Chatsworth, the Coronation & The Lady

Continuing her tribute, Julia Budworth reveals how her cousin Debo saved Chatsworth, was the most beautiful peeress at the Coronation, and the time she wrote for The Lady

Part 2

Last week, Julia Budworth remembered growing up alongside her cousin, Deborah Mitford, later Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died last month. Here, she picks up the story, following Debo’s marriage to Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the Duke of Devonshire.


Debo and Andrew went on honeymoon to Compton Place at Eastbourne, one of Andrew’s family’s houses – no chance of going anywhere abroad during the war – and the next time I saw her was in 1944 at Edensor, in Derbyshire, where she and Andrew and their two very young children lived in a house beside a rushing stream, called The Rookery.

‘Rookery means a nest of thieves,’ said Debo.

Andrew was away at the time, fi ghting in Italy where he won the Military Cross and Debo wrote to him every day. My father was still working six days a week at the Admiralty and my brother, Tom, was visiting a school friend, so my mother and I went to stay with Debo on our own.

She was a kind and excellent host. We went to the Bakewell Show, still taking place annually, war or no war, and very popular. Debo won a prize in the driving class, and the next day took us to see Chatsworth, home to the Dukes of Devonshire, driving in the same trap and drawn by her prize-winning Hackney horse. For those living, then, in the bastion that was Britain, the best thing about the Second World War was the lack of criminals, burglars and so on. The second best was the lack of traffi c. Apart from bicycles, pony-traps were the only way to travel except for buses and, of course, trains.

So, on extra-safe, virtually car-free roads, Debo driving, my mother and I went from The Rookery at Edensor, to Chatsworth. And very grand and beautiful it looked in its surrounding valley as we drove over the hill and saw it all spread before us, as it is now.

Debo took us all over the house. It was let to a girls’school at the time, but they were on holiday, and she collected a present from her parents-in-law, peaches from the huge conservatory, which was unheated, of course, due to the war effort.

As I thought of little else but horses, then, I was particularly impressed by the stables, a palace in themselves. Now these stables have become a restaurant and shopping arcade, equally beautiful, but different.

In the course of conversation that day, Debo said that her sister, Nancy, was writing another book, ‘…with a silly title’, which she couldn’t quite remember. It was definitely stupid, though: ‘The Pursuit Of Love, or something like that.’

Debo-Oct10-02-590-NEWSublime beauty: Deborah dressed for the Coronation

It was published a year later, and changed the entire British public’s opinion of the Mitford family, especially when people realised that the whole story was loosely modelled on them. The character of ‘Uncle Matthew’ (who was modelled on her father and my uncle, David Mitford) achieved this single-handedly! Everyone recognised and understood the attributes of a typical eccentric Englishman; and even the French, long used to mysterious British absurdities, had no diffi culties with any, ‘milord Anglais, fou!’

Automatically all the other characters in the book fell into their rightful place beside him: Uncle Matthew’s vague and beautiful wife; their dotty, dogmatic daughters. Far from being Fascist wartime hate figures – Debo’s sister, Unity, after all, was infatuated with Hitler – The Pursuit Of Love transformed the Mitfords into harmless PG Wodehouse entertainment: literary celebrities, one and all. It certainly made a change! Nancy became quite famous and interesting; but the more perceptive of her readers saw the Mitford family’s story for the tragedy it really was.

Meantime, only a few weeks after my mother and I had stayed with Debo at The Rookery, her brother-in law was killed in Belgium during the invasion of Europe; and seven months later, in early April 1945, her brother, Tom, my godfather, died of wounds in Burma. Same war, different country. As if these two family disasters were not enough, another awaited the Devonshires in 1950. Andrew’s father died unexpectedly, leaving Debo and Andrew Lismore Castle, Hardwick Hall, Bolton Abbey, Compton Place, tracts of Eastbourne and all the land belonging to these properties – along with a mountain of attendant death duties, as they were called then. The rest, as the saying goes, is history.


History: we are all part of it, but Debo saw it close-up. During that uncertain pause between the two world wars and their depressing aftermath, The Cold War, Debo lived surrounded by and related to many of the people in charge of the Western World at that fraught time. Winston Churchill, Harold Macmillan, and even President Kennedy were relations by marriages – distant, it’s true – but nevertheless Debo and Andrew went to Kennedy’s inauguration, and later to his funeral, both described beautifully in Debo’s book Home To Roost. World events did not exactly pass them by.

Also, before the war, on the other side of the coin, as it were, Debo had met Hitler, mostly by accident, but she met him, no doubt of that. One hour later, and he would have gone away on holiday, but Aunt Sydney, Uncle David, Unity and Debo arrived just in time. He invited them to tea. Tea with Hitler.

There they were: Aunt Sydney, Uncle David, Unity and Debo all having a nice cup of tea with Hitler! Not a mad dream. It happened. He could not speak a word of English or French, but they managed quite well with Unity as their interpreter. Debo recorded all this is her diary, and particularly noted his hairbrushes in the cloakroom, with the initials on them: A.H.

Uncle David, always portrayed as such a philistine in his Uncle Matthew disguise, spoke perfect French. He had a French tutor before Radley put him off education forever. He told my mother that he had not had one single happy day there. No wonder he took care to send his only son to Eton, which had a better reputation; and no wonder he hated the idea of his daughters at any boardingschool, it is entirely understandable. Aunt Sydney and Unity both spoke good French, but Debo had refused to learn it after quarrelling with her governess.

Debo-Oct10-04-590-NEWThe Duke and Duchess in the library at Chatsworth

After 1950 it would be fair to say that Chatsworth was Andrew’s in name but Debo’s in practice. Would it have survived without her? Not half so well.

The saving of Chatsworth was a massive undertaking. It took (allegedly) 17 years to pay the death duties (best thanks to Andrew’s accountants, whoever they were) and during this time Debo became very knowledgeable. She changed Chatsworth for the better, and Chatsworth changed her… into an academic! Debo, who battled with her governess and declared she never read a book, eventually wrote a very well-researched and readable one about Chatsworth and its history, and later all sorts of memories and even a cookery book.

Nancy, always so withering about Debo’s scholastic abilities, would have fainted with astonishment, but then Nancy was withering about everybody. As a toddler she never recovered from the arrival of her beautiful blonde sister, Pamela. This jealousy was brought about entirely by the stupidity of their Nannie, who was soon sacked, but not before the damage was done.

Soon after the Coronation in 1953, Cecil Beaton wrote that of all the Peeresses in Westminster Abbey, the young Duchess of Devonshire was by far the most beautiful; and, as a photographer, he was a better judge than most. Diana was always the undisputed beauty of the family, but from the age of 18 onwards, Debo ran her close. All the sisters were beautiful though, and charismatic, just like their parents.

From 1950 onwards, once she was so busy with Chatsworth we did not see much of Debo, although she came to stay with my parents a couple of times, came to my wedding and, two years later, sadly, to my father’s funeral. There were letters and Christmas cards, and one day she sent me a Chatsworth catalogue. When writing to thank her, I asked if she would be interested in advertising Chatsworth’s wares in The Lady. A delighted response came by return of post: ‘Yes!’

My brother, Tom, was not at all happy about this. He was in charge of The Lady then, and did not want the family advertised in the magazine, however obliquely. He also refused to accept that Debo should write an article for it, entitled, ‘Uncle Matthew at The Lady Office,’ which Debo was happy to do.

This attitude was such a waste of goodwill, as I pointed out to him. ‘Few people,’ I said, ‘were much more loyal, enthusiastic and interested in The Lady, or had cause to be, than Debo.’

Debo-Oct10-03-590-NEWAndrew, Deborah and their family in the late 1940s

It was her family’s magazine, after all. Her maternal grandfather had started it and her father had worked at The Lady office for 10 years, eventually becoming the very well-liked General Manager before going off to fight in the First World War. Nancy, Debo’s sister (the withering one) had written articles for The Lady during the 1920s.

Apart from the Marlborough Club, it could be said that The Lady office was Uncle David’s London homefrom- home. Moreover, he and Aunt Sydney loyally bought shares in The Lady Ltd during the hard times of the 1930s. These shares paid well, years later, so they were ultimately rewarded.

All this was carefully explained to Tom but did not make the slightest difference – although he was persuaded about the Chatsworth advertising. Obduracy runs in the family – although apart from her refusal to learn French, there was no sign of it anywhere near Debo, in whom common sense always prevailed.

A long time elapsed, therefore, before Tom retired and Debo’s splendid article about Uncle Matthew at The Lady office was published in the magazine. Its subject and author were too good to miss, and there it was at last. Victory over what might politely be called misplaced determination, or there again: Hard won success against the forces of circumstance!

These descriptions might also apply to Debo’s life, which was seldom so effortless as she made it seem. That is another story, but perhaps Her Majesty the Queen recognised a good deal of this when she awarded Debo a Damehood, if that is the right word, an honour that is entirely in the Queen’s gift: a personal tribute. In any event, it was richly deserved.