Gig Review: Rachel Trethewey at Bowood

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.

Walking through the grounds of Bowood to the venue

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.

Violet and Charles

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.

Bowood Hospital – 1918

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.


Book Review: Pearls Before Poppies

Pearls Before Poppies: The Story of the Red Cross Pearls, by Rachel Trethewey, delves into the stories of the wealthy women who orchestrated a First World War fundraiser that, thanks to supportive reporting in national newspapers, captured the wider public imagination. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was instigated by Lady Northcliffe, wife of an influential press baron who owned the widely read Times and Daily Mail. She asked that her fellow society ladies give one pearl from their jewellery collections to enable a necklace to be created that would be auctioned, with proceeds going to The Red Cross to help fund support for soldiers. Pearls were in vogue and many of these patrician women possessed numerous strands, inherited or gifted to them as status symbols from husbands or lovers. It was pointed out to them that one pearl would not be missed, and the gift would be regarded as an act of generosity. How one was seen by one’s peers mattered.

Many women subsequently contributed, often citing their reasons in notes accompanying the donation – a lost child or partner in whose memory the pearl was sent. These included pearls from women of less affluent social backgrounds, some of whom clubbed together to purchase a jewel they could not individually afford to give.

The aristocracy expected their children to marry their social equals or those regarded as superior, which led to a great deal of overlap between particular families. Within the various chapters of this book the reader learns of the women’s personal losses as a result of the conflict as well as the voluntary roles they played at home and abroad. Their menfolk, many having been brought up at the likes of Eton, had had instilled in them the sacredness of patriotism alongside the glory of battle and sacrifice. Prior to the war these young people had been indolent, decadent, searching for anything that would give their life meaning. The women were decorative and their families expected them to behave with superficial decorum. Prior to marriage they were strictly chaperoned while their parents philandered.

The war offered opportunities for freedom and adventure to both sexes. Unlike most factual histories of the time, these accounts focus on the women. The Pearl Necklace Campaign was seen as a fashionable cause and enjoyed royal patronage. Wives and their husband’s mistresses worked together. The tenets of the Christian faith were cited as a comfort in times of bereavement. Infidelities were, it appears, regarded as acceptable.

Many of the women lost brothers, husbands and sons. Concern was voiced that the best of a generation – the heirs to the landed gentry’s estates – were being sacrificed. Eugenics casts a shadow over several of the comments made. The children had been raised by nannies, governesses and schools. Parents did not just lose favourites but also the perpetuation of the family name. Young widows were encouraged to remarry and produce more babies – ‘splendid boys’ to replace lost scions.

Given what we now know about the degrees of difficulty experienced during war between the upper and lower echelons of society, and indeed the role played by powerful men in sending troops to their deaths, it is hard to feel as much sympathy for these privileged ladies as for their working class counterparts. Nevertheless, where all strata of society are levelled is in the emotional impact of bereavement. The loss of a husband may not have led to destitution but it was still challenging to bear with the stoicism expected.

The energy and sense of purpose demonstrated in the fundraiser was also evident in other wartime roles the women played. So many offered to open their opulent homes as hospitals, to be seen to be helping the war effort, that not all could be accepted. Many constrained young society women relished the opportunity to serve as nurses.

“There was some scepticism about whether untrained aristocrats were the right people to run hospitals.”

The Pearl Necklace Campaign was just one of many fundraisers. Other items of value were collected for sale in bazaars across the country or at auction. With the war machine generating wealth for a few and the inevitable currency fluctuations in times of conflict, luxury items such as pearls became an investment. Family assets were to be protected.

Lady Northcliffe believed most money could be raised from the pearl necklaces created if they were raffled. By offering the possibility of attaining such a prize to even the lower orders of women for a relatively small outlay, it was anticipated that vast sums could be collected. This idea caused some consternation amongst her peers. Concern was voiced that such status symbols – pearls symbolised the wealth of the wearer – should not be owned by poor people. A lottery was regarded as gambling and condemned.

Attitudes to the poor were an interesting aspect to read. With able bodied men off fighting the women were doing their work. Although paid less this granted them previously unattainable freedom.

“there was a widespread fear that working-class women were using their […] allowances to buy alcohol and get drunk in public.”

Presumably the champagne parties society women attended were regarded as acceptable to the aristocracy. Any attempts at temperance merely sent consumption underground. Parliament retained its bars.

The auction of the pearl necklaces raised funds as intended. A century later what has become of them is not known. Although the inspiration for this book, the pearls are just one detail in what is an eclectic history of privileged women on the cusp of societal change. Despite the sometimes obsequious manner in which their stories are shared there is much of interest.

The various anecdotes jump around a great deal in time but conclude with a few details on the introduction of cultured pearls into society after the war years. This offers a chance to ponder the intrinsic worth of any material item. However valuable a treasure may be considered by self-regarding elites, worth is either sentimental or what a buyer is willing to pay. The author writes of what the pearl came to symbolise over centuries. The value to the soldiers that this fundraiser aimed to help was measured in the eventual Red Cross donation.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, The History Press.


Rachel Trethewey will be giving a talk on the 1918 Red Cross Pearls appeal at Bowood House on Thursday 27th September – the Lansdownes of Bowood are one of the aristocratic families featured in her book. For details of this event and to purchase tickets, click here.