I have read several obituaries of the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire who has died aged 94 and it is clear that she led a remarkable life. I normally only write these In Memoriam pieces about people I have known and I did meet the Duchess in unusual circumstances of which more later. She was an accomplished and committed business woman; danced with John F Kennedy and took tea with Adolf Hitler; and had a string of best-selling books covering everything from history to cooking. She was the youngest of the six notorious Mitford sisters and in her autobiography entitled Wait for Me! she told that her parents were so disappointed not to have a son that her mother did not even record the birth in her diary.
The girls’ father, the 2nd Baron Redesdale was an eccentric. He trained his foxhounds to hunt the girls across the Cotswolds and, once caught, to cover them with kisses. He refused to send them to school because the hockey would give them thick ankles. The only son, Tom, went to Eton but Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah were educated at home by various governesses. The results were ambiguous; Debo, as she was known, learnt to rear chickens and drive a car by the age of nine, not perhaps to the good, as we shall see. The girls developed a strange mix of bullying and secrecy with few other friends. But Deborah described her childhood as “boringly happy” and stayed loyal to her sisters even when arguments developed, particularly over politics. They had their own private language and wrote some 12,000 letters in it to each other.
As a teenager Debo saw her elder sisters get into various scandals. Jessica at the age of 17 ran off with a communist to fight in the Spanish civil war; Diana married Oswald Mosley, the leader of the British fascists, and was interned in World War II; and Unity went one stage further by joining the Nazis and moving to Berlin to be near her beloved Führer. Debo visited her and wrote home “We’ve had tea with Hitler and seen all the other sights.” At the outbreak of war Unity was so disturbed she shot herself in the head causing severe disability and premature death less than ten years later. Tom lost his life in the Burmese campaign where my own father fought.
Debo had apparently asserted that she would marry a Duke but the man with whom she fell in love, Andrew Cavendish, was just the second son of the Duke of Devonshire. They married during the Blitz but Andrew’s older brother was killed later in the war and when his father died in 1950 Andrew became the 11th Duke of Devonshire.
They inherited an estate with huge liabilities. Death duties were payable at 80%. It took 17 years to pay off the bill of £7m, largely by selling land and a stack of old masters. The new Duchess decided that Chatsworth, one of Britain’s finest stately homes, needed to become a profitable enterprise. Uninhabited for many years it had declined into bad repair. She had to deal with 1.3 acres of dilapidated roofing, widespread woodworm and death-watch beetle, 21 ancient kitchens and 175 other decaying rooms. Overtime she restored it in a style that became a template for other great houses.
In addition she opened a farm shop selling produce from the estate. As this prospered she diversified into books, knitwear, souvenirs and designer furniture. By the end of the century Chatsworth’s various enterprises had reached turnover exceeding £4.5m. “My wife is far more important to Chatsworth than I am,” said the Duke. “She is on the bossy side, of course; but I’ve always liked that in a woman.”
The Duke died in 2004 after 63 years of marriage. Afterwards Debo continued her writing with a history of Chatsworth and a regular column in The Spectator. The last of her sisters had died in 2003 and so she could no longer write letters to any of them in her final years.
So how did I meet her? In the early 1970s I was employed as a Sales Representative by Procter & Gamble, my first proper job. I lived in a mining village outside Sheffield and covered a patch in South Yorkshire, North Derbyshire and parts of Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. I was in the Toiletries Division and most of my customers were chemists. One day I spent the morning in Chesterfield and planned to go further into Derbyshire in the afternoon visiting shops in and around Bakewell. It was my custom to find a pub for lunch having a sandwich and a soft drink. As I drove along the A619 I came round a bend and saw a pub on the right. I checked my mirror, indicated and turned right.
BANG! As I was horizontal across the road another car hit mine with such force it pushed it right across the road and I had to break hard to stop it hitting the dry stone wall. The driver’s door was now leaning right up against my body but miraculously I was not hurt. I got out, inspected the damage and looked down the road. Quite a long way down the other car was stopped at the side of the road with a woman standing by it looking somewhat imperious. As a company car driver I got out a clip board and an accident report form and walked the 100 yards or so to meet her. I asked her
“Are you alright?”
She replied, “That was the most stupid piece of driving I’ve ever seen. Fancy turning right after a bend like that!”
I said “God knows what speed you were doing if you took all this time to stop. Anyway, are you all right?”
“Yes”, she replied. “The car has a bit of damage but I’m OK.”
“In that case all we need to do is exchange names and addresses and our insurance companies will deal with it.”
“I’m the Duchess of Devonshire.”
“Oh Yes? And I’m Mickey Mouse!”
And then I thought. I’m near Bakewell. Very near Chatsworth House. She might be. She probably is. So I gave her my details and walked back to the car and parked it in the pub. I went inside, not for a soft drink but for a whisky. The barman had heard the noise and asked me what had happened. I told him the whole story.
“Oh! She’s always doing that!” he said.
Copyright David C Pearson 2014 All rights reserved