My father, The Lady's man

In the final part of our tribute to Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died last month, we reprint a story she wrote for The Lady about her father's delightful eccentric stint as the magazine's deputy general manger
You could not imagine a more unlikely candidate looking for a job at The Lady than my father, David Mitford. He had just survived a bullet wound in the Boer War, which destroyed a lung.

In 1902 he had been thrown on an oxcart and covered with corpses when someone noticed a hand slowly winding and unwinding fingers. ‘There is someone alive at the bottom of that heap,’ shouted the keen observer. He was indeed alive and joined the wounded – although no one expected him to live. Three or four days later, he was deposited at the hospital in Bloemfontein from where he began the long voyage home and his even longer convalescence.

Shortly after his return from South Africa, my father proposed to my mother, Sydney Bowles. But he had first to ask the permission of her father – and my grandfather – Vanity Fair and The Lady founder, Thomas Gibson Bowles.

‘How do you propose to support her?’ Gibson Bowles had asked.

‘I’ve got £400 a year, and these,’ my father answered, holding up his hands.

They married on 6 February 1904 and lived in London, in a tiny house in Graham Street, Pimlico. I believe Mr Bowles gave them a three-month cruise on his yacht as a honeymoon and found his new son-in-law work at The Lady, without the formalities of form filling beloved by the bureaucrats of today.

My father reported for work accompanied by his pet mongoose, whose job was to get rid of the rats in the nether regions of The Lady building. He immediately became not only popular but loved by the staff , from cleaners to editors, always acknowledged by him as his equals.


I do not know if Thomas Gibson Bowles explained to him what were his responsibilities as deputy general manager, but I imagine he had to study the fashions of women’s clothes in 1904 and presumably had to peruse the many classified advertisements from governesses and nannies to gardeners and nursery maids, and from rooms-to-let to corsets (but holiday cottages were yet to be invented).

Mr Bowles never asked my father for a job description. Had he done so, the answer would have divided his time thus – cheering on his mongoose carrying out his mongoose duties, 80 per cent, all the rest 20 per cent!

My sister, Nancy, was born on 28 November 1904: the first of six disappointments. My mother longed for six boys, but girls appeared one after the other, only punctuated by one boy, Tom. My father (‘Farve’) was tall and handsome. Nancy nicknamed him Great Agrippa from Struwwelpeter (‘so tall he almost reached the sky’) when he announced at tea time: ‘I am going to get out of my good clothes’ and came back in a dressing gown.

He was the originator of all the jokes in our family. Nancy picked these up and exaggerated them for the character of ‘Uncle Matthew’ in two or three of her novels and my father was also the model for ‘General Murgatroyd’ in another. An example of my father’s support for my sister Jessica and me was when we complained about the horrible lunches served at the day school we went to in Beaconsfield for two terms. He believed in going straight to the top, so he entered the headmistress’s study armed with nothing more than his blue eyes and irresistible charm. He won. He got what he, on our behalf, wanted: to be excused the unrecognisable scraps of old cow steeped in a stew of their own juice, and henceforth a banana.

My father was adept at taking on the formidable female, who insisted on having For Those In Peril On The Sea sung at every assembly in honour of her brother – even though he was safe and sound on his ship with no sign of war to interrupt his naval career. Of course my father won and this determination must have proved useful with some of The Lady’s doughty readers with whom I imagine he had to deal.

Debo-Oct17-01-590Left: David Mitford during his convalescene after being wounded in the Boer War. Right: Debo's story appeared in The Lady on 15 February 2011

He never wrote anything for the magazine himself. That was not his talent. He just got on brilliantly with the female staff and most of The Lady’s readership. I have often wondered if he had to answer some of their letters criticising some aspect of the magazine. I rather hope not, because his idea of women (unless they were beautiful) was less than sympathetic.

My mother (‘Muv’) once asked him why he had to be so early at the Army & Navy Stores when he went to do his shopping. He used to leave his dogs outside and wait patiently until the doors opened at 9am.

‘If I am any later I am impeded by inconveniently shaped [because of the large parcels they were carrying] women,’ he replied.

He was too polite to push and shove, so he had to be there first. When he did not like an unfortunate woman who had been invited to lunch by my mother (a rare occurrence), he would say, after she had gone, ‘Why did you invite that meaningless piece of meat? She was a dismal, worthless sort of creature…’

These remarks never reached The Lady or Mr Bowles might have had second thoughts about my father’s suitability for the job!

My father was unread, because in early life he read White Fang by Jack London and loved it so much he did not ever want to read another book. And when the war broke out in 1914 my father joined his old regiment (The Northumberland Fusiliers), so his time at The Lady came to an end, but he had learned a lot about publishing from his father-in-law’s firm, which I am glad to say survived his decade there and has gone from strength to strength.

Wait For Me! Memoirs Of The Youngest Mitford Sister, by Deborah Devonshire (John Murray, £20).