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Society

The Country House Party

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The Country House and its society was taken very seriously by the British. Unlike their Continental counterparts, whose society adhered closely to the movements of the court, the British long acknowledged the countryside as the backbone of the country. The Englishman actually preferred to live in the country, finding on his land a range of sporting activities and like-minded tenants and neighbors; his home was his country seat no matter how much time he spent in London or abroad. According to T.H.S. Escott, the country house as a social entity first appeared during the time of Chaucer, and cemented its purpose as a center of social and political life by the time of the Tudors. Though by the Edwardian era, the country and the country house had begun to lose a bit of its importance, anyone and everyone within “society” knew the quickest way to establish roots and display one’s wealth was to buy a country estate and a few acres, and regularly host house parties.

Tennis PartyThe years between 1861 and 1914 were considered the “golden age” of country house entertaining. Yes, country house parties existed prior to this time, as seen in Lord Byron’s poem “A Country House Party,” where he indeed described “[t]he politicians, in a nook apart, Discuss’d the world, and settled all the spheres;” but never before was it undertaken in such militaristic order, was it considered a vital part of the year-long social season, and more important–was extremely expensive. It was this great expense–much of it spent entertaining the easily-bored Prince of Wales–that opened the door for the entry of wealthy Jewish families into British (and later on, French, and to a much lesser degree, German) society.

This lavish expenditure had its casualties, and many of Bertie’s closest friends found themselves bankrupt: Sir Christopher Sykes (his sister-in-law had to buttonhole Bertie to get him to pay Sir Christopher’s debts), Harry Chaplin (who had to sell his estates and his possessions), and Daisy, Countess of Warwick (who threatened George V with the publication of Bertie’s love letters to her in order to keep bankruptcy at bay). But while the fun lasted, boy did they have it! Sometimes lasting a week, but usually held from Saturday to Monday (hence the name “Saturday-to-Monday” as the phrase “week-end” was considered a vulgar Americanism), each day was packed with activities.

Shooting at ChatsworthThough parties were held during the Season at the few recesses in Parliament, August and September were the months for country house parties, as that was the height of the shooting. The former month was generally reserved for the visits of relatives, and many houses focused around cricket. Most people visited the same houses year after year, and if there was an awkward gap between the ending of one house party and the beginning of another, a relative or intimate of the hostess was permitted to remain until departure–the unknown, however, was advised to leave and remain in town until it was time to depart. The latter month was the time for shooting parties, and the first week of September, harvest permitting, was when the crack guns appeared. Etiquette required different form for small shooting parties, large shooting parties, parties to which royalty was invited, and shooting parties held for intimates or relations, but all types lasted three days. Many etiquette books of the time stressed that the success of the house party mainly depended upon people knowing one another–this was important for the men out in the field with the guns, and of particular importance to the ladies, who were expected to amuse themselves while the men went out shooting.

society-woman-writing-a-letterAs you can tell, shooting was considered very important to Edwardian men. Landowners vied with one another to produce the biggest “bags” each year, and the numbers increased by leaps and bounds. At the home of the Earl of Pembroke, three days produced 1,236 head, 1,142 head, and 2,276 head, respectively, and this was thought normal. This competitive streak led to the most infamous shoot in 1913 at Hall Barn, a Buckinghamshire estate owned by Lord Burnham, of 3,937 pheasants–which led to even King George V remarking “perhaps we overdid it today.” Against the boom of guns, ladies usually scribbled letters, a practice of much amusement to foreigners who could not imagine how busy an Englishwoman’s life was, creating the need for correspondence on political, social and household topics.

Besides sport, food was one of the more important aspects of a country house party. Guests were free to arrive at breakfast when they so chose, but the proper hour was usually between nine and half past ten. Far from the simple repast enjoyed at the beginning of the nineteenth century, Edwardian guests would feast on fruits, eggs, potted meats, fish, toast, rolls, tea cakes, muffins, hams, tongues, pies, kidney, fried bacon and were given tea, coffee, hot cocoa, and juices to drink. The sportsman’s breakfast was even more substantial, including game pie, cold beef, deviled turkey, broiled ham, kippered haddock, collared eels, spiced beef, shrimp, cold fowl, curried eggs, toasted mushrooms and broiled mackerel among other things, and though tea and coffee were taken, a tankard of beer or a cherry brandy were the drink of choice. Luncheon was included at some houses, though many remained old-fashioned and stuck to the meal times of breakfast, dinner and supper. Luncheons were both formal–with everyone seated by rank–and informal–the gentlemen served the ladies and sometimes children were invited down. The dishes served were a little fancier though similar to breakfast, and beverages included claret, sherry and a light beer. Dinners were more formal, and suppers were the typical sumptuous, formal affairs. Afternoon tea was a given, of course.

Bridge TournamentIndoor amusements such as word games, charades and practical jokes were the norm, but a passion for gambling overtook the fast set during the 1880s. Baccarat was the initial game of choice and no hostess threw a country house party without a baccarat game. The Prince of Wales was a particular fan of this illegal card game, and until the scandal at Tranby Croft, he carried his own set of counters on his person at all times in case of an impromptu hand. Because of the publicity, baccarat was discontinued in society, and just as quickly as that went out, bridge came in. The craze swept women in particular, and during the early 1900s, the conversation of the most obsessed centered around bridge, bridge, bridge! Ladies were known to play hands in between eating, before going to bed, and would neglect dancing in favor of sitting down for a game in a drawing room. The founding of ladies’ clubs in the mold of gentlemen’s clubs fostered this obsession, for now women would give the same excuse as their husbands as to why they were late to supper or had to hurry into their evening dress.

lord charles beresfordHowever, the most engrossing activity of the country house party was sex. Love affairs were the tune of the day, and once a gentleman and a lady had made it known to their hostess that they wished to consummate their attraction to one another, the hostess knew she’d better arrange room assignments to facilitate this. An Edwardian love affair was not an instantaneous matter. The couple in question might spend a few months, or even a few years expressing their affection to one another through letters, and with the amount of clothing involved and the presence of observant servants, getting into bed with one another was not an easy deal–even at a neatly arranged country house party. Anita Leslie tells the story of Lord Charles Beresford who, groping in the dark for his lady love’s bedroom, pushed open the door and leaped into the bed with a “cock-a-doodle-doo!” only to discover he’d slipped between a Archbishop and his wife. Another embarrassing story is that of a hungry guest who wandered through the halls in search of a bite to eat and found a plate of sandwiches on the floor in front of a bedroom door. He satisfied his hunger, ignorant of the intentions meant by the plate and the gentleman hoping for a “yes” from the lady was left disappointed by the tray’s barren surface.

a game of billiardsMore innocently (or perhaps not), the house party was the last hurrah of that season’s marriage mart. Mama’s who hadn’t caught a suitable gentleman for their daughter that season could count on a house party and its sympathetic hostess to bring the girl in contact with the man of her or her parent’s choice. Activities such as picnics, walks, riding, croquet, billiards and lawn tennis could show off the young lady at her best angle and prove to the gentleman her intelligence and worthiness of being his bride. Other important uses for the country party was its original purpose: politics. The Souls centered around Taplow Court, the home of the Desboroughs, and Stanway House (the Earls of Wemyss), and Nancy Astor’s home at Cliveden formed the setting for a band of Boer War veterans and Pro-Rhodesian Imperialists known as Milner’s Kindergarten. Arthur Balfour, Prime Minister from 1902 to 1905, was a prodigious golfer, and his intense interest in this Scottish sport led to its adoption by hostesses as part of the country house program.

So important was the country house that even royalty took part. After extensive renovation, the Prince of Wales and his family hosted many an important party at Sandringham in Norfolk. Here, the clocks were set forward half an hour–not to accommodate the Princess of Wales’s habitual tardiness as many memoirs claim, but to allow more time for hunting. Because of this, that half-hour ahead was known as “Sandringham Time.” The motor car made it easier to get to country house parties, and newspaper reports of the 1910s bemoaned the emptiness of London due to the dash of society to the country every Friday evening in their motors. Though the Great War further decimated the political importance of the country house, it remained and has remained a symbol that “All’s right with the world!”

Further Reading:
The Country House Party by Phyllida Barstow
The Marlborough House Set by Anita Leslie
Society in the Country House by Thomas Hay Sweet Escott
Manners and Rules of Good Society by A Member of the Aristocracy
Etiquette of Good Society by Lady Colin Campbell
“A Country House Party” by Lord Byron in A Satire Anthology by Carolyn Wells

Mansions of Mayfair

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According to E. Beresford Chancellor, if “we sought for one particular feature distinguishing London from the other capitals of Europe, apart from its immense proportions, it would probably be found in the number of its large houses–many of which are indeed private palaces.” Mayfair had not always been fashionable, and long after the areas of Bloomsbury, the Strand, and the even the City of London itself, had been abandoned by fashionable decree, the old private mansions remained. By the late nineteenth century, the private palaces of London clustered together along Piccadilly and Park Lane. However, a few mansions of note sat above Oxford Street, such as Portman House in Portman Square, Hertford (formerly Manchester) House in Manchester Square, and in other places in the West End–Montague House in Whitehall, and Stafford House in the heart of St. James’s. And lest we forget, the Prince of Wales’s London residence, Marlborough House, sat in Pall Mall. Click to open map of Mayfair.

In the Edwardian era, the most fashionable mansions, which frequently were the sites of the most exclusive social affairs and the most influential of political events, were Devonshire House, Dorchester House, Stafford House, and Londonderry House.

devonshire-house-in-1896At first glance, Devonshire House appeared a plain, somewhat ugly mansion obscured by a high, solid wall. Forever immortalized by the antics of the 5th Duke of Devonshire and his two 5th duchesses Georgiana and Elizabeth, Devonshire House remained largely the same as when that menagerie resided within its tony walls. The mansion sat right on Piccadilly, an extremely busy and noisy thoroughfare–no doubt the reason for its walls. When the 8th Duke of Devonshire ascended to his title in 1891, and married his longtime lover Louisa Manchester the following year, Devonshire House became the center of London political life. The energetic and influential Louisa wielded her power from the mansion, and in 1897, she threw one of the most magnificent costume balls late Victorian society had ever seen. Not only English society, but Indian princes and princesses, American millionaires, and Continental aristocrats, attended this ball attired in sumptuous costumes worth thousands upon thousands of pounds. Despite her advanced state of pregnancy, Consuelo Marlborough recalled being laced tightly to fit into her costume, and finding her pleasure dimmed when walking across Green Park at dawn to see a number of homeless, wretched men sleeping in the grass. After the 8th duke’s death in 1908, Devonshire House passed to his nephew, who like aristocrats in the interwar era, abandoned his expensive, unnecessary London mansion and consigned it for demolition.

dorchester-house-grand-staircaseDorchester House was one of Mayfair’s most breathtaking of mansions. Built for R.S. Holford in 1851-53 on the site of an older house of the same name belonging to the extinct earldom of Dorchester, Augustus Hare described it as “an imitation, not a caricature of the best Italian models.” The house was shaped like a parallelogram: the mansion stood before a triangular forecourt, a massive stone wall enclosed the grounds, and passage was gained through the lodge stationed at the entrance where Deanery Street ran into Park Lane. The most impressive part of this house was the grand staircase. It dominated the center of the house “in a great balconied hall that rose three full stories.”

This was also the hub of Anglo-American society, for Senator Whitelaw Reid was appointed American ambassador to St. James’s Palace in 1905, and rented the palace at a cost of $40,000 a year (about $960,000 in 2009 dollars). His lavish expenditure set the tone for American diplomats abroad, and very quickly it became apparent that the annual salary of $17,500 (about $400,000 in 2009 dollars) for a diplomat was not enough–which gives us a fair clue why it became the practice to choose wealthy men for diplomatic posts. Here Americans rang in the Fourth of July, and it was from Dorchester House where Alice Roosevelt Longworth prepared to make her court presentation to the King and Queen. After Reid died in 1912, the house was abandoned by the American diplomatic service as his successor, Walter Hines Page, was a man of much simpler tastes and fortune. During WWI the house was used as a hospital, and it was pulled down in 1926.

stafford-house-great-hallStafford House was the London residence of the 4th Duke of Sutherland. His wife, Millicent, whose descent down the gorgeous stairway figured in so many Edwardian memoirs, was half-sister to Daisy, Countess of Warwick, and associated with both the Marlborough House Set and the Souls–a unique event, for the aims of the two social circles rarely, if ever, met. The home was initially built in the 1820s for the Duke of York and Albany, and was known then as York House. After the duke’s death in 1827, the home was but a shell, but it was quickly purchased by and completed for the 2nd Marquess of Stafford, and it was known as Stafford House from then on. So magnificent was the mansion, Queen Victoria is said to have remarked on a visit, “I have come from my House to your Palace.” The family were liberal in politics, and the 2nd Duke and Duchess of Sutherland entertained distinguished guests such as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi in the 1850s, and the 4th Duke and Duchess followed in that tradition by extending an invitation to Dr. and Mrs. Booker T. Washington. After the 4th duke’s death in 1913, the house was sold to Sir William Hesketh Lever, who renamed it Lancaster House in honor of his native county of Lancashire, and donated the home to the nation in 1913. Lancaster House was the temporary residence of the London Museum between 1924 and 1944, and since then has been used for private government receptions.

londonderry-houseAlso on Park Lane was Londonderry House, the residence of the Marquesses of Londonderry (pronounced “Lundundree”), the Anglo-Irish family of which Robert, Viscount Castlereagh, is the most well-known. Londonderry House was originally known as Holderness House, as it was formerly the residence of the Earls of Holdernesse, whose title went extinct with the death of the last earl in 1778. The house was purchased by the Londonderry’s in 1819 as a London residence for the family, who spent considerable time on their estate in Ireland. It was completely rebuilt and enlarged by the 3rd duke during the early 1850s, and at his death in 1854, the mansion rivaled Dorchester House and Stafford House for elegance. By the time of the 6th Marquess’s ascension to the title in the 1880s, the Londonderry’s had become staunch Unionists. The Marchioness in particular opposed Home Rule for Ireland and quickly gained prominence as a Conservative Party leader, going on to form the Ulster Women‘s Unionist Council in 1911. However influential and powerful Theresa Londonderry was, her political clout has been overshadowed by the extraordinary rift between she and her husband after his discovery of her affair with another man, and the possibility that his youngest son was not his own. Londonderry House remained in the family’s possession until 1965, when it was sold to the neighboring Hilton, and demolished to enable the hotelier room for expansion.

Of the political hostesses, Theresa (Nellie) Londonderry and Louise Devonshire, of the Conservative Party and Liberal Party, respectively, were the most powerful. In her memoirs, the Countess of Fingall identified them the dictators of the social scene, saying: “If you were Lady Londonderry’s friend or the Duchess of Devonshire’s, no one would dare to say a word against you. It was an equally bad thing to be the enemy of either.” Contemporary accounts distinguish Lady Londonderry’s regime as irrevocably haughty, and as a strong partisan–described by E.F.Benson as “a highwaywoman in a tiara”–her influence is said to have been behind some of the contretemps of the Tory party. Margot Asquith despised Theresa, characterizing her as arrogant and vulgar, but praised Louisa Devonshire as “the last great political lady in London society as I have known it,” noting that “she was powerful enough to entertain both the great political parties which few can do.”

After the Great War, the great London mansion and the accompanying social and political power attached to its grandeur began to pall. Not only had the winds of politics changed (the Labour Party began to dominate the British landscape), but these houses were unwieldy and expensive to maintain. Those that hadn’t already been opened to the public either followed suit or were shut up or, as in most cases, sold and demolished. Though these palaces may have disappeared (with the sole exception of Stafford/Lancaster House), and others not detailed have as well, there are many who continue to exist–Lansdowne House, Spencer House, Apsley House, etc–and continue the albeit “spiritual” link between today and Edwardian London.

Further Reading:
The Opulent Eye: Late Victorian and Edwardian Taste in Interior Design by Nicholas Cooper
Affair of State: A Biography of the Eighth Duke and Duchess of Devonshire by Henry Vane
The Private Palaces of London, Past and Present by E. Beresford Chancellor
The Marlborough House Set by Anita Leslie
Up From Slavery by Booker T. Washington
“The Cost of Representing America Abroad.” New York Times, April 5, 1908.
Wikipedia entries for Stafford House, Marquesses of Londonderry, Dukes of Sutherland, and Millicent Sutherland.
Currency Rates found at Measuring Worth

A life of contrast: Daisy, Countess of Warwick

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Daisy, Countess of Warwick

by Victoria Fishburn

Imagine a beautiful woman from Edwardian England who married an Earl, became mistress to the Prince of Wales and astonished Society by standing as a Labour candidate for Parliament. Such a woman was Daisy, Countess of Warwick. Her words, written in two memoirs and countless other books, are still quoted by most historians of the period. In her youth, she was famous for her looks. Cartes-de-visites with her likeness were bought by those who followed the ‘Professional Beauties’, society women whose beauty was admired amongst all classes. Her friend Elinor Glyn referred to her as an ‘It girl’. The fair, curvaceous heiress hit London Society in the 1880s but, although she was painted by Sargent and sculpted by Rodin, her beauty was only part of the reason that she was famous in her lifetime. Even today, her name is widely recognized. This is largely because the life that she led followed so unconventional a path. Despite having good looks, a fortune, a lasting marriage and nine successful years as mistress to the Prince of Wales behind her, she embarked upon a radical life as a social reformer.

My interest in her was sparked by the sheer unlikeliness of her character. She leaves a confusing legacy: an heiress, a Countess and a landowner and yet she signed up to the socialist ideal of land nationalization and tried to give her house away. She had the love of the Prince and yet she pestered him with her ideas for reform. Hugely extravagant, she spent lavishly on entertaining her guests, whilst supporting reforms to help the poor and downtrodden. She stood for a parliamentary seat as a candidate for the Labour party but appeared on political platforms dressed in pearls and furs. Daisy’s life was marked out as unusual from the age of three when she inherited the estates of her grandfather, her father having already died.

The self-confidence and determined independence that characterized her approach to life, started early. She rode dangerous racehorses from her stepfather’s stable, she went to the theatre with Disraeli and, most shockingly, she thwarted the plans of Queen Victoria to marry her to the youngest Prince, her haemophiliac son, Leopold. Brookie was a good catch as heir to the Earl of Warwick but did not have the cachet of a Prince. Young, active and gorgeous she swept all before her as she reveled in her position as Lady Brooke. Having produced a son for her husband, infidelity was accepted in the aristocratic circles in which she moved, as long as affairs were conducted according to that all-important quality of the age: discretion. Daisy threw parties, she bought dresses from Paris by the great French designers, Charles Worth and Doucet, she had lovers and she hunted. But the same impulsiveness that she brought to the hunting field made her indiscreet.

Her reputation was first tarnished by a reckless letter she wrote to her lover, Lord Charles Beresford, berating him for his wife’s pregnancy. The affair foundered at the insult to his wife and recognizing the dire threat of ruin to her reputation, Daisy fled into the arms of the Prince. She entertained Bertie and his friends, first at her own Essex estate and subsequently at Warwick Castle, inherited by her husband Lord Brooke in 1893. Her years as royal mistress should have made her reputation unassailable but even then she was criticized for her indiscreet gossip: a gambling deal involving the Prince of Wales, earned her the nickname, ‘Babbling Brooke’. But both Bertie and Brookie were devoted to her and put up with a great deal. Brookie wrote that he would rather have been married to Daisy ‘with all her peccadilloes’ than to any other woman in the world. They remained married until his death.

Like so many who lavishly entertained their future King, Daisy was extravagant and, what had seemed a great fortune, diminished to the point when she had to sell many of her possessions and property. Her most ignominious episode came about because of debt. After the death of Edward VII, she attempted to raise money by the sale of his love letters to her, offering them, at a price, to George V. The royal advisers were not moved to help her, despite the fact that she had never had the financial benefits and protection given to some of Edward’s other mistresses. She was threatened with an injunction and forced to give the letters to the King. Kept secret at the time, this affair emerged in the 1960s in a book by Theo Lang called ‘My Darling Daisy’ – the affectionate address used by the Prince of Wales in his letters. The name stuck.

daisy-warwick005She was given many labels in her life: Professional Beauty, It girl, Babbling Brooke and My Darling Daisy but, before the end of her life, the Countess of Warwick was known by another, and very unlikely, name: the Socialist Countess. At a time when many Edwardians were clinging to the vestiges of a glamorous Society life which was to end with the First World War, Daisy was again stepping out of the mould. Her kind nature and sympathy with those suffering hardship, had inspired her to many philanthropic actions over the years. She had started a home for cripples and a needlework school for rural girls with a shop to sell their work. She funded a secondary school and championed the cause of women’s education by establishing a training college for women. When her days as royal mistress were behind her, she became interested in the rising Socialist movement. Philanthropy turned to Socialism by 1904, when she joined the Social Democratic Foundation. It perplexed her society friends that she should join the highly unfashionable world of trade unionists and socialists. But Daisy had changed. She was no longer interested in Society, her friends now encompassed many fellow Socialists: George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells and Gustav Holst were amongst them.

Bravely independent, Daisy increased her literary output in order to make some money. Although never an author of the calibre of Shaw or Wells, it is through her writing that Daisy Warwick maintains her hold on posterity. Between 1898 and 1934, twelve books came out under her name, the first a book on gardens. The subjects were varied: essays on Socialism; a short biography of the leader of the Arts and Crafts Movement, William Morris; a well-respected history of Warwick Castle; a book of essays on the First World War and two substantial books of memoirs. She edited and wrote introductions or essays for a further eight books. Daisy sailed to America in 1912, to give a lecture tour in New York and Washington: the newspapers were full of the outfits she wore and were more interested in society gossip than the socialism she wanted to preach. Back home she contributed articles to London newspapers and the Daily Sketch commissioned her as an advice columnist and editor of their womens’ page. This astonishing literary output kept her name in the public eye.

In 1923, Daisy Warwick stood as a candidate for the Labour Party for the parliamentary seat of Warwick and Leamington. Her opponent was her relation, and later Prime Minister, Anthony Eden. But the overdressed Countess of Warwick, who owed money to many of those who might have supported her, was shunned and, ignominiously, beaten into third place. With this result, she left parliamentary ambitions behind her although she continued to support the Labour Party. In the late 1920s she tried to give her house in Essex away, first to the Labour Party and, when that failed, to the Trade Union Congress. Ironically, it was the fact that she was a Countess and a symbol of privilege that caused the rejection of her offer. Disillusioned with socialism, she retreated back to her home and an old age concerned with the welfare of animals.

Daisy Warwick’s seventy-eight years had been eventful: from her birth as a beautiful and privileged heiress to an old age where looks, money and society friends had all gone. But her name lives on today and this is where her literary output has extended her fame. She is a valuable source for most historians of the late Victorian and Edwardian period. Theo Aronson in The King in Love, Stanley Weintraub in Edward, King in Waiting, Henry Vane in Affair of State, Leo McKinstry in his recent biography of Rosebery, Andrew Roberts in Salisbury: Victorian Titan and Anthony Allfrey in Edward VII and his Jewish Court are just some of the many historians who use Daisy’s insights taken from her memoirs and other writings.

Victoria Fishburn is presently writing a biography on Daisy, Countess of Warwick and can be contacted by email: victoria [at] fishburns [dot] co [dot] uk.