In the Garden with Empress Josephine

In a prior post in our gardening series we met nurseryman Mr. John Lee, who took up operation of the Hammersmith nursery garden upon his fathr’s death. Mr. Lee followed in father’s foot steps as far as the accumulation of new and rare plants was concerned, as well. He and the Empress Josephine of France, pictured above, in partnership, sent Francis Masson to the Cape of Good Hope in order to gather botanical samples in the hopes of introducing the beautiful flowers of that region to European gardens. In this connection it may be of interest to note that a large portion of Masson’s Herbarium is preserved in the collections of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia.

Additionally, the Empress became patroness to James Niven, who worked in the Botanic Garden at Penicuick in Scotland and travelled to the Cape of Good Hope in 1798 to collect seeds, where he stayed until 1803. During his second visit between 1805 – 1812, he collected seeds for Empress Josephine, and embarked on a journey through the districts of Malmesbury, Piquetberg and Kamiesberg where he collected rare species of Protea. He returned home with a considerable herbarium, including a set of Erica specimens which found its home in the Botancial Garden in Edinburgh.

Joséphine de Beauharnais (23 June 1763 – 29 May 1814) was the first wife of Napoléon Bonaparte, and thus the first Empress of the French. Her first husband Alexandre de Beauharnais had been guillotined during the Reign of Terror, and she had been imprisoned in the Carmes prison until her release five days after Alexandre’s execution.

Josephine was born at the family’s sugar plantation on the French Caribbean island of Martinique and it’s slow pace of life she dubbed “nonchalance.” It was there, in a lush tropical atmosphere, that Josephine developed her passion for flowers and gardening. Later she would introduce flower gardening to France, particularly at Malmaison. So avid a cultivator and gardener was the Empress that we still have plants that are named in her honor.

Chateau Malmaison

When Josephine first purchased the property in April of 1799, Malmaison was a run-down estate, eight miles west of central Paris that encompassed nearly 150 acres of woods and meadows. Napoleon was incredulous when Josephine first bought Malmaison at an inflated price and then proceeded to fund it’s renovations. After her divorce from Napoléon, Joséphine received Malmaison in her own right, along with a pension of 5 million francs a year, and remained there until  her death in 1814. The gardens housed West Indian plants and is known as the birthplace of the tea rose. In fact, they housed over 250 varieties of roses from across the world, 170 of which were famously painted by Pierre-Joseph Redoute – prints of which remain favorites today, such as the one at right.

The aim of the Empress Joséphine was to transform her large estate into “the most beautiful and curious garden in Europe, a model of good cultivation”. And a model of modern gardening Malmaison became. Amongst other innovations, Josephine had installed a heated orangery large enough for 300 pineapple plants,  a greenhouse, heated by a dozen coal-burning stoves. Architects Charles Percier and Pierre-François-Léonard Fontaine initially enclosed the park and built stables and hot houses. The garden was subsequently remodelled by landscape architect Louis Martin Berthault.

Most importantly in gardening history, the Empress introduced nearly 200 new species of plants to France, including dahlias from Mexico, and encouraged her gardeners to create new species of roses. Her principal source for roses was the Lee & Kennedy Vineyard Nursery in London, of which the Mr. Lee mentioned above was co-owner. Josephine wanted every rose known in the world, and in 1804, by way of Lewis Kennedy, she was in proud possession of the new Chinese roses: Slater’s Crimson China, Parson’s Pink and Hume’s Blush Tea Scented China. These everblooming roses were recent imports to England from China, and it was a coup for the Empress (and for France) to have them growing at Malmaison. They became known as stud roses, potent parents of the modern everblooming rose cultivars.

The most famous rose, and a perennial favorite, to be named for Josephine is the Souvenir de la Malmaison, a Bourbon, shown at rght. 

According to Clair G. Martin III, the Ruth B. and E. L. Shannon Curator of the Rose Garden at the Huntingdon Library, “At the height of the war in the early 1800s, Napoléon was sending money to England to pay his wife’s plant bills, and the British Admiralty was allowing ships to pass through its naval blockades to deliver new types of roses to Malmaison.” Joséphine’s influence was felt across the channel, as well, as many British aristocrats joined the frenzied competition for the newest blooms.”

Josephine commissioned a book about the garden and its plants that was completed t
hree years after her death and published under the title “Jardin de Malmaison-Description des Plantes Rares Cultivees a Malmaison et a Navarre” with text by renowned French botanist Etienne-Pierre Vententat. The book contained 175 watercolors by Redoute and originally appeared in installments.

When I was in Paris recently, I thought to visit Malmaison and the gardens there until I learned that, sadly, the garden today is limited to a very small area with nothing to speak of remaining of Empress Josephine’s efforts or botanical collections.

To learn more about the history of the gardens at Malmaison, read Jardin De La Malmaison: Empress Josephine’s Garden with an essay by Marina Heilmeyer by H. Walter Lack.

Mr. Lee of Hammersmith

England has always been a land of gardens and gardeners and so we thought it appropriate to begin a few posts which deal with the subject. Of course, if you’re going to garden you are going to need plants. One of the most respected and most successful nursery gardens was that of Messrs. Lee, of Hammersmith, one of the oldest in the neighbourhood of London, which survived until the early part of the 20th century.

Mr. James Lee, who established the nursery, was born at Selkirk in 1715. When he first came to London he was employed at Syon, and afterwards at Whitton (pictured above), by the Duke of Argyll. About the year 1760 he entered into partnership with Mr. Lewis Kennedy, gardener to Lord Bolton, at Chiswick, and commenced a nursery, in what was called The Vineyard, at Hammersmith. About the middle of the 18th century, the vineyard was producing a considerable quantity of Burgundy wine each year. A thatched house was built in the grounds; with wine cellars beneath. Mr. James Lee and his partner took it and established a most successful Horticultural Nursery, remarkable for obtaining from distant countries everything rare and  beautiful to be obtained. They maintained collector at the Cape of Good Hope, and another in America and enjoyed world-wide celebrity. Every known, rare, or new plant could be obtained there. They once received a letter addressed, “Lees Nursery, England” which reached them readily. They were the first to obtain a China rose (right) in 1787. These roses changed the cultivation of roses in many ways, including the fact that they broadened the scents of roses, new blends becoming apparent as they were hybridized with other roses, such as damasks.

James Lee had an encyclopedic knowledge of plants and the greenhouses were quite extensive and almost as old as the nursery itself, offering a good stock of many species with a very full collection of Fuchsias, the best being F. ignea, a variety raised by Messrs. Veitch of Exeter. The flowers are very large, with the colours (crimson sepals and purple corolla) bright and strong, and the sepals reflexed. Other good varieties on offer were striata (Veitch); Don Giovanni, with a fine open corolla; Grand Master, similarly fine; and Prince of Orange, with pale and large flowers, shown at left.

In fact, so well known were Mr. Lee’s Fuchsia’s that there is a legend surrounding his acquisition of a certain variety. This tale has been told and appears in print numerous times, most floridly perhaps in the Ladies Repository of 1871. Here is the version that appeared in Sharpe’s London Magazine in 1846, entitled The Fuchsia Tree:

MR. SHEPHERD, the respectable and well-informed conservator of the Botanical Gardens at Liverpool, gives the following curious account of the introduction of that elegant little flowering shrub, the Fuchsia, into our English green-houses and parlour windows. Old Mr. Lee, a nurseryman and gardener, near London, well known fifty or sixty years ago, was one day showing his variegated treasures to a friend, who suddenly turned to him, and declared, “Well, you have not in your collection a prettier flower than I saw this morning at Wapping.”—”No! and ‘pray what was this phoenix like?”—”Why, the plant was elegant, and the flower hung in rows like tassels from the pendant branches; their colour the richest crimson; in the centre a fold of deep purple,” and so forth.

Particular directions being demanded and given, Mr. Lee posted off to Wapping, where he at once perceived that the plant was new in this part of the world. He saw and admired. Entering the house, he said, “My good woman, this is a nice plant, I should like to buy it.”—”I could not sell it for no money, for it was brought me from the West Indies by my husband, who has now left again, and I must keep it for his sake.”—”But I must have it.”—”No, Sir!”—” Here,” emptying his pocket, “here are gold, silver, copper;” (his stock was something more than eight guineas.)—”Well-a-day I but this is a power of money, sure and sure.”—”Tis yours, and the plant is mine; and, my good dame, you shall have one of the first young ones I rear, to keep for your husband’s sake.” —”Alack, alack!”—”You shall, I say, by Jove!” A coach was called, in which was safely deposited our florist and his seemingly dear purchase. His first work was to pull off and utterly destroy every vestige of blossom and blossom-bud; it was divided into cuttings, which were forced in bark-beds, and hot-beds; were re-divided, and sub-divided. Every effort was used to multiply the plant. By the commencement of the next flowering season, Mr. Lee was the delighted possessor of 300 Fuchsia plants, all giving promise of blossom. The two which opened first, were removed into his show-house, A lady came;—” Why, Mr. Lee, my dear Mr. Lee, where did you get this charming flower?”—” Hem! ’tis a new thing, my lady—pretty, is it not?”—” Pretty! ’tis lovely. Its price?— ” A guinea—thank your ladyship;” and one of the two plants stood proudly in her ladyship’s boudoir. “My dear Charlotte, where did you get it?” —” Oh! ’tis a new thing; I saw it at old Lee’s; pretty, is it not I”—” Pretty! ’tis beautiful! Its price?” —” A guinea; there was another left” The visitor’s horses smoked off to the suburb; a third flowering plant stood on the spot whence the first had been taken. The second guinea was paid, and the second chosen Fuchsia adorned the drawing-room of her second ladyship. The scene was repeated as new comers saw, and were attracted by the beauty of the plant. New chariots flew to the gates of old Lee’s nursery-ground. Two Fuchsias, young, graceful, and bursting into healthy flower, were constantly seen on the same spot in his repository.

He neglected not to gladden the faithful sailor’s wife by the promised gill; but ere the flower-season closed, 300 golden guineas chinked in his purse, the produce of the single shrub of the widow of Wapping; the reward of the taste, decision, skill, and perseverance of old Mr. Lee.

Along with Carl Von Linne, Mr. Lee wrote An Introduction to Botany, published in 1760, which went through five editions, and for many years was in the highest repute. James Lee died in the year 1795, at the age of eighty years, his partner,
Mr. Kennedy, having died previously.

The nursery was carried on by the sons of the two founders till 1817, when they dissolved partnership. It then became the sole property of James Lee, the second, who died in 1824, leaving it to his family. In 1827 John Lee was joined in the conduct of this important business by his brother Charles, who was born at the Royal Vineyard Nursery on February 8, 1808, and died on September 2, 1881. The firm was conducted under the title of John &; Charles Lee till 1877, when Mr. John Lee retired, and William Lee, the Son of Charles, joined his father in the management of the business. In 1881, however, upon the death of Charles Lee, the veteran John again, for a time, accepted harness, coming to the assistance of his nephew, who was very deeply affected by the loss of his father. The firm limped along until the early part of the 20th century and is, alas, no more.

Empress Josephine’s Connection to Mr. John Lee coming soon!

The Sweet Things in Life

Oh, ice cream . . . one of the sweetest things in life. Now that the summer weather approaches, I thought it might be time for a blog on the history of the icy treat.

The first recorded serving of ice cream in England was in 1672,  when King Charles II’s table at a banquet was served ‘one plate of white strawberries and one plate of iced cream.’ The first English cookery book to give a recipe for ice cream was Mrs. Mary Eales’ Receipts of 1718. Ice being rare, ice cream was a luxury reserved for the wealthy and had to be made and served immediately, there being no way to store it for any length of time.

The production of ice cream depended upon ice, which could be gathered from ponds and lakes in winter, while the use of ice houses goes back several centuries. By packing ice into an insulated underground chamber ice could be stored for months, sometimes years.  In the early 19th century importation of ice started from Norway, Canada and America, this made ice cream readily available to the general public in the UK. Ice was shipped into London and other major ports and taken in canal barges down the canals, to be stored in ice houses, from where it was sold to ice cream makers. This burgeoning ice cream industry, run mainly by Italians, started the influx of workers from southern Italy and the Ticino area of Switzerland to England. In London, the huge ice house pits built near Kings Cross by Carlo Gatti in the 1850s, where he stored the ice he shipped to England from Norway, are still there and have recently been opened to the public at The London Canal Museum.

Although they had been available in England since the 1670’s, ices were popularised by French and Italian confectioners who set up shops in London and elsewhere in the 1760’s, when horticultural and pastural themes became popular as decoration for entertainments.  Tables were laid in imitation of formal gardens or parks, complete with flower-beds of coloured sugar, gravel walks made from aniseeds, trees of candy and sugar paste figures. In 1765, the Duke of Gordon purchased a complete garden dessert from the Berkeley Square confectioner Domenico Negri for £25-7s-9d and served his guests at a table decorated with a brass-framed plateau adorned with Bow figures, china swans, glass fountains, parterres, a china umbrella and a kaleidoscopic display of sugar plums and bonbons. A surviving trade card advertising Negri’s shop is illustrated with fantasy temples, pagodas and fountains. Many decades later, these nature themes remained popular, with Lady Blessington having a live song bird presented at table in a spun sugar cage.

Domenico Negri had a shop at the The Pot and Pineapple at Nos. 7-8 Berkeley Square from about 1765. Two of his apprentices published recipe books later in the century, which both have large sections on ice creams. One of these, Frederick Nutt, whose The Complete Confectioner first appeared in 1789, gives thirty two recipes for ice cream and twenty four for water ices.


Twenty years later, Negri took Gunter on as a partner and by 1798 Gunter alone was running the shop, which stood on the east side of the Square. By that time, it had become a fashionable Mayfair rendezvous, with all the ton stopping to eat ices and sorbets. Ladies remained in their carriages, whilst their gentlemen leaned against the nearby railings, the shop’s waiters running back and forth across the street taking and delivering orders. Though it was not proper for a lady to be seen alone at many establishments, it was perfectly acceptable for her to be seen at Gunter’s. In addition to the ices, Gunter’s was known for their heavily decorated, multi-tiered wedding cakes.

In Grantley Fitzhardinghe Berkeley’s memoirs, titled My Life and Recollections (1865), Berkeley offers the following anecdote:

On these hunting days some very amusing things happened with my hunt which I have since seen attributed to various other persons. The Gunters, the renowned pastrycooks of Berkeley Square, were all fond of hunting, were frequently out with my hounds, and subscribed to the hunt.

“Mr. Gunter,” remarked Alvanley, “that’s a fine horse you are on.”

” Yes, he is, my lord,” replied Gunter, ” but he is so hot I can’t hold him.”

” Why the devil don’t you ice him, then?” rejoined his lordship.

Gunter looked as if he did not like the suggestion.

Originally, ice cream was sold on the street in glasses that were wiped clean and re-used. These glass “licks” remained in use in London until they were made illegal in 1926 for health reasons. However, the forerunners of the ice cream cone as we know it also existed. G. A. Jarrin, an Italian confectioner working in London in the nineteenth century, wrote about almond wafers that should be rolled “on pieces of wood like hollow pillars, or give them any other form you may prefer. These wafers may be made of pistachios, covered with currants and powdered with coarse sifted sugar; they are used to garnish creams; when in season, a strawberry may be put into each end, but it must be a fine” . . . He suggested turning another of his wafers into “little horns; they are excellent to ornament a cream.” Ice cream cones were also mentioned by Mrs Agnes Marshall in her book Fancy Ices of 1894.

The first ice cream bicycles in London were used by Walls in London in about 1923. Cecil Rodd of Walls came up with the slogan “Stop Me and Buy One” after his experiments with doorstep selling in London. In 1924 they expanded the business, setting up new manufacturing facilities and ordering 50 new tricycles. Sales in 1924 were £13,719, in 1927 £444,000. During the war years (1939-45) manufacture of ice cream was severely curtailed, and the tricycles requisitioned for use at military installations but in October 1947 Walls sold 3,300 tricycles and invested in freezers for it’s shops. Walls remains the market leader in the UK for individual hand-held products such as Cornetto and Magnum.

Needless to say, the craze for ice cream continues today and I’m sure that Regency folk would be amazed to find that ice cream is nowadays affordable, can be kept at home and is offered in flavors with names such as Chunky Monkey and Rum Raisin – the sweet things in life, indeed.

Give `Em The Wellie – An Introduction to Bootmaker George Hoby

George Hoby was not only the greatest and most fashionable bootmaker in London, but, in spite of the old adage, “ne sutor ultra crepidam,” he employed his spare time with considerable success as a Methodist preacher at Islington. He was said to have in his employment three hundred workmen; and he was so great a man in his own estimation that he was apt to take rather an insolent tone with his customers. He was, however, tolerated as a sort of privileged person, and his impertinence was not only overlooked, but was considered as rather a good joke. He was a pompous fellow, with a considerable vein of sarcastic humour, as evidenced in the following anecdotes handed down to us by Captain Gronow –

I remember Horace Churchill, (afterwards killed in India with the rank of major-general,) who was then an ensign in the Guards, entering Hoby’s shop in a great passion, saying that his boots were so ill made that he should never employ Hoby for the future. Hoby, putting on a pathetic cast of countenance, called to his shopman, “John, close the shutters. It is all over with us. I must shut up shop; Ensign Churchill withdraws his custom from me.” Churchill’s fury can be better imagined than described. On another occasion the late Sir John Shelley came into Hoby’s shop to complain that his topboots had split in several places. Hoby quietly said, “How did that happen, Sir John?” “Why, in walking to my stable.” “Walking to your stable!” said Hoby, with a sneer. ” I made the boots for riding, not walking.”

Hoby was bootmaker to George III, the Prince of Wales, the royal dukes, Beau Brummell, most of the aristocracy and many officers in the army and navy. His shop was situated at the top of St James’s Street, at the corner of Piccadilly, next to the old Guards Club. Hoby was the first man who drove about London in a tilbury. It was painted black, and drawn by a beautiful black cob. This vehicle was built by the inventor, Mr Tilbury, whose manufactory was in a street leading from South Audley Street into Park Street.

No doubt Mr. Hoby had patterns for all manner of desirable boots, evidenced not in the least by his impressive client list. However, he will forever be linked to a boot design not of his making. Of course I refer to the Wellington boot, a pair of the Duke’s own boots of this design are pictured at left. Hoby had been bootmaker to the Duke of Wellington from his boyhood, and received innumerable orders in the Duke’s handwriting, both from the Peninsula and France, which he always religiously preserved. The Duke asked Hoby to modify the 18th-century Hessian boot to a height below the knee, in order to make them more practical for walking and riding. The resulting  boot was made of softer calfskin leather, had no trim, boasted heels one inch high and fit more closely around the leg, making it more practical and hard-wearing for battle, yet comfortable for the evening. The boot was dubbed the Wellington and was quickly adopted by Hoby’s other customers.

Hoby was also bootmaker to the Duke of Kent; and as he was calling on H.R.H. to try on some boots, the news arrived that Lord Wellington had gained a great victory over the French army at Vittoria. The duke was kind enough to mention the glorious news to Hoby, who coolly said, “If Lord Wellington had had any other bootmaker than myself, he never would have had his great and constant successes; for my boots and prayers bring his lordship out of all his difficulties.”

Hoby may have had a penchant for sarcasm and a high opinion of himself (and his own influence upon British military history) but he knew how to run a business – Hoby died worth a hundred and twenty thousand pounds.


Originally published in 2011

As some of you may already know, I am a great reader of British diaries, letters and journals. There are many such volumes on the shelves of my personal library. From Pepys to Queen Victoria, I adore the immediacy of these personal writings, the way they drop you right into the lives of their authors and introduce you in a very intimate manner to people, places and times otherwise vanished. Recently, I came across the diaries of James Lees-Milne, which had somehow managed to escape my notice over the past few decades. JML was in at the very beginnings of the National Trust and the Georgian Society, amongst other things, and was advisor to the National Trust on which properties should be purchased and preserved by that body. In this capacity, JML travelled around the UK, poking his nose into a variety of stately homes and writing down for posterity his views on their architectural merits, their contents and their owners, often with wit and sometimes with chagrin, but always in a way that can’t help but to amuse the reader. In addition, JML lived in London and spent much of the 1930’s and 1940’s mixing with the Bright Young Things, various celebrities and writers and members of the Royal Family. No doubt you’ll appreciate that all of this makes for great fodder in the diary of someone who had a keen observational eye and a talent for first person prose. To read more about the accomplishments of James Lees-Milne, you will find the 1997 obituary that ran in The Independent here. 

You’ll understand when I tell you that I was prepared to like these Diaries before I’d read Page 1, but I wasn’t prepared to find that so many of the entries would resonate with me on a personal level.

Tuesday, 17th February, 1942

Dined with Harold Nicolson and Jamesey at Rules. We talked about Byron’s sex life . . . .

Do you mean to say that other people sit around various London venues discussing the sex lives of dead people? Granted, in my circle we tend to focus on Brummell’s sex life, but close enough, what? And then there’s this entry –

Wednesday, 13th October, 1948

This evening I dined with the John Wyndhams. . . .  After dinner, when the women left, talk was about how little we know of the everyday life of our ancestors in spite of George Trevalyan’s history. Jock Colville suggested we ought to go home tonight and write down in minute detail how we drove to the Wyndham’s door, left our car at the kerb, its doors firmly locked, rang the bell, were kept waiting on the doorstep, how we were received by a butler wearing black bow tie instead of white, what the hall smelt like, how the man took our coats and hats, putting them on a chest downstairs, and how he preceded us upstairs, one step at a time, etc., etc.

Positively uncanny. How often have myself and my friends, many of whom are writers of historical novels, lamented this very same thing and had almost the exact same discussion? By this time I was finding the diaries so delicious that I had to call Victoria immediately.


“Have you ever heard of James Lees-Milne? You must start reading him now. He’s our new best friend. Where has he been all of our lives? How could either of us not known about his existence before now?”


“James Lees-Milne. The National Trust guy. Friends with everyone, including the Mitfords. He and his friends used to sit around discussing Byron’s sex life.”

“James who?”

“Hang up. I’m emailing you the link to his Diaries now. On Kindle. Buy them.”

Of course, not all of the Diary entries are about such musings. As I’ve said, JML lived in London during this period and there is much to be found about the City, especially during wartime. Again, they resonated with me because much of JML’s London incorporates my London, i.e. the areas and places in London that I revisit and in which I feel most at home.


Bomb damage in Pall Mall/St James’s Street, February 1944

Thursday, 24th February, 1944

There is no doubt our nerves are beginning to be frayed. Frank telephoned this morning. I could tell by his voice he was upset. He said he was going to leave the Paddington area and thought Chelsea or Belgravia would be safer. I said I doubted whether the Germans discriminated to that extent. This evening I went to see a crater in the road, now sealed off, in front of St. James’s Palace. The Palace front sadly knocked about, the clock awry, the windows gaping, and shrapnel marks on the walls. A twisted car in the middle of the road. . .  In King Street Willis’s Rooms (Almack’s) finally destroyed, one half having gone in the raid of (May) 1941 when I was sheltering in the Piccadilly Hotel.

Sunday, 18th June, 1944

At Mass at 11 there was a great noise of gunfire and a rocket. In the afternoon Stuart walked in and said that a rocket had landed on the Guards’ Chapel (Wellington Barracks) during service this morning, totally demolishing it and killing enormous numbers of Guards officers and men. Now this did shake me. After dining at the Churchill Club we walked through Queen Anne’s Gate, where a lot of windows with the old crinkly brown glass panes have been broken. In St. James’s Park crowds of people were looking at the Guard’s Chapel across Birdcage Walk, now roped off. I could see nothing but gaunt walls standing, and gaping windows. No roof at all. While I watched four stretcher-bearers carried a body under a blanket, a (air raid) siren went, and everyone scattered. I felt suddenly sick. Then a rage of fury against the war raged inside me. For sheer damnable devilry what could be worse than this terrible instrument?

To think that Gunter’s and Almack’s had managed to survive until the War. In fact, JML was a patron of Gunter’s –

Saturday, 16th June, 1945

This morning the telephone man came to Alexander Place to say he would install my telephone on Monday . . . the bath however is still unattached to the pipes. The house painter and I picnic together. I leave the house each morning at 7.30 to bathe, shave and breakfast at Brooks’s, where I virtually live. In Heywood’s shop I met Diana (nee Mitford) Mosley and Evelyn Waugh with Nancy (Mitford). I kissed Diana who said the last time we met was when I stayed the night in Wootton Lodge, and we both wept when Edward VIII made his abdication broadcast. I remember it well, and Diana speaking in eggy-peggy to Tom Mosley over the telephone so as not to be overheard. . . . We all lunched together at Gunter’s. . . .

Brooks’s Club, St. James’s Street

Lees-Milne stirs the heartstrings of every Anglophile with this entry –

Saturday, 17th June, 1944

Worked in Brooks’s library this afternoon. I am always happy in this stuffy, dingy Victorian library, in which the silence is accentuated by the relentless ticking of the old, stuffy clock.. I love the old stuffy books on the stuffy brown shelves, books which nobody reads except Eddie Marsh, and he falls fast asleep over them. The very atmosphere is calculated to send one asleep, but into the gentlest, most happy, nostalgic dreams of ninetheenth-century stability, self-satisfaction and promise of an eternity of heavenly stuffiness, world without end. How much I adore this library, and club, nobody knows. May it survive Hitler, Stalin and all the beastliness which besets us.

As I said, JML travelled the length and breadth of the UK both for his National Trust work and in order to visit various friends and relations. His entries concerning the Duke of Wellington were of particular interest, especially as they illustrate the consequences which the burden of caring for the first Duke’s belongings could bring about –

Saturday, 15th April, 1944

I caught the 1.15 to Reading where Gerry Wellington met me at the station in his small car, for he gets twenty gallons a month for being a duke. . .  the western front of Stratfied Saye house clearly shows it to date from Charles I’s reign . . . . the east front is not so regular as the west, and the terraces are deformed by messy Edwardian flower beds. Gerry, who hates flowers, will soon have them away . . . Having eaten little luncheon I was famished, but tea consisted of only a few of the thinnest slices of bread and butter imaginable. After tea we did a tour of the inside of the house, beginning with the hall. When my stomach started to rumble with hunger Gerry looked at it with a reproachful air, and said nothing. It went on making the most awful noise like a horse’s. The hall has a gallery along the wall opposite the entrance. The open balusters were boxed in so as to prevent the servants being seen from below by the visitors. Gerry’s mother used to say that nothing of them was visible except their behinds, as they crouched and bobbed across the gallery. . . . the dining room is shut up, all the Apsley House pictures being stored there for the war, and valued at a million pounds, so G. says. . . . After dinner, at which there were no drinks except beer, (Gerry) showed me his grandfather’s collection of gems and intaglios, mounted on long, gold chains. When held against the oil lights, some of the stones were very beautiful. G. is very fussy over the key bunches, everything being carefully locked up. He has a butler, cook and two housemaids, and a secretary, Miss Jones. The last has meals with him during the week, and nearly drives him mad with her archness. `Aren’t you naughty today?’ she says. She is unable to type, so when he wishes to dispatch a letter not written by himself, he types it and gives it to her to sign.

Gerald Wellesley, 7th Duke of Welligton


Sunday, 26th June, 1948 (at Stratfield Saye)

Lady Hudson and Lady Granville came to tea, and Lady G. suddenly developed St. Vitus’s dance and jangled the cup in her saucer, spilling scalding tea through a thin silk dress on to her knees, and smashing the saucer to smithereens. Gerry leapt up, seized the table upon which a few drops of the tea had sprinkled and rushed away with it to have the surface polished. He made not a gesture of help or sympathy to poor Lady Granville who was in considerable pain and distress. Typical Gerry behaviour. He never lets one down. His patent anxieties about his possessions bring these catastrophes about . . . . .

Below are just three more examples of JML’s entries on stately homes that afford us an insight onto a bygone way of life –

Thursday, 4th May, 1944

Martineau and I lunched at the Hyde Park Hotel with Lord Braybrooke, who has recently succeeded two cousins (killed on active service), inheriting the title and Audley End (House, Essex). He is a bald, common-sensical, very nice business man of 45, embarrassed by his inheritance. At his wit’s end what to do with Audley End. Who wouldn’t be? It was arranged that Martineau and I would visit the house with him in June. It is requisitioned by the Army and used for highly secret purposes, so that even he is not allowed into the rooms except in the company of a senior officer. Consequently he hardly knows the way round his own house. . . .


Saturday, 25th August, 1945

Describing a journey to Birr Castle – I woke at 5.45 and at 6.45 the car ordered by Michael Rosse called for me. It picked him up in Mount Street and drove us to Euston for the 8.15 to Holyhead. Travelled in comfort and ease. . . . After a smooth crossing we reached Kingstown at 7.30. I was at once struck by the old-fashioned air of everythng: horse-cabs on the quay, cobbled streets with delicious horse-droppings on them. Met by a taxi come all the way from Birr, for 8 pounds. Letter of greeting from Anne to Michael. Vodka for Michael and me in the car. We drove straight through Birr. Even through the closed windows of the car I caught the sweet smell of peat in the air. Curious scenes, ragged children on horses drawing old carts along country lanes. Our driver sounded his horn loudly through Birr, that pretty, piercing foreign horn. The gates of the castle shop open as if by magic. A group of people were clustered outside the gate. We swept up the drive. All the castle windows were alight, and there on the sweep was a large crowd of employeees and tenants gathered to welcome Michael home from the war. Anne, the two Parsons boys and Mr. Garvie the agent on the steps. Behind them Leavy the butler, the footman, housekeeper, and six or seven maids. A fire blazing in the library and everywhere immense vases of flowers. We heard Michael make a short speech from the steps, followed by cheers and `For he’s a jolly good fellow,’ a song which always makes me go hot and cold, mostly hot. The crowd then trooped off to a beano and drinks, while we sat down to a huge champagne supper at 11 o’clock.

Sunday, 1st August, 1948

Debo and Andrew (Hartington)(later 11th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire) drove me to Chatsworth this morning. The site of the house, the surroundings unsurpassed. The grass emerald green as in Ireland. The Derwent river, although so far below the house, which it reflects, seems to dominate it. Black and white cattle in great herds. . . . We wandered through the gardens, greyhounds streaming across the lawns. Andrew turned on the fountain from the willow tree. Water not only drips from the tree but jets from nozzles all round. The cascade not working this morning, but will be turned on for the public this afternoon. At present the great house is empty, under covers and dustsheets. Next year the state rooms are to be shown .  .  . As a couple the Hartingtons seem perfection – both young, handsome, and inspired to accomplish great things . . . Both full of faith in themselves and their responsibilities. She has all the Mitford virtues and none of the profanity. I admire them very much.

The Diaries are full of entries that shed light on the many facets to Lees-Milne’s personality, from the profound –

Wednesday, 30th November, 1949 (upon the death of his father after a long illness)

The very worst thing about death are the disprespect, the vulgarity, the meanness. God should have arranged for dying people to disintegrate and disappear like a puff of smoke into the air. There are many other scraps of advice I could have given him.

to the stingingly comic –

Sunday, 14th November, 1948

Newman, the hall porter at Brooks’s, told me I would be surprised if I knew which members, to his knowledge, stole newspapers out of the Club. I said, `You must not tell me,’ so he promptly did.

I urge you, as I urged Victoria, to waste no time in securing yourself a copy of James Lees-Milne’s Diaries. Victoria, I’m pleased to say, took my advice and read the Diaries – she loved them, too. Do let me know what you think when you’re finished with them.