Back To The Drawing Board

Hi everyone.

A very belated Happy New Year. If I had left this blog post much longer, I would have probably been sending you New Year greetings for 2019 instead of 2018.

I must admit it has been quite a struggle to keep going with the Ethel letters since all the excitement last autumn of having the project featured as a double page spread in The Mail on Sunday newspaper. It was difficult accepting that once again, despite the extensive coverage in the paper and the reporter’s tremendous enthusiasm for the letters, I still don’t have even a sniff of a book deal for My Dear Elsie. So it’s back to the drawing board. Again.

The letter I have just finished typing up and researching was quite short by Ethel’s standards and looked very innocuous at first glance. However, it turned out to be absolutely packed with interesting information, so much so that my explanatory end-notes are longer than the actual letter itself.

Ethel wrote this letter to my grandmother in August 1928 when she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden Castle, the remains of a 14th century castle near the village of Dollar in Clackmannanshire, Scotland. By the time Ethel and Lady Burghclere were visitors there, the castle had become the site of a mansion house built by wealthy land-owner John Christie.

John Christie’s grave in Muckhart churchyard (CC)

I was interested to discover that John Christie’s daughter Ella Christie, who had inherited the property on her father’s death and was managing the estate at the time of Ethel’s visit, was quite a character. She was an explorer and travel writer, as well as the first Western woman to have met the Dalai Lama. Sadly there is no mention of her in the letter as I can’t help feeling that she and Ethel would have had a lot in common.

Ella Christie was also responsible for supervising the construction at Cowden Castle of what has been described as “the best Japanese garden in the Western world”. Although the mansion house was demolished in 1952, the Japanese garden (laid out between 1907 and 1930) was preserved and eventually re-opened to the public in 2016. If you would like to find out more about it, there is some very useful information about the garden and also about Ella Christie at


Japanese garden at Cowden Castle (Copyright: Sara Stewart)

According to Ethel’s letter, the reason why she and Lady Burghclere were staying at Cowden was because they were on “the usual round of Scotch visits” and were due to have gone to stay with Lord Haldane at his home in the Scottish town of Auchterarder next. However, they had been “put off” because he was seriously ill and in fact his Lordship died just a few days after Ethel’s letter was written.

I must confess to never having heard of Lord Haldane but when I did some research on him, it turns out that he was quite a player. (It never fails to amaze me how Ethel seems able to interact with the leading figures of the day just as if she was interacting with her father’s customers in his butcher’s shop!)

Lord Haldane (CC)

Lord Haldane was a politician, a lawyer, an educationalist and a philosopher. He had been Lord Chancellor from 1885-1910, Secretary of State for war (during which time he implemented some very important military reforms including the establishment of the British Expeditionary Force), one of the founders of the London School of Economics, and Chancellor of the University of St Andrews. In his obituary, The Times described him as “one of the most powerful, subtle and encyclopaedic intellects ever devoted to the public service of his country.”

During my research, I came across this cartoon from a 1909 edition of Punch. It depicts Lord Haldane at a meeting of Prime Minister Herbert Asquith’s cabinet discussing what became known as the People’s Budget. Lord Haldane is on the back row (far left) and next to him is Winston Churchill who is being hugged by David Lloyd George. It’s incredible to think that a close friend of my grandmother’s moved in such circles.

Meeting of Asquith’s Cabinet (CC)

The third paragraph of Ethel’s letter bemoans the fact that she and Lady Burghclere were not going to be able to stay at the Lake House that year. Milford Lake House, as it was then known, was situated in the grounds of Highclere Castle (the main location for the filming of the popular television series Downton Abbey) and later became the residence of the 7th Earl of Carnarvon. Ethel was clearly not impressed by this change of location.

We have not been given the Lake House this year, so the Dowager Lady Carnarvon has lent us Teversal Manor near Mansfield instead. It will seem very ugly country after the Lake.

The village of Teversal is about five miles from the town of Mansfield in Nottinghamshire, a county in central England. Teversal Manor had been inherited by Lady Burghclere’s step-mother Elsie after the death of her husband (the 4th Earl of Carnarvon) and is widely believed to have been the inspiration for the fictional Wragby Hall in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the notorious novel by DH Lawrence.

Teversal Manor Garden (Alan Heardman CC)

The property remained in the Carnarvon family until Elsie’s death, a few months after Ethel’s letter was written, after which it was sold to a local mining company. It seems likely then that Ethel and Lady Burghclere were among the last visitors to Teversal Manor while it still belonged to the Carnarvon family and judging by the size of it (the property was put on the market for £1million in 2013) they must have been rattling around like two peas in a pod.

This letter is also the one which contains what is possibly my favourite “Ethel-ism” from the whole collection and I can still remember how surprised and amused I was when I discovered who Ethel was talking about here.

Miss Evelyn got married against Lady B’s wishes last month. As far as we can judge, a very unsatisfactory young man whose only living is an occasional book.

Miss Evelyn is, of course, Lady Burghclere’s youngest daughter but the “very unsatisfactory young man” that Ethel refers to was in fact Evelyn Waugh, now considered to be one of the most influential and widely read English novelists of the 20th century. Hindsight is indeed a wonderful thing.


Blue Plaque erected at Golders Green in 1993 (CC)

Finally, this letter also mentions Lady Burghclere’s daughter Mary and the fact that she has now divorced her husband but is about to marry again.

Mrs Hope-Morley divorced Mr H-M in June. She left him on a deed of separation 18 months ago and at the beginning of this year, went off to South America and is still there with a young man until the decree nisi is made absolute and she can marry him. So altogether we have had a nasty time since our return from abroad.

This “young man” was Captain Alan Hugh Hillgarth and Mary did indeed marry him (in 1929) although they divorced some years later. It transpires that Captain Hillgarth wasn’t just your average suitor. He was a British diplomat, novelist, and spy who had left active service in 1922 and was now pursuing a career as a writer of adventure novels. He had also embarked on a series of real-life adventures including becoming military advisor to the Spanish Foreign Legion, sailing to Florida, searching for gold in the Andes and writing a musical comedy. As I have said in my end-notes, you can probably see the attraction!

alan hillgarth book cover

Cover of Alan Hillgarth biography by Duff Hart-Davis

So, a very innocuous looking letter but one which turned out to be full of fascinating information and some great examples of Ethel not being afraid to express her opinions, especially where protecting Lady Burghclere was concerned.

There is also the first hint in this letter that the relationship between mistress and servant may be about to take a new direction.

I spent part of my holiday at Bognor with the rest of the family during those lovely, hot weeks at the beginning of July. I still have another week to take but don’t know about that yet. Holidays cut up in this fashion are not as satisfactory as a clear month but it now seems the only thing to do. I don’t like leaving her [Lady Burghclere] all alone for such a long time.

But more of that in future blog posts. Meanwhile, that drawing board is calling so I need to get back to it, while also trying to type up and research the rest of the letters.

Have a really good 2018, what is still left of it.











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