Saturday, February 12, 2011

Lady Ursula Helen Abbey and Some Other Surprises

As promised, we'll now peek into the life of a member of the peerage...

Lady Ursula Abbey was born on 14 June 1899, the daughter of Wilfred Dallas Cairns, 4th Earl of Cairns, and Olive Cobbold of Greyfriars, Storrington. On 7 July 1921, she married John Roland "Jack" Abbey (He had dropped the 'w' from 'Rowland'), son of William Henry Abbey and Florence Belcher, who lived a Sedgwick Park, Horsham, Sussex. As well as being an entrepreneur—already a partner for decades, he took over Brighton's Kemp Town Brewery in 1933—W. H. Abbey was named High Sheriff of Sussex in 1935, and commissioned a portrait of himself [pictured, left] to be painted that year by Oswald Birley. Lady Ursula presented the image to the Brighton and Hove Museums in 1970.

"Jack" Abbey, born 23 November 1894, was educated by a private tutor instead of attending school after suffering a serious elbow injury as a boy.

He was commissioned into the Rifle Brigade, Prince Consort's Own, as a regimental lieutenant on 21 November 1914, serving two years on the Western Front in the 13th and 8th Battalions. He was the only surviving officer of his battalion after the Battle of Flers-Courcelette. By 17 January 1919, Abbey was the Deputy Assistant Provost Marshal attached to HQ, having been promoted to captain during WWI.

In November 1916, he was gassed, necessitating a five month period of hospitalization before being invalided out of combat in October 1917, a year before his younger brother, Noel Roland Abbey of the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action on the Western Front.

A member of the reserve class of officers at the onset of WWII, Jack Abbey returned to the military as an officer in the Army Catering Corps before reuniting with the Rifle Brigade on 17 November 1941. He served from 1941 to 1943 as a staff officer of the Admiral-Superintendent at Great Yarmouth, and was awarded the honorary rank of Major in 1946.

After the First World War, however, Jack became manager of his father's Kemp Town brewery. He then married Lady Ursula in 1921, shortly after a series of whole-plate glass negative images of her was taken by famed Regent Street portrait photographer, Alexander Bassano, on 4 June 1920. These images [one is seen at right] of the seemingly vulnerable, strikingly beautiful Lady Ursula are simply captivating, and can be found at the National Portrait Gallery.

The year 1925 saw the birth of a daughter, Juliet Hermione Abbey, who married the naval war hero, Lt. Commander John Somerville Kendall Oram of Wiltshire, in 1948.

In 1942, Lady Ursula served the war effort by managing a committee that worked six days a week assembling care parcels for the Rifle Brigade's prisoners-of-war.

By 1929, though, Jack had begun collecting books, at first from modern private presses. Eventually, however, he began collecting antiquarian volumes, and by 1946, he began buying medieval illuminated manuscripts. In 1943, he had become president of the brewery upon his father's death, allowing him to build a collection that at one time held of 1,300 volumes [Abbey's book plate is seen, left]. Like his father, Jack would soon be named High Sheriff of Sussex in 1945, a position he held for a year.

According to his biography at, "Maj. J. R. Abbey's book collection was the largest and one of the most remarkable of his generation. He is perhaps best known for his collection of color-plate books and fine bindings, but he also collected many illuminated manuscripts and at one time owned seven books from the library of the sixteenth-century French book collector Jean Grolier. Abbey was one of the first to collect neglected minor works and bought copies of them in their original wrappered parts. From the beginning it was the appearance of books that appealed to him, and two Arts Council exhibitions of bindings from his collection show that he was attracted by the strong geometric patterning and vibrant colors of contemporary English and French binders. Although he was not a scholar, he was an avid visitor of libraries and bookshops, making note of his own observations and also drawing on the advice of distinguished scholars such as A. N. L. Munby and G. D. Hobson when adding to his collection."

In the 1950s, Abbey sold much of his collection of illustrated books and illuminated manuscripts to Paul Mellon (K.B.E., 1974), an American collector, who later bequeathed it to Yale University.

Although he had donated or sold off books from his collection during his lifetime [a 1965 Sotheby's catalog is pictured, right], the bulk of Abbey's collection was sold at auction after had passed away on 24 December 1969. The auction sales spanned the years 1970 to 1975 and brought Lady Ursula the tidy sum of £993,509. She did maintain some of the collection after Jack's death, and that was auctioned by Sotheby's on 19 June 1989 for tens of thousands of pounds, just a year after her own passing in October of 1988.

During their lives together, Lady Ursula had been an avid dog breeder and her canines participated in dog shows at the Royal Agricultural Hall. In addition, she often presented an award to selected participants in the form of a go, cup.

In fact, her retriever, Chiltington Light, is still listed on-line for its pedigree. It's probably only a coincidence that the wife of a brewmaster had a dog called Chiltington Light, which would be a fine upscale name for a mass-produced American "Lite" beer!
Incidentally, one of that dog's categories according to the 1930 catalogue of the Cruft's Dog Show and Exhibition of Sporting Appliances at the Royal Agricultural Hall, Post Graduate Bitches [below, right], does rekindle memories of my first marriage...

Dogs weren't her only interest, however. The Guernsey Cattle Society's Hand Book, volume 63, records the transfer of stock from C. Micklem of Long Cross House, Chertsey, Surrey, to Lady Ursula Abbey of Storrington on 5 November 1947.

Although she is mentioned above as being of Storrington, her family's home, Lady Ursula has been associated with other locales as well.

Many sources provide the residence of the Abbeys as being Woldhurst Manor, Crawley, Sussex, as early as 1929's Armorial families: a directory of gentlemen of coat-armour by Arthur Charles Fox-Davies. Researching Woldhurst Manor, however, isn't as easy as it may seem: Google wants desperately to change any search for it to one for "Windhurst Manor." Finding a map of its location has been frustrating!

The Abbeys are also associated with the Wyvis Estate [pictured left, with boathouse and lodge visible] in Scotland.

In 1904, Lt. Colonel Rupert Wilkin, CMG, a nephew of deceased furniture magnate Walter Shoolbred, inherited the estate from his bachelor uncle. Shoolbred had acquired the lands of Wyvis and Kildermorie, and had even had a steamer ship reassembled in its entirety on Loch Glass to facilitate moving of building materials throughout his land.

Although the date of its acquisition is uncertain, Jack and Lady Ursula Abbey apparently purchased Wyvis from Wilkins, or perhaps his estate. The estate had been valued at £607,507 when Rupert had inherited it in 1904, and it would be of interest to know what the Abbeys paid for Wyvis and for how long it was theirs.

1992's continuing Evanton Oral History Project by Adrian Clark adds this about the Abbey's residence at Wyvis: "Rupert, a bachelor, was followed by Major and Lady Ursula Abbey, also from England. They are remembered as having been very friendly; she was reputedly keener on the shooting than he was."

That makes sense: A pair of the above-mentioned portraits of Lady Ursula from before her wedding show also show her in outdoor attire with hat and gloves [One is seen, right].

And Lady Ursula, fond of animals and competition, would seem tailor-made for the outdoors and shooting, while her husband, brewery owner and book collector Jack, seems to have been happier engaging in indoor pursuits. (Abbey owned Kemp Town Brewery in Brighton, East Sussex [below, left], until merging it with Charringtons & Co. Ltd., London, in 1954.) Imagine what a wonderfully serene and scenic place Wyvis Lodge must have been for Abbey to peruse manuscripts and texts from his collection, fireside, with a nice cup of tea!

Needless to say, the Abbeys were quite unlike Lady Dorothy and Captain Arthur Hobart Mills, brother of our George Mills. While Lady Dorothy, daughter of the 5th Earl of Orford, was a hunter, a fisherwoman, and came from a family that was a cash-starved and longed for her to marry into money—and disowned her when she did not—Lady Ursula seems to have made a match that surely would have pleased the Hon. Robert Horace Walpole, Lady Dorothy's father, to no end.

Eventually, Lady Ursula's name appeared less and less in The Times under the headings of "Court Circular" and "Kennel Club Show" and increasingly more often under "Sports in Brief" and "Croquet."

Her very first croquet tournament match, according to the lamentable search engine of The Times, was played on 25 September 1951 at the Roehampton Club's autumn tournament. She defeated Mrs. M. B. Reckitt [pictured below, right] (+10) in the second round of Handicap Singles, Class X. I can find no record of Agnes, Violet, or George Mills having played in that fall tournament.

The last match the nefarious search engine of The Times yields for Lady Ursula Abbey is a loss (-18) in the first round of Handicap Doubles at Parkstone at the East Dorset Tournament on 12 September 1973 to J. W. Haynes and R. H. C. Carder. Lady Abbey had been paired with Capt. M. F. Buller.

By that year, 1973, George Mills had been gone for a year and Agnes and Violet, while they still may have taken a turn around a lawn for sport, had ceased their tournament play. By the end of July 1975, the spinster sisters of George Mills would no longer be with us either. Lady Abbey would live until 1988.

The mercurial archive of The Times shows Lady Ursula having been in competition with the Mills siblings on 3 occasions, playing singles and winning against Agnes at Eastbourne on 27 September (+6) and 5 October 1965 (+18), after having lost (-19) in doubles to "Aggy" and her partner, Capt. W. A. T. Synge, on 7 July of that same year in tandem with her partner, Miss H. D. Parker, at Budleigh Salterton.

Lady Ursula's husband, Jack—listed in The Times croquet results as "Major J. R. Abbey"—played a Mills sibling once, beating Violet (+3) on 13 September 1960 at Parkstone.

Once again, it's likely that Lady Ursula's love of competition and the outdoors exceeded Major Abbey's—The Times engine provides 79 results after searching '"lady ursula abbey" croquet', from 1951 through 1973, while searching '"j r abbey" croquet' yields only 64 "hits," those ranging from 1913 (in which a "J. R. Abbey" won a doubles match at Brighton on 18 September in tandem with the Hon. Mrs. S. Coleridge) through 1967—a phenomenally long time to have played such a relatively few matches!

Examining Jack Abbey's final tournament match, at least according to the capricious search engine at The Times, is interesting. He lost (-20) to the legendary Mrs. Alex Fotiadi of the Bowdon Croquet Club [pictured, left] on 3 October 1967 at Eastbourne in the first round of Handicap Singles "X." Mrs. Fotiadi was a dominant figure in that era of tournament croquet.

However, what I find just as interesting are these additional results from the same day's matches: George Mills (scratched) lost in a walk-over to Lady G. Fitzgerald, and George's sister, Agnes, lost (-17) to Mrs. E. M. Temple, and Lady Ursula fell to Mrs. J. Povey (-14) in the very same round at Eastbourne.

Needless to say, the incredibly moody search engine of The Times had never produced that particular day's matches for me when I'd searched repeatedly for croquet results for either G. R. or Miss A. E. Mills!

One last item, perhaps of interest only to me, is that on that same October day in Eastbourne, M. B. (Maurice) Reckitt [right]—a 5-time opponent and one time partner of the Mills siblings—beat Mrs. D. M. C. Pritchard (+4) in a second round match. Reckitt had also played in a match back in that 1913 Brighton tournament on the very same day Jack Abbey teamed with the Hon. Mrs. Coleridge. And his wife, Amy Reckitt, you'll recall from above, had been Lady Ursula's first croquet tourney opponent!

Jack and Lady Ursula Abbey were certainly the type of people with whom the Mills sisters (and perhaps George) liked to socialize. I'd be stunned to find that the Abbeys—or at least Lady Ursula—hadn't spent an afternoon or evening with the Mills at Grey Friars. Lady Ursula's love of croquet, competition, and the outdoors would have rivaled that of the Misses Mills, whom, I'll remind you, had a love of the outdoors (They were "charming and keen on the Girl Guides") as well as both being athletic.

The accompanying image of Lady Ursula [pictured, left] has been identified as "probably" having been taken in 1957 at Devonshire Park in Eastbourne during what appears to have been the so-called "Southern Championships" which apparently were attended by a great many players of the era—some in number 66 in just that one group photograph. In fact, the above images of Mr. & Mrs. Reckitt are cropped from the same image. Who knows how many overall players may have participated, but missed that photo op?

Since first viewing that photograph, found on the Bowdon Croquet Club website, I've been prone to think that the "Southern Championships" were the South of England Croquet Championship at Eastbourne, played in early October.

There's just one thing, though: There are no records showing that Lady Ursula Abbey played at all in that tournament in Eastbourne in 1957.

Two others in that group photograph are also not listed among the competitors in the Devonshire Park Championships in October 1957, according to The Times. Those two are George Mills and his sister, Violet.

Even if incorrectly dated, that Devonshire Park group photograph does, however, add much to our knowledge of the Mills siblings: A second photographic image of a dapper George Mills, and, at long last, glimpses of both Agnes and Violet!

We'll look at those three visages (among others), learn more about the photgraph, and read some thoughts from a man who, as a boy, knew George Mills, all in our next post!

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