Debo remembered: 1920 - 2014

In this vivid and heartfelt memoir, Julia Budworth remembers a colourful childhood with her cousin, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died last week

Part 1... 

Debo used to push me around in my pram, but the earliest memory I have of her is rather different. Her right arm is firmly around my waist; her left hand clamped to the pony’s reins, close to its bridle. I am holding tightly to the pommel of the saddle, as instructed, and the unbroken Shetland pony is bucking every two seconds, much annoyed at having anyone on its back. I am thinking that the whole thing is absolutely marvellous!

Debo was 17; I was five. So that would have been sometime during the summer of 1937. Debo had Shetland ponies even then. She always liked them. We were in the field beside the Mill Cottage at Swinbrook, Oxfordshire. My parents, younger brother, Tom, and I had gone there to tea with Debo and her parents, Aunt Sydney and Uncle David. Earlier in his life Uncle David had inherited the whole of Swinbrook – but I digress.

The next time we saw Debo was about a year later, when Tom and I, with our Nannie, stayed for 10 days at Aunt Sydney’s cottage at High Wycombe. It was another Mill Cottage and had been a wedding present from Sydney’s father (and my grandfather), Thomas Gibson Bowles – who was also founder of The Lady.

Aunt Sydney always liked the sea, but failing that, a river would do. Debo had a horse there, which she rode every day. She taught me how to tell the time, and was happy with her dogs and the family’s chickens, which were in the orchard, free range. No ghastly factory farms, then.

Sometime during the summer of 1938, Uncle David realised a lifetime’s ambition by buying a small romantic island. It was in the Inner Hebrides, west of Mull. He and my father had gone to inspect Inch Kenneth, named after the saint who had lived there once, among his fellow monks, but the crystal sea was far too rough for the crossing, so they could only survey it and its house from a mile distant across the waves. Nevertheless, undeterred, Uncle David bought it for £2,000 – cheap, even then, because of the looming war.

During the summer of 1939, we were invited to stay. Probably we were my uncle and aunt’s first guests after their unusual house move: furniture, china, everything had been transported by steamer from Glasgow on a single trip. Better not to forget anything! Debo was there. She was 19, then, and dazzlingly pretty.

There was, still is, one house on Inch Kenneth. It was in good condition, and had a lovely big drawing room on the first fl oor. There was also the boatman’s cottage nearby, but nothing else except a walled vegetable garden, stone farm buildings with a dairy and an old forge. Also there was a watercress bed and St Kenneth’s ruined chapel close to one of the beaches.

This was mid-September 1939, so the boatman, young John MacFadgeon, had been called up ‘to win the war’. His father replaced him, but Debo milked the three cows – very well. I used to sit and talk to her whilst she did this, and I tried to help, but my hands weren’t quite big enough. Every morning, too, Debo made the butter. Tom and I would take turns, winding the handle of the churn round and round. Debo would add salt flakes when the cream started to become lumpy, and then take it to the scullery to squeeze out the buttermilk – which was very good to drink. We had fresh butter every day, cream, of course, and fish, mackerel mostly. There were also fat mussels by the hundred.

Well, the whole island was a terrific adventure, especially for children, the crashing Atlantic waves rolling in, ‘all the way from America’. We saw a golden eagle once, and spied basking sharks from the hazardous cliffs on the north side of the island.

Debo had three dogs, and her sister Nancy’s black French bulldog, who was staying with her for the summer. She was called Millie, and in some ways was like Nancy herself, definitely snappy but curiously endearing. They say people become like their dogs, or is it the other way round?
Debo-Oct03-01-5901. Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish in April 1941 at St Bartholomew's Church in Smithfield
2. The newlyweds leaving their wedding reception at Rutland Gate

Anyhow, we used to take all the dogs for walks. Debo’s two whippets, Studley and Nina, caught rabbits for their own dinners and had to be prevented from chasing the sheep, which did not belong to Uncle David. Inch Kenneth was particularly valuable for grazing because it had grass and no heather, something rare, perhaps unique, in the Highlands.

Debo’s third dog did not catch rabbits. Like Millie, he was lodging with Debo, and really belonged to Unity, another sister of Debo’s. What an assorted quartet of canines! This was a dachshund called Jakey, who maggotted along cheerfully with us, not made for speed. My father remarked, ‘Jakey looks like an old kid glove,’ and he did, rather.

The jokes, ‘awful puns’ and general chat from my father and Uncle David were often screamingly funny, the product of lively minds; and Aunt Sydney, kind and gentle, the antithesis of her repeatedly terrifying husband, had her own brand of drollery that was equally funny, but infrequent. It was quipped that her jokes were ‘half-yearly’, but they were all the better for that.

Aunt Sydney played lots of jolly tunes on the grand piano in the drawing room – and Debo played records, like all teenagers: Fats Waller, mostly, singing, ‘My very good friend the milkman says,’ which amused my father. He used to sing bits of it himself.

My parents and Debo’s parents were the grown-ups. I was seven, then, and Tom was five. Debo bridged the gap. She was very kind to her two young cousins who must often have been fairly trying, but Debo was always far too polite to be anything but charming, interesting and friendly to us both.

She probably inherited these exceptional good manners, and surely patience, from her father’s father, the handsome diplomat, old Lord Redesdale, friend of Edward VII who made him a peer. Best of all, Debo treated us as equals. We were not children when we talked to Debo. She may also have inherited these communication skills from her other grandfather, a tremendous communicator and The Lady’s founder, among much else: Thomas Gibson Bowles.

These two grandfathers of Debo’s had long been firm friends, and Thomas Gibson Bowles, from all reports, never ‘talked down’ to his children, who were very fond of their father. So Debo was fortunate with this double inheritance. We never saw her cross or worried, either. Certainly she wasn’t snappy like her eldest sister, Nancy, nor given to severe and frequent manipulation of truth like another sister, Decca. You could always rely on Debo.

She was probably worried at that time, though, like the grown-ups. War had been declared and Unity was in Munich, although nothing was known, then, about her attempted suicide.

It is impossible to separate Debo from her numerous sisters: the future did not look too good for Diana, yet another of them. She and her second husband, Oswald Mosley, called themselves fascists. Their marriage had caused great dismay in the family, with good reason. As for Debo’s closest sister and best friend at the time, Decca (manipulator of truth), she had vanished two years earlier with a distant cousin, who, in turn, called himself a communist! And then there was Unity in Munich. None of this boded well.

Outwardly, at least, Debo took it all in her stride. Throughout the early autumn of 1939 she milked the cows, played records, made the butter, looked after her dogs and chatted to Tom and me when we were at Inch Kenneth.

Eventually the wonderful holiday there came to an end, but not before the arrival of a theatrical storm, with the wind so strong you could lean against it and not fall over. We weren’t allowed near the cliff s that day. Also, not before the grown-ups had spent an entire day planting daffodils; sacks of bulbs that flowered for years, and I hope are still flowering now, 75 years later. But time, as we all know, waits for no man, our holiday was over, and I can still hear Debo’s voice sadly calling goodbye as the island’s motor boat, The Puffin, left the jetty at Inch Kenneth on a full tide.

Back to England we went – and the war.


I suppose it would have been somewhere around December or January 1940-41, perhaps earlier, that my father returned from the Admiralty one evening as usual, and said to Tom and me.

‘Have you heard about Debo?’

‘No,’ said I.

‘She’s dead?’ suggested my brother helpfully.

‘She’s engaged to be married,’ said my father.

‘Who to?’ I inquired ungrammatically.

‘Somebody called Andrew Cavendish. They say he’s very nice.’

Uncle David liked him, for once. Uncle David was trenchantly dismissive of all his sons-in-law except Bryan Guinness, Diana’s first husband. What is more, he was in a good temper all day at Debo’s wedding!

St Bartholomew’s Church, Smithfield, in London, has pews that face the nave, not the altar. We sat in the front, for some reason. Debo’s sisters were behind us. Debo drifted along the nave in a mist of white tulle, with orchids in her hair. (Where was the Redesdale tiara? Too expensive to dig out of the bank, maybe?) Uncle David walked beside her in his Home Guard uniform, a veteran of two wars, and now a third – in April 1941, with bombs dropping on London most nights.

The hymn chosen to accompany them on this short march was exceptional and ethereal – much better for drifting than walking – with arrestingly poetic words:

‘Gracious Spirit, Holy Ghost,
Taught by Thee we covet most
Of Thy gifts at Pentecost
Holy, Heavenly Love.’

Debo-Oct03-02-5903. Deborah, Julia and Tom at Inch Kenneth (1939) 4. Lord Andrew Cavendish and Deborah Mitford, who looked exquisite on her wedding day

Its tune was very nearly plainsong. Its first verse needed a boy soprano, singing solo, to do it justice, but we all managed as best we could. The wedding progressed, and having given his daughter away to a husband of which he actually approved, Uncle David shared a taxi with my parents, Tom and myself, back to the wedding reception at Rutland Gate.

Hats were not rationed during the war, although clothes certainly were. The best one by far, at Debo’s wedding, was Unity’s, smothered in flowers; and I had a new panama myself, a great treat, with cornflowers, wild roses, and feathery barley around the headband, which is what all little girls had then in the way of smart hats.

Unity herself had returned to England 15 months earlier, by her own choice and with Hitler’s essential assistance. He went to see her in hospital and offered her German citizenship.

‘If you wish, I can get your papers through in four days,’ he had promised, but Unity said she must return to her family. The same man, who later authorised the terrible concentration camps, paid all Unity’s hospital bills and arranged for a special train to take her to Berne in neutral Switzerland, where her parents and Debo met her and brought her back.

Unity had a bouquet of flowers with her, sent by Hitler with his best wishes. She arrived home to a less than rapturous reception from the British press, but by April 1941 Unity’s health had improved enough for her to attend Debo’s wedding.

It was a miracle that she had survived. The bullet she had fired was still in her brain, impossible to remove. The bullet still in her brain and an extremely pretty hat on her head. That is how it was.

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire: born 31 March 1920; died 24 September 2014 , aged 94.