Upcoming talk: ‘Ditchley and Cliveden: a case of relative values?’

Oxfordshire Gardens Trust, 20 September 2019. The talk explores connections between the two great estates in the twentieth century.

Nancy Tree- now better known as Nancy Lancaster (1897-1994) was the niece of Lady (Nancy) Astor (1879-1964); Paul Phipps (1880-1953), Nancy Astor’s brother-in-law worked at both properties (the revamped orangery at Ditchley is his) and Norah Lindsay (1873-1948) designed and planted borders at each garden. The schemes of Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe (1900-1996) is another common denominator (though separated by a couple of decades). Researching in the vast Astor archives in the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL)in 2017 suggested that not only should Cliveden’s role in Nancy Astor’s life be re-assessed but also that connections with Ditchley’s reimagining by Ronald and Nancy Tree merited further exploration.


Cliveden, Buckinghamshire. One of the two borders leading to the mansion’s imposing entrance; the composition an homage to Norah Lindsay’s original planting. (2017 image).


Detail of view across Geoffrey Jellicoe’s pool with its distinctive steps. Ditchley Park, June 2019

A talk at Cliveden: ‘Lady (Nancy) Astor (1879-1964) and Cliveden’s political landscape’

A talk, at Cliveden, in August 2018 on ‘Lady (Nancy) Astor (1879-1964) and Cliveden’s political landscape’ to members of the volunteer research group preparing for the National Trust marking the centenary of Lady Astor’s election to parliament in 1919. The talk drew on research in 2017 in the Astor archives held in the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading. This had detailed how Nancy Astor consciously-or unconsciously, used invitations to Cliveden to support women active in public life, as well as offering the more usual country house roles such as coping with the rocky marriage of a future Prime Minister -Harold Macmillan (later 1st Earl of Stockton, 1894-1986), and entertaining celebrities.

Some of the leading figures from the first intakes of women MPs, and campaigners for women’s rights, were guests at Cliveden including Margaret Wintringham (1879-1955), the first woman Liberal MP; the Labour MP Ellen Wilkinson (1891-1947), Irene (later Baroness) Ward (1895-1980), and Mavis Tate (1893-1947). In 1935 Tate had been instrumental with other women MPs in securing the release from detention in Germany of the wife and child of Herr Seger, the first SDP member of the Reichstag to be arrested in 1933. A less fortunate guest was Frau Dr Luders, an economist and women’s rights activist who briefly appears in the Astor archive, her fate uncertain in war-time Germany (despite Nancy Astor’s intervention). In another of those fortunate discoveries, in February I came across a 1951 document in the BBC Written Archives which  revealed that despite terrible suffering she had survived and at seventy five was an inspirational figure at post war international conferences.

Honor Balfour’s career as a journalist and broadcaster

I always believed Honor Balfour (1912-2001) was too modest about her life but even so I’ve been blown away by discovering the extent and range of her broadcasting career...

I always believed Honor Balfour (1912-2001) was too modest about her life but even so I’ve been blown away by discovering the extent and range of her broadcasting career. I shouldn’t have been surprised, she had already pushed at the boundaries in print journalism by convincing Stefan Lorant to appoint her to the founding editorial team of Picture Post in 1938. During the war she was recruited by Walter Graebner for Time-Life magazine, diverting her from a career in Whitehall. In the 1990s we discussed some of her innovatory radio programmes. But even so to see the frequency with which her name was listed in the schedules of the Radio Times for over thirty years from 1946 was a revelation. Here was a woman talking about current affairs, commenting on social issues and, perhaps, most surprising of all, in the team analysing the 1955 General Election result.

All this at a time when women’s voices were still largely restricted to home-making and entertainment programmes. Interestingly, it was in the new medium of television where this appears to have been a constraint. In the mid-1950s Honor had a regular fifteen minute slot in which she addressed topical issues. It was broadcast at 3.35 pm, after Mainly for Women. But even if her appearances on television were usually limited to afternoons, it was still no mean feat for a woman political journalist to have significant footholds in both print and broadcast media (although Honor would not thank me for mentioning her gender).

The research is for an article commissioned by the editor of the Journal of Liberal Democrat History; a companion piece to ‘Honor Balfour and the Liberal Party: an archival perspective’ which appeared in the Spring 2013 issue (see also my Publications page). The digitised online overview of Radio Times schedules was a boon but for detail the volumes of the actual magazine available on the shelves in the British Library Humanities Reading Room were invaluable preparation for consulting the Honor Balfour archive in the Bodleian Library. Next stop: the BBC Written Archives resource in Caversham and the British Film Institute (for archival recordings). These will be followed up in the late autumn with a work-in-progress paper in London.

The struggle for equal pay for women

‘A home should be the centre of a woman’s life, not its boundary’ (Irene Ward).

Inspired by the research for my paper, Irene Ward, ‘Baroness Ward of North Tyneside (1895-1980) Unorthodox political warrior’ to the Institute of Contemporary British History seminar on 4 October 2015, the intention was to spend most of 2016 exploring further the campaign for equal pay for women, extending the focus beyond Irene Ward, looking more closely at the war-time and early post-war developments culminating in the 1954 act.

Pamphlet published in 1952 by the Equal Pay Campaign Committee. Pierotti papers, the Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE), 7 AMP/F/10/09.Miss A Muriel Pierotti was vice-chair of the committee. She also served as secretary of the National Union of Women Teachers. Image reproduced courtesy of the Women’s Library, LSE, University of London.

The first few months of 2016 were spent consulting material in the Women’s Library at LSE. The archive of the Women’s Publicity Planning Association (WPPA) proved particularly fruitful. War time files on the drive to secure ‘Equal compensation for equal danger’ for injured women civilians; nationwide meetings to encourage involvement in politics at local and national levels – the ‘Women for Westminster’ programme; or win greater representation on committees planning post-war reconstruction not only brilliantly illuminated my earlier research, but foregrounded the work of Mavis Tate, MP and Dr Edith Summerskill, MP (and included mention of Honor Balfour), all of whom, had I but known it at the time, would later  re-appear in my research into the Astors and twentieth century Cliveden.

Dr Summerskill’s private papers are also in the Women’s Library. Shifting through the archive for information on the equal pay campaign re-ignited my interest in political houses and gardens.  In the ‘noughties while exploring my political houses research, discovering that Dr Summerskill (pictured top left in the pamphlet), had commissioned a young woman architect, Elizabeth Benjamin (1908-1999) to work on  the family home suggested new possibilities. But after being advised it was (only) an interior remodelling of a Victorian villa, rather than a new build, Melrose, 1 Fitzroy Park, Highgate village, slipped off my list. But here it was again, in February 2016, on the front cover of the July 1935 issue of The Ideal Home; a reproduction of Guy Lipscombe’s delicately coloured painting of the hallway captioned ‘Alterations & improvements’.[ref]The Women’s Library, London School of Economics (LSE), London. Summerskill papers [album] Summerskill /3/2[/ref]

In an interview with Lynne Walker published in 1996, Elisabeth Benjamin recalled how the scheme had to include dramatic spaces in which Dr Summerskill could make an entrance (the staircase), and entertain (the dining room). The enlarged and reconfigured living room acquired a chic steel fireplace. Five years after the project’s completion war broke out and display receded as an objective. With Dr Summerskill a tireless campaigner on a range of issues, not least promoting women’s equality and political participation, we can only wonder what conversations these spaces absorbed.[ref]Lynne Walker, ‘Interview with Elisabeth Benjamin’ in The Modern House Revisited. TwentiethCenturyArchitecture 2.The Journal of the Twentieth Century Society, number two, 1996, pp. 75-84.[/ref]


Waldorf and Nancy Astor at Cliveden

Inspired by the depth and breadth of the Astors’ archive at the Museum of English Rural Life (MERL), University of Reading, my current project focuses on Waldorf and Nancy Astor’s years at Cliveden and some of the less familiar stories.

From the estate papers, for example, we learn of the contribution of Captain Harry Lindsay (the estranged husband of the garden designer Norah Lindsay) to the refurbishment and repair of the mansion in 1906-1907. The cost-cutting moves which led to Cliveden’s temporary closure in 1931.

Most interesting of all however, as we move towards commemorating the centenary of women gaining the vote in 1918, and Nancy Astor’s ground breaking election in 1919, is how Cliveden fits into the narrative of the advance of women in British public life in the following three decades. A talk on this topic has been pencilled in for next year.

Power in Place?

February 2016 brought an invitation to return to an old favourite topic: houses and gardens with modern political associations. Discussions with a potential publisher updated the list of properties to be considered. Hughenden, Cliveden, The Wharf, Garsington, Trent Park and Port Lympne; Chartwell, Wallington, Sissinghurst, Birch Grove House, The Manor  House, Hell Corner Farm, and Thenford were added to three properties from  past lectures: The Wharf, Buscot and Ditchley.

Researching the Astors at Cliveden for a sample chapter brought a reconnection with the work of campaigners for equal compensation and pay. By the late 1930s Nancy Astor’s parliamentary reputation was in decline but some of her war time interventions were beneficial to the lobbying for women’s equality. She was also vocal in her support for women to be more involved in plans for post-war reconstruction.

Cliveden forecourt border, August 2017.The planting is inspired by Norah Lindsay’s schemes for Nancy Astor in the 1920s and early 1930s. Few overt reminders of Nancy Astor survive in the gardens; the pair of gates into a former walled garden (the present location of the information centre) commemorating her eightieth birthday in 1959 a rare exception.

Cliveden was Nancy’s stage too. The papers of Waldorf and Nancy Astor in the excellent Museum of English Rural Life archive (MERL), University of Reading, reveal that during the war, campaigning women MPs as politically various as Mavis Tate (appointed chair of the Women’s Power Committee in 1941, and of the Equal Pay Campaign in 1942); Irene Ward (Chair, Committee on Woman Power, 1940) and Ellen Wilkinson were guests on separate occasions. Margaret Wintringham, Liberal politician and the second woman to take her seat in Parliament was a frequent guest long after she had lost her seat in the 1924 General Election. Nancy Astor’s steadfastness in the hostile, all-male parliament, emboldened Wintringham to stick it out at Westminster (as she gratefully acknowledged) but the key to their long-lasting friendship may have stemmed from shared Christian Science beliefs. The social and political mix of guests at Cliveden weekends was usually eclectic; an invitation brought opportunities to relax and recharge, but also network. Invitations extended beyond establishment figures to weary social workers and civil servants.

As MP for the heavily-bombed constituency of Plymouth Sutton (and regularly deputizing for her husband as Lord Mayor) much of Nancy Astor’s attention during the war years was, of necessity, focused on Plymouth. The constant travelling between the two cities, not to mention nationwide speaking engagements, was exhausting. Little time was left for reflection – a quality already largely missing from Nancy Astor’s personality.

The Astor archives at MERL far exceeded my expectations as a resource. The estate papers are particularly good and form the basis of my reassessment of the roles played by Cliveden in the era of Nancy and Waldorf Astor.

Honor Balfour fleetingly appears in both the LSE’s WPPA archive and MERL’s Astor papers, as a participant in the Brains Trust event organized by Women for Westminster in December 1944, and a guest at Cliveden in November 1949. The latter presumably as an upcoming commentator on Anglo-American relations, and freelancer on the David Astor-edited Observer newspaper. Seeing her name in the Visitor’s Book reminded me of our many conversations at her home in Windrush, and led me to regret we never discussed her impressions of Cliveden. An astute commentator on contemporary politics right to the end of her life her insights are much missed.

Botanical interlude

"A big, cream and white wooden structure shaped like a giant flower pedestal but with a human-size door was utterly intriguing."

The Historic Gardens Review published by the Historic Gardens Foundation is available by subscription from the Foundation. Copies are also accessible in the Royal Horticultural Society’s Lindley Library, London.

A decorative arts study tour to Helsinki in May 2016, brought an unexpected opportunity to visit Helsinki’s Botanic garden.

A major refurbishment was evidently underway but there was still much to admire, not least in the range of glasshouses chronicling the evolution of plant life.

The prospect of orange trees naturally drew me in but the real delight, and for several months a puzzle, lay outside. A big, cream and white wooden structure shaped like a giant flower pedestal but with a human-size door was utterly intriguing.

Unfortunately the photograph of the mysterious pedestal was too blurry to be included in the article subsequently commissioned by the editor of Historic Gardens Foundation’s magazine.

But it was through the HGF‘s encouragement to contact an expert on Finnish gardens, the Swiss scholar, Dr Eeva Ruoff, that the mystery was eventually solved.

Dr Ruoff immediately identified the wooden structure as one of Helsinki’s few surviving original well huts.

Once a common feature on the streets of Helsinki and elsewhere, pavement laying and road extensions decimated their numbers. That in the Helsinki Botanic Garden survives because it was relocated and re-purposed as a garden feature.

The delightful well-hut is located in Rauma, on the west coast of Finland. Image courtesy of Dr Eeva Ruoff.

Others, like this one at Rauma, on Finland’s west coast and north of the old capital, Turku, survive in situ.  Rausa’s old town with its wooden houses is  a  UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Irene Ward – Doughty Parliamentarian and Campaigner

Dame Irene Ward’s life is the main focus of Helen’s research in 2015, following on from her March 2015 lecture at Westminster.

Among the highlights of Dame Irene’s long parliamentary career, her involvement in the campaign for equal pay for women is perhaps her most lasting achievement.  The following image shows women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election:

Women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election

Women MPs elected in the 1959 General Election. Image reproduced with the permission of Parliamentary Archives, PUD/8/32. http://www.parliament.uk/archives


The names of the women MPs who worked closely with Dame Irene in the campaign for equal pay for women are highlighted in bold.

Standing, left to right: Harriet Slater, Lena Jeger, Patricia McLaughlin, Alice Cullen, Joan Vickers, Alice Bacon, Megan Lloyd George, Lady Gammans, Bessie Braddock, Elaine Burton, Evelyn Emmet, Barbara Castle, Mary McAlister, Jean Mann, Joyce Butler, Irene Ward

Seated, left to right: Lady Davidson, Edith Summerskill, Edith Pitt, Mabel Howard, Pat Hornsby-Smith, Florence Horsbrugh, Margaret Herbison

2015 Lecture at Westminster to mark International Women’s Day

A recording of Helen’s 2015 lecture on Dame Irene Ward given at Westminster to mark International Women’s Day is below:

The Quest for Reggie Cooper

This research grew out of a study of the gardens created by Sir Philip Sassoon (1883-1939). Intrigued by what had once been - and may in the future be again - a very attractive building, the quest for its amateur architect, Reginald (Reggie) Cooper began in earnest in 2014.

Reginald Cooper (1885-1965) – Reggie – has proved to be an elusive figure. He appears to have left no papers, private or otherwise. There’s a tantalizing reference to him as a correspondent of the garden designer and writer, Margery Fish (1892-1969)[ref]John Horsey’s outline for East Lambrook’s garden history course lists Cooper as a correspondent www.eastlambrook.co.uk Mrs Fish acquired East Lambrook Manor in 1936, towards the end of Cooper’s time at Cothay.[/ref], owner of East Lambrook Manor, another medieval Somerset gem in need of restoration in the 1930s, but not the content of the so far untraceable letters.

The biggest boost in the quest for Reggie Cooper has been a conversation with Mrs Mary-Anne Robb, the current owner with her husband, Alastair, of Cothay, who generously shared her knowledge of Cooper’s work and life at Cothay from 1925 to 1937.

Other key sources have been the diaries and ledgers in the Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre of the conservation architect, Sir Harold Brakspear (1870-1934)[ref]Sir Harold Brakspear’s papers include a batch of uncatalogued diaries which staff very kindly drew to my attention and made available.[/ref]; Country Life articles, most of which were written admiringly by Cooper’s friend, the architectural writer Christopher Hussey (1889-1970) between 1927 and 1950[ref]Christopher Hussey was editor Country Life’s between1933-1940.[/ref] and English Heritage archives. Cooper has walk on parts in a handful of published sources, most notably the writings of his old school friend and British Embassy colleague, Sir Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) but his own voice is silent.

Continue reading >>

Irene Ward, Disraeli & the 70th Anniversary of the United Nations

2015 brings... a lecture on Irene Ward MP, a paper on Disraeli to the Oxford University TORCH symposium and plans for a seminar series marking the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations.

A taste of what Helen is working on in 2015:

  • Delivering the 2015 Speaker’s Advisory Committee of  Works of Art International Women’s Day lecture, ‘Irene Ward  MP (1895-1980), doughty parliamentarian and campaigner’ .
  • Revisiting and re-evaluating representations of Disraeli’s legacy in a paper to the Oxford University TORCH symposium convened by Sandra Meyer and Megan Kearney, ‘The Many Lives of Benjamin Disraeli: Fame, Legacy and  Representation.’
  • Contributing to plans for a series of seminars in Brighton, Oxford and London marking the seventieth anniversary of the United Nations

If you would like more information about past or current projects please contact Helen directly.