I thought you might like to know of this gentleman.  He is very good and knows his subject thoroughly.  I am enclosing his scheme of training and the different things he can do.  I have been to him now for a month, and have seen him nearly every day and I already find a marked difference in myself.  Of course I don’t know what Ivo is doing these days and whether he can spare the time but  perhaps you would see Loria and have a talk with him.

Lady Desborough was clearly less than impressed.  The brochure advertising Signor Gaetano Loria,  of 43 Knightsbridge,  who offered tuition in the interpretation of songs and operas and also the cure of vocal and speech defects, including stuttering and stammering, remained in the envelope with the letter.

*See “Ettie: the inimitable life and dauntless spirit of Lady Desborough” by R P T Davenport-Hines.  A copy is available at HALS.






This page was added on 07/03/2024.

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