The Duchess of Atholl

How and where does one begin when describing such an exceptionally experienced public woman as the Duchess of Atholl? I* might do worse than start at a meeting held in Essex Hall, Strand, when she was Parliamentary Secretary to the old Board of Education. Appointed by the Prime Minister, Mr Stanley Baldwin, and under the leadership of Lord Eustace Percy who, she said, was no shirker, she admits to feeIing honoured to be the second woman in English history to be a Minister, and she soon made it evident in her public life that she was never afraid to join the ranks of a minority group of people.

I had better not mention the number of years of my regular attendance at meetings at Essex Hall. I spoke there at a conference; I made reports there monthly during one period; I witnessed many exciting arguments; but never was any other meeting in that historic building so memorable to me as one at which the Duchess delivered one of her steady, thoughtful orations. She was no tub thumper, no rabble rouser, no player to the gallery, no provider of cheap wisecracks. She simply forced her head to take control of her emotions and just gave us facts, combined with ideals, very hard to challenge. There is| no need to add that after the meeting there was some animated discussion among groups in the corridor and in the Strand teashops.

Owing to her frequent bouts of throat trouble and high temperature when a girl, the Duchess was a voracious reader: a fact which was probably the soundest foundation she could have had for her later years, and as a result she passed a university examination which brought the offer of a scholarship to one of the women's colleges at Oxford; but as music was her great interest, and after achieving the letters A. R. C. M., she entered the Royal College Music in 1892.

Not long after she married the Duke of Atholl• there came the South African War, but I must mention this period by merely stating that she again displayed her adventurous nature by joining her husband in South Africa before the armistice was declared, spending much of her time visiting hospitals and in various ways alleviating disabled patients.

There followed another well-remembered era when she interested herself in writing, in opening bazaars, lecturing at women's meetings, associating herself in politics, visiting the Duke and Duchess of York at York Cottage, Sandringham, entering heartily into all sorts of communal life at Blair; and I find it is very instructive to read instances of her constant search for additional experiences of the untold mysterious aspects of human nature.

She tells us of a visit to Westminster Chapel to hear Dr Campbell Morgan because of a desire to learn about Free Churches. I too heard him once and I unreservedly agree that the reverend gentleman's preaching was impressive. She attended a world conference on missionary work, and also interested herself in the dearth of doctors and medical facilities in remote parts of Scotland and surrounding islands. Moreover it is not at all astonishing to learn that she went to hear Mrs Pankhurst and her daughters speak on their sensational campaign.

Not unexpectedly the First World War greatly increased her services to the nation. The Duke of Atholl, after his dangerous service in Gallipoli, had landed in Egypt. Before very long his wife landed there too, took a house, piano and tennis court, organized concerts, provided funds for books and games; and I wonder whether I read some of those very books, for at one period I spent a wonderful week in a rest camp at El Arish. Here, wearing only shorts and open-necked shirt, I lounged all day in a bell tent about thirty yards from the murmuring waves, devouring Edgar Wallace's murders or a biography, slipping out for a quick swim about three times daily, sleeping like a child for an hour after lunch, and ever since looking back on that interlude as a spell in Paradise. And could it be possible that I was in a convalescent camp when the Duches was at Sidi Bish? In my marquee at that camp we were a happy little community.

Later in the memoirs when she mentions a major project I find her account of the planning, discussions, fund-raising campaign, and propaganda which preceded the majestic Edinburgh War Memorial, said to be one of the finest on earth, an absorbing story. It is an incomparable lesson reminding us of normal procedure in every city, town and village throughout the British Isles when war memorials are an immediate project, and possibly similar methods are discussed in all communities everywhere. Here I must, by the way, having stated in another connection that Captain Loring is on the Roll of Honour at King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, presume that as he was in the Scottish Horse his name must be on the Edinburgh War Memorial.

Now and again throughout her autobiography, Working Partners, one comes across little asides, sometimes not very relevant to any chapter, which I am glad she mentioned, because she showed herself not too proud to admit a certain satisfaction for a small compliment and a natural delight in little things. For instance, she opened a new nursing home which caused more than a little interest, because it was on the site of one in which she was born. (A friend of mine when eighty went to his eldest brother's funeral. His niece said: "Uncle, I'm going to put you in the front bedroom." It was the room in which he was born.)

Several times the Duchess admits she was honoured when asked to undertake certain duties. It is obvious, too, that she was flattered when Lloyd George asked her why she didn't stand for Parliament, and when, after her first speech in the House of Commons, the great Welshman went to her immediately and asked whether a naughty old Liberal might offer his congratulations. Moreover, one unforgettable gesture must have been particularly appreciated, for she says she was overwhelmed when Oxford University gave her an honorary degree because Oxford was her father's university.

Throughout her book one is left with an impression that the Duchess of Atholl could adapt herself to any social group. She could feel privileged and happy when a guest of King George and Queen Mary; she could appreciate the hearty welcome of children in a canal barge and never lost the common touch. I can imagine her walking to a crofter's cottage for a simple, homely gossip. Only a few of us, I think, can feel at ease in any kind of society. I have been a student all my life. If I can get into a symposium In a college hall or with a group of scientists, philosophers, educationists at a summer school or in a hostel I ask no more of social life. I am as happy as the late Professor Samuel Alexander of Manchester University so obviously used to be at any debate; yet one cannot but envy those who have no inhibitions wherever they may be.

Not a very usual but one significant feature of the memoirs of the Duchess which I welcome is that she not only tells us what speeches she has made, but very important items from her contributions. When she reports on her presidential address to the education section of the British Association at Leeds she gives us a page devoted to the salient in her speech. Such a procedure vitalizes her story, and as I was at the Leeds meeting at the same time listening to another speech, I realize that one very interesting occasion passed me by. It is possible that at the time of her address I was attending a meeting in the psychology section.

She must have been an assiduous traveller during her career, meeting some of the greatest leaders in foreign countries and, excepting perhaps Mrs Roosevelt, I cannot recall any other prominent woman who really matters, who has mingled with so many people in other countries. Her physical endurance must have been phenomenal. I cannot dwell on the story of her long fight against her party's policy and the whips withdrawn, the repudiation of her local political party which led to her replacement by another candidate, the vindictive criticism which led to her being falsely called the "Red Duchess": an accusation because it was stated that she had been singing the Red Flag at one meeting when she didn't know the words and had left the building before the song was ended. During this period she must have experienced many hours of sustained anguish, but I am sure she was fortified by many influential friends of all parties who fully agreed with her sentiments.

As my study is the Duchess of Atholl I have said little about the Duke. In her speech at Essex Hall she mentioned that at times on social occasions she had to give support to her husband. The Duke was a distinguished and very busy man: a fact which makes the life of the Duchess all the more impressive. Much as I should like to mention other events of her career which gave her the most gratification when remembered I will suggest four: Scotland's first woman M.P.; Honorary degree at Oxford, her father's university; Honorary Colonel of the Scottish Horse; Foyle's luncheon in her honour when she was 83.

Can anyone doubt that she was one of the most outstanding women of her time?

** Found among  the papers of the long defunct literary agency Michael Hayes of Cromwell Road S.W.5  - parts of a manuscript memoir by one L.R. Reeve of Newton Abbot, South Devon. Mr Reeve was attempting to get the book (Among those Present: Very Exceptional People) published, but on the evidence of the unused stamp Hayes never replied and  L. R. Reeve published the book himself through the esteemed vanity publisher Stockwell two years later in 1974.

L R Reeve had, in a long life, met or observed a remarkable selection of famous persons. He  presents 'vignettes' of 110 persons from all grades of society (many minor or even unknown) they include Winston Churchill, Dorothy Sayers,  H H Asquith, John Buchan, the cricketer Jack Hobbs, J.B. Priestley, H.G. Wells, Marconi, E.M. Forster, Duchess of Atholl, Marie Stopes, Oliver Lodge and Cecil Sharp -- 'it is unnecessary to explain that  many I have known have not known me. All of them I have seen, most of them I have heard, and some of them have sought information, even advice from me." Reeve states that the unifying qualification all these people have is '… some subtle emanation of personality we call leadership, and which can inspire people to actions  unlikely to be undertaken unless prompted by a stronger will."

Reeve was a teacher throughout his life and deputy head of 3 London schools, headmaster of Loughborough emergency schools, ex-president of London Class Teachers Association  and very early member of the British Psychological Society (55 years)... I calculate he was probably born in about 1900. His style is markedly unexciting but he has much information unavailable elsewhere.. He sent several typed manuscripts to (from the smell) the chain-smoking agent Hayes…

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