Lady Butler of Saffron Walden: Second wife of Rab Butler, 'the best Prime Minister we never had'

Mollie Butler was the second wife of the highly distinguished "wet" Tory politician of the 1950s and early 1960s, Richard Austin Butler, known to all as "Rab". Mollie was, understandably, his staunchest supporter and never forgave Harold Macmillan for allowing Alec Douglas-Home, instead of her "beloved Rab", to succeed him in 1963 as Prime Minister and leader of the Conservative party. Lady Longford was to describe him, somewhat gushingly, as "the best Prime Minister we never had".

Mollie Montgomerie was born in 1907, the eldest daughter of Frank and Esme Montgomerie. Her father was a gentleman farmer and owner of Great Codham Hall in Essex. Both parents were descended from lowland Scottish families. "Money was never plentiful in our house", Mollie was later to recall in her memoirs, August & Rab. Her childhood years were spent partly in the Essex countryside, which she always adored, and partly in Wimbledon, where she went to school with her younger sister, Pam. The school was very near to the Common and was run by two able and efficient old ladies called Miss Farman and Miss Carter. Because of them, she grew up with a reasonable knowledge of Latin and a lifelong love of English literature.

One of her father's neighbours in the Essex countryside was August Courtauld. The Courtaulds, wealthy textile manufacturers, were descended from Huguenots who had settled in England in 1685. Montgomerie met Courtauld, who was three years her senior, through his sister, Betty. August, freed from the necessity of working because of his family's wealth, spent most of his life as a yachtsman and Arctic explorer, pursuits in which Mollie sometimes joined him.

In 1930 Montgomerie and Courtauld became engaged and they were married, in Southwark Cathedral, in 1932. The first part of their honeymoon was spent in the Sudan. As they arrived at Dover for the night boat across the Channel, a ticket collector said to August: "I hope you won't be taking the lady to the Arctic, sir!" During their married life, Mollie accompanied August on several expeditions, becoming one of the first women to visit eastern Greenland. When in England, they lived in a large Georgian house called Spencers, near Great Yeldham, in Essex, where Mollie was to live right up until her death. She took great pride in the house, which she opened yearly to visiting members of the Georgian Group. August and Mollie had six children, two of whom were raised by her alone during the Second World War, while August was serving in Naval Intelligence. In the autumn of 1953, August started to show signs of multiple sclerosis and he died in March 1959.

Mollie's second husband, Rab Butler, was a cabinet minister in Macmillan's government and had long been a close friend. By coincidence, he, too, had married a Courtauld; Sydney, his first wife, was the daughter of Sam Courtauld, a cousin of August's, whose fabulous art collection is now housed at the Courtauld Institute. Butler and Sydney had married in 1926 and had three sons and a daughter. Both families would see a lot of each other at big Courtauld family gatherings and also at Eltham Palace, the magnificent south London home of Sir Stephen Courtauld. Sydney had died of cancer in 1954, and in October 1959, six months after August's death, Mollie married Butler. She was to prove one of the most devoted of political wives.

In 1963 Harold Macmillan resigned because of ill health. Mollie, along with many newspaper editors, TV commentators, and even bookies, thought her husband was the obvious choice to succeed him. But all were all proved wrong when Macmillan recommended to the Queen that the job go to Alec Douglas-Home. Mollie Butler always believed that Macmillan had double-crossed her husband and said so quite vocally after Macmillan's death. Her bitterness, though understandable, had no sound basis; Alec Douglas-Home was the obvious compromise candidate capable of uniting most of the Conservative Party, in the country and at Westminster.

However, contrary to what some have suggested, Mollie's criticism of Macmillan, while he was alive, was muted. She was never openly bad-mannered towards him and there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Macmillan received hospitality from the Butlers at the Master's Lodge when visiting Cambridge in the late Sixties and early Seventies .

In 1965, Butler retired from politics, and was granted a life peerage as Baron Butler of Saffron Walden. In 1965 he became Master of Trinity College, Cambridge, and he and Mollie were popular occupants of the Master's Lodge until his retirement in 1978. The Butlers were supportive and loyal to staff and sympathetic and generous hosts to students and academics alike. Both of them kept a kindly eye on Prince Charles during his time at Trinity, between 1969 and 1971, and Butler's KG in 1971 was a public recognition of this fact. The Prince subsequently placed on record his thanks to the Butlers for their unfailing help, kindness and abundant hospitality. Lord Butler died in 1982 but even after his death, the Queen continued to invite Mollie back to the annual Garter Day luncheons at Windsor Castle.

At the urging of her children Mollie started writing and in 1987 her memoirs were published. The book, August and Rab, dealt candidly with her life and her marriages to two contrasting men. In a letter she wrote me in 1987 she said: "Some find it too starry eyed, but I wrote as I felt".

In the early 1990s, she was kept busy helping and advising English Heritage on their great – and very expensive – project to restore and refurbish Sir Stephen and Lady Ginie Courtauld's Eltham Palace, with the ultimate aim of opening it up to the public. She was in a unique position to help because she was the only Courtauld still alive who could describe what the Palace had been like in its glory days of the 1930s, having been a frequent visitor to this amazing South London medieval royal palace.

Ronald Porter

Mollie Montgomerie, born Castle Hedingham, Essex 10 September 1907; married 1932 Augustine Courtauld (died 1959; four sons, two daughters), 1959 Rt Hon R. A. Butler (died 1982; one stepson deceased, and two stepsons and a stepdaughter); died Great Yeldham, Essex 16 February 2009.

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