On Thursday of last week I attended a local author event being held within the grounds of Bowood House. This is walking distance from my home so, under glorious skies, I was able to combine two of my favourite activities.
Rachel Trethewey, author of Pearls before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, was to give a talk on her book. She greeted all attendees personally so I was able to tell her that I enjoyed reading details of a history I had not previously heard of.
Tea and pastries were served as attendees arrived and mingled. The current Lady Lansdowne, whose family by marriage feature in the book, introduced herself and gave permission for us to tour her private walled garden prior to lunch in the house. This delighted me as the garden is opened to the public on only a handful of occasions each year.
I chatted to several ladies who commented on how moved they had been by the personal stories told in Rachel’s book. Whereas I had baulked at the conspicuous wealth and privilege, at the decadent lifestyle that was soon to undergo change, they had found affecting the impact of the many deaths detailed.
Rachel’s talk was scripted, with accompanying slides. She told us that the four years of research required involved visits to: the Red Cross archives, Christies auction house archives, and appointments with descendants of the patrician families. The idea for the Red Cross Pearl Necklace Appeal came from Lady Northcliffe, wife of the owner of the Times and Daily Mail. These papers listed the names of women who donated pearls. Christies provided lists of the buyers of the completed necklaces.
Sections of the talk were taken from the book, including those pertaining to Violet Astor.
Lady Violet Elliot-Murray-Kynynmound, daughter of the 4th Earl of Minto, married Lord Charles Mercer Nairne, younger son of the 5th Marquis of Lansdowne, in 1909. They subsequently had two children. Before the war Charles was equerry to the king. Charles was killed in action at Ypres in 1914. Violet was encouraged to remarry, to bear more children. She continued to mourn her lost love.
Rachel’s research involved reading large numbers of letters, diaries and memoirs. She commented on the women’s resilience and how they dealt with grief in different ways. She also read contemporary newspapers and society magazines.
The Duchess of Westminster set up an unconventional hospital in France where elegant ladies dressed in their finery greeted the mud and blood splattered wounded. As much as being an act of compassion, this was an adventure for hedonistic socialites.
Back home, country houses opened their doors to care for soldiers convalescing. Bowood’s orangery served as a hospital later in the war years.
It was Lord Lansdowne who piloted the bill through parliament that attempted to get the law changed to allow the pearl necklaces to be distributed via lottery. Lady Northcliffe believed this would vastly increase funds raised. There was disquiet among some at the time that status symbols may then be owned by the working class.
The great sadness uncovered during research was tempered by pleasurable aspects. Rachel mentioned a lovely visit to Dorset, to the beautiful home of Lord Julian Fellowes and Lady Emma Kitchener Fellowes. Emma is the great great neice of the first Earl Kitchener who featured on the famous wartime posters – he was killed when his boat sank off the coast of Orkney. (Julian is best known as the writer of Downton Abbey.)
Pearls Before Poppies was launched earlier this year at Christies Sale Room where the necklaces had been auctioned. Many of the descendants of those written about attended. On the night the Red Cross announced a new Pearls for Life appeal. Jewels were received from celebrities, the famous and the wealthy. They were auctioned at the Savoy in July raising around £275,000 for crisis support at home and abroad.
Questions were invited from the audience. Rachel was asked what happened to the necklaces. Although Christies know who purchased them – mainly jewellery houses – they have since disappeared. Fashions change and it is possible the pearls were restrung and no longer exist in a form that could be recognised. Each was sold in a distinctive box and Rachel has tried to uncover any trace of these – asking, for example, organisers of antique roadshows to look out for them. So far nothing has been found. Pictures of the necklaces exist in the original sale catalogue, copies of which are held in various museums.
There was a question about what happened to the money raised. As it was not ring fenced it would have been used where needed.
Corsham Bookshop provided copies of Rachel’s book for attendees to purchase which she was happy to sign.
We were then lead through the beautiful walled garden, shown the site of the now demolished big house, and taken into what is known as the little house.
While the rest of the party went into lunch, I visited an exhibition currently running in the orangery. This includes letters, photographs and details of the history of the Lansdownes, in particular during the war years. It was poignant to read about and to see the pictures of the lost young men.
The many aspects of this unusual author event were both enjoyable and of interest. I am grateful to Charlotte Doherty for my invitation to attend.
Pearls before Poppies (reviewed here) is published by The History Press.