Friday, 24 July 2015

High Society

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you may be expecting this post to be about cricket, since you would be aware that the annual match between Matfield Cricket Club and Sherston's XI took place last weekend.  Much as I enjoy watching cricket, something even more interesting happened to me on my way down to Kent.  

Polesden Lacey, near Dorking, although it belongs to the National Trust, is not a particularly old house by British standards.  It was built in the early years of the twentieth century, on the site of an older house, and soon afterwards sold to a society couple, the Grevilles, who moved in the very best circles.  Following her husband’s untimely death (though of course after a seemly period of mourning), Mrs Greville continued to entertain on a lavish scale.  Her visitors included King Edward VII and later his grandson, the Duke of York (who would become King George VI); the latter spent part of his honeymoon at Polesden Lacey.

As I looked around the photographs of Mrs Greville with some of her eminent friends, my eye was caught by a guest list that included the name “Arthur Sassoon”.  This is not really surprising; Arthur, a paternal uncle of Siegfried’s, was a wealthy banker who became a close associate of Edward VII.  He and his equally notable wife Louise lived in Brighton, where the King would sometimes stay while visiting his mistress, Mrs Keppel.  When Arthur died childless in 1912, he left over half a million pounds to the children of his brother Reuben. (Siegfried, son of his disgraced brother Alfred, got nothing.)

You may be thinking that this is not a very exciting discovery; what interested me was that the National Trust guide told me that Siegfried himself also visited Polesden Lacey.  Unfortunately the visitors’ books are not on open access, though I believe they are available to bona fide researchers, so I could not confirm what year his visit took place, or whether he was there more than once.  The connection appears to be through Osbert Sitwell, a regular visitor who was a close friend of Mrs Greville’s.  He was also, of course, a friend of Siegfried’s, though they fell out regularly.

What this discovery did was simply to confirm my impression that Siegfried got everywhere.  He probably never regarded himself as a member of “Society” – or if he did, with his personal preference for solitude and privacy, he would not have regarded it as being of prime importance. I can just picture him, in the “Gold Room” where Mrs Greville did most of her entertaining, surrounded by braying upper-class voices and perhaps feeling rather out of it at times.  Yet he would have enjoyed the feeling of acceptance that he got from such occasions.  No doubt he was introduced to the assembled company as "the famous war poet" or perhaps, if it was after 1928, as the author of Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man.

Another member of the RWF who was familiar with Polesden Lacey was a chaplain, Maurice Berkeley Peel (a grandson of Sir Robert Peel).  Maurice was almost in his fifties when he volunteered at the outbreak of war.  After a period spent recuperating at Polesden (then in use as a convalescent home) from a wound received at Festubert, Peel returned to civilian life as vicar of Tamworth from 1915 to 1917, with a Military Cross to his name for accompanying his men over the top and working to help the wounded.  He could not rest on his laurels and went out again to France with the RWF, where he was again decorated, the citation reading: "He went out to the advanced patrols with two stretcher-bearers and succeeded in bringing in several wounded men.  Later he worked for 36 hours in front of the captured position and rescued many wounded under very heavy fire."  Finally, in May 1917, Peel was shot dead while again working with the wounded in No Man’s Land.

So many great houses were used during the war as hospitals or homes for the wounded or needy.  The pattern would be repeated in the Second World War, when Siegfried's own home at Heytesbury House would open its doors, first to evacuees and later to American troops.  

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