Thursday 20 July 2017

An English Socialite in Paris: The Letters of Lady Victoria Stanley

‘Fun like sunshine, mixed with sense like salt’ was how an anonymous correspondent in The Times described Lady Victoria Bullock following her untimely death in November 1927, at the age of only 35.   This description is borne out in the lively bundle of letters by Lady Victoria which were deposited at the Borthwick as part of the Hickleton Papers, the extensive archive of the Earls of Halifax, which include the papers of Lady Victoria’s eldest daughter, Ruth, wife of the 2nd Earl.

The 19 letters span 28 years of Lady Victoria’s life in all, with the majority dated between 1918 and the mid 1920s.  They provide a fascinating glimpse into the world of an aristocratic socialite in the years after the First World War, when continental Europe was once again accessible to those who could afford it and the Roaring Twenties brought new fashions, music and attitudes.  

Lady Victoria Stanley. Copyright: Daily Sketch, 1915.

The only daughter of Edward Stanley, son and heir of the 16th Earl of Derby, and Lady Alice Montagu, daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Manchester, Lady Victoria was born into the privileged world of British high society in the closing years of the reign of Victoria.  

One of the earliest letters in the bundle, written to her ‘darling sweet Mamma’ in March 1902, describes a quiet country childhood at the family’s Coworth Park and Knowsley estates with her brothers Edward and Oliver, riding her pony Kruger, playing in the gardens and practicing the piano.

Lady Victoria to her mother, the Countess of Derby, in 1902
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

Wedding of Lady Victoria Stanley and Neil Primrose.
Copyright: Daily Mail Historical Archive, 1915

In 1915, at the age of 22, she married Liberal MP Neil Primrose, son of the 5th Earl of Rosebery, in a ceremony attended by Queen Alexandra and three of the royal Princesses, as well as David Lloyd George and a young Winston Churchill.  Their daughter Ruth was born in April 1916, but the marriage was cut tragically short by Primrose’s death in active service during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign in November 1917.

Thus at the age of only 25 Lady Victoria found herself a wealthy widow and when her father, to whom she was extremely close, was appointed Ambassador to France the following year, she went with him, arriving in Paris in the closing months of the war and at the very thick of the political and diplomatic action.  She found the city to be ‘the most wonderful place in the world’ and her 1918 letters are full of famous names and crowded social engagements as the great and the good began arriving in Paris for the post-war negotiations.  Sir Henry Wilson, Lloyd George and Admiral Hope attended her ‘England luncheon-party’ in late 1918. Sir Henry, she wrote, was so ‘terribly bored’ with his fellow politicians, or ‘frocks’ as he called them, that he ‘lunches, dines and comes to tea’ whenever he can. She played lawn tennis with Sir Eric Drummond, later the first Secretary-General of the League of Nations, and the Duc d’Albe invited her to go to Spain after the war. ‘As I have already made plans to go to Monte Carlo,’ she wrote, ‘I don’t believe I shall ever get back to England!’

She bought Parisian clothes and persuaded her friend Bee to do the same, admitting to her mother that she had ‘led her into temptation in the way of clothes,’ and that she herself had entirely lost her head in this direction and ‘bought masses’ of the new fashionable shorter skirts and thin silk stockings.

Her father’s post as Ambassador came to an end in 1920 but the surviving letters show that Lady Victoria was all too happy to remain, at least for long periods of time, in France.  In June 1919 she had married again, this time to Malcolm Bullock, a Captain of the Scots Guard and later Conservative MP for Waterloo.  The letters Lady Victoria wrote to him over the next 4-5 years, addressed always to ‘My own darling’ and signed from ‘ever your very loving wife, Victoria,’ reveal plenty of the fun and the salt described by The Times.  Her observations to him are often acerbic and rather funny. Writing from Paris in 1921 she describes the Duke of Marlborough and his bride as being ‘very much the young engaged couple, who have decided not to dance with each other but make googly eyes across the room instead.’  

Lady Victoria to her husband Malcolm Bullock, 1921
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

At another dinner she was made (as the only foreigner) to sit next to the King of Romania, who to her horror only wanted to talk about Bolshevism, meanwhile the Duchess de Guiche ‘evidently thought she should be next to him & sniffed round my place like a dog round a lamp post.’  On that occasion she seemed to rather admire her fellow guest Daisy Fellowes who managed to avoid having to stand all evening in the presence of royalty by immediately feigning a bad foot so she could retire to a chair in the corner and be left alone.  In a later letter, dated 1924, she wrote she was having ‘such a marvellous time that it is almost turning my head. I feel well dressed, I feel I am almost amusing, in fact all the things the Cadogans think they are & are not!’

Lady Victoria was evidently extremely popular, her letters chronicling a whirl of social engagements with numerous people, from lunches and dinners, to balls, plays, drives, dancing, golfing, horseriding and long evenings at the casino, sometimes until 4am.  ‘I am having a glorious time here & I feel quite mad,’ she told her husband in one letter of summer 1921, ‘I tremble to think what I shall be like with a mask on at the Bal de l’Opera on Saturday!’

Lady Victoria to her husband Malcolm Bullock, 1921
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

In a letter sent in April 1924 she sets out the numerous entertainments she has arranged for her husband’s imminent visit, including dinners out and trips to the theatre and the music hall.

Lady Victoria to her husband Malcolm Bullock, 1924
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

Her letters show that she continued to be a keen, though canny, shopper, writing to her husband that she had been ‘quite good about clothes,’ only buying an evening dress and skirt from Paton, an afternoon dress, two knitted skirts and some jerseys from the Russian ladies, which were ‘just like Chanel’s & quarter the price.’  In an unexpectedly modern anecdote, she also writes that she had her ‘nose done’ in January 1921, though it is not clear from the letter what exactly this entailed.  Rather startlingly, it involved her being given ‘a liberal application of cocaine’ to prevent her feeling anything during the procedure. ‘The doctor kept on warning me that I might feel faint or hysterical from the effects but I have a very odd constitution as I felt absolutely nothing!’ She concluded that the only remarkable thing it made her do was write some letters she had been avoiding.

Lady Victoria to her husband Malcolm Bullock, undated

Perhaps her most enduring interest however was horseracing.  This was perhaps hardly surprising given her ancestry.  The Epsom Derby was named for the 12th Earl of Derby and her father, the 17th Earl was a prominent owner-breeder, his horses winning the Epsom Derby, the Epsom Oaks, and the St Leger Stakes.  Lady Victoria’s 1902 letter to her mother references their horse Pellisson failing to win his race and the racing at Knowsley and even amidst the whirl of her new Paris life in 1918 she found time to ask her mother who she should back ‘for the Cambridgeshire’ and to wonder whether Cecily remembered to do her bets for her that week.  

Her 1920s letters are filled with further references to her own and her family’s horses chances at different races. Of the 1921 Prix de Diane she writes ‘It was rather a slap in the face to the French jockeys that the first three...yesterday were ridden respectively by Bullock, Donoghue & Childs. Maurice de Rothschild’s victory was received in stony silence.’ ‘I really think I must have seen thousands of horses,’ she writes in another undated letter from France, ‘I have been going around neighbouring stud farms in the mornings, then racing in the afternoon & yearling sales in the evening,’ adding that her expeditions had served to remind her just ‘how little I really know about horses.’  Only a year before she died she started a racing stable of her own in France with Major Dudley Gilroy.  

Lady Victoria to her husband Malcolm Bullock, undated [1920s]
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

Both of her daughters, Ruth Primrose and her child with Captain Bullock, Priscilla Victoria, shared their mother’s love of racing and would later become two of the first three women admitted by the Jockey Club in 1977. Priscilla’s grandchildren, Andrew and Clare Balding, are in turn well known today for their involvement with racing, as a trainer and an amateur jockey, journalist and television presenter respectively.  

Lady Victoria Bullock’s death in 1927 came as a devastating shock to her family.  Whilst hunting with the Quorn near Lowesby Hall, she struck her head on a low bridge and was thrown from her horse and found unconscious.  Her husband quickly arrived from London and her mother from Knowsley Park. An urgent message was sent to her father, who was on his way to Cannes, and he returned by aeroplane early the following morning, but to no avail.  Lady Victoria never regained consciousness and died at 3pm on the afternoon of the 26th November.  

The last two letters in the bundle were sent to Captain Bullock after her death. The first is a letter of condolence from fellow MP Winston Churchill, who sent his deepest sympathy to Bullock on the 10th December, ‘though well I know how useless words are, & how nothing but the passage of time mitigates gradually the pain & awful sense of deprivation.  You & Victoria were so suited to one another, so devoted to each other...that this separation & destruction of yr happiness seems doubly cruel.’  

Winston Churchill to Malcolm Bullock, December 1927
Borthwick Institute, Hickleton Papers

The second is from her father, written at the close of the year from France and accompanying ‘a photograph of our darling.’ ‘I can’t talk or write to you about her,’ the letter reads, ‘I am too great a coward, but I loved her - as no man has ever loved his daughter & with her has gone all joy from my life.’  Touchingly he adds that he wants Bullock to know that he will be to him ‘all that I tried to be to her’ and that he has in the earl ‘a friend to whom you can always turn & who would always try the best of his ability to help you.’ He ends by sending his son in law every good wish for 1928, knowing that ‘for you, as for me, no year in future can be a happy one - except the one in which I rejoin her.’

For her family and those who knew her, the words of the anonymous Times correspondent were all too true, ‘without her, the world was a duller and greyer place.’

The letters of Lady Victoria Bullock, nee Stanley, are part of the Hickleton Papers at the Borthwick Institute for Archives.

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