Lady Sibell Rowley

Last of the Lygon sisters, brought up at 'Brideshead'

Lady Sibell Rowley has died at the great age of 98 and carries to her grave one of the last accounts of an authentic Victorian childhood. Her father was a model for Lord Marchmain in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited and the house where she was principally brought up, Madresfield, a model for Brideshead.

She was born Lady Sibell Lygon, the second daughter of the seventh Earl Beauchamp, who had been Queen Victoria's last Governor of New South Wales and in 1907, when she was born, was Lord Steward of the Royal Household in the Campbell-Bannerman government. When she was two he entered H.H. Asquith's Cabinet as Lord President of the Council. Her mother, née Lady Lettice Grosvenor, was the sister of Bendor, second Duke of Westminster. Lady Sibell and her six siblings grew up in that curious English aristocratic environment, a coupling of unbelievable grandeur and character-forming toughness.

Every afternoon when her father was at home, as the clock struck two Lady Sybil and her three sisters, Lady Lettice, Lady Mary and Lady Dorothy, all plainly dressed in darned Shetland jerseys, threadbare tweed skirts, lisle stockings and well-polished lace-up shoes, would file into the library. After formally greeting him, they would lie at his feet, and begin the daily ritual - listening to a story read by him.

The earl selected sentimental Victorian novels with historical themes which echoed his ancestors' past, such as William Harrison Ainsworth's Boscobel (1872), an account of Charles II's last stand at Worcester - in which Madresfield, their family seat, had played a part; Mrs Molesworth's edifying dramas which exposed hypocrisy and oppression while promoting a Utopian spirit of Christian socialism; or Charlotte M. Yonge's medieval and chivalric tales of derring-do overlain with the Christian values and the noble duties that he wished to impress upon these young minds. As Lygons, he explained, they too had a long and distinguished lineage, rooted in Norman ancestry, but with this privilege came obligation. Remembering these afternoons, Lady Sibell recalled that the abiding lesson he taught them was "tolerance".

By contrast, Countess Beauchamp, like Queen Victoria, did not enjoy children's company once they had reached the age of discretion - to her mind, two years old - "and then she got terribly bored with us. We were each displaced by the next arrival. I had quite a long innings," Lady Sibell conceded, "because she had a miscarriage in 1908."

The family migrated seasonally by private train between their three homes: Madresfield Court in Worcestershire, which had its own station; Walmer Castle in Kent, the official residence for their father in his role as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; and Halkin House in Belgrave Square, London. There was no such thing as "weekending" at any of their or others' country residences - "That was considered common!"

Isolated from other children, the Lygons took as playmates the characters from their storybooks and their imaginations. They collected birds' eggs along the four drives that led into their estate, scattered chickens in the poultry yard and, when the butler's wheelchair-bound son came up from the village in his fustian best, they wheeled this imaginary Chinese emperor in his palanquin along furlongs of raked gravel and levelled lawns.

God, French and exercise were the cornerstones of their upbringing. Periodically, they would be summoned by their mother to be lectured on religion. The drum of Anglicanism was beaten by the countess day and night. Both parents approved of the tenets of the Oxford Movement; they disdained the slipshod habits of the Church of England, preferring Anglo-Catholic ceremonies and rituals of great precision, such as the ornate silverware placed exactly as if for a formal banquet and the ritualistic lighting by acolytes of the right candle before the left on the altar. Precision mattered.

The entire household, including the 16 servants, was required to attend chapel twice a day. (Lady Beauchamp only hired nannies who had a neat parting precisely drawn down the middle of their head because they reminded her of a Madonna in Renaissance paintings.)

Every Sunday, when in London, the Beauchamps took the long and inconvenient journey on public transport to worship. Dressed in their finery - Beauchamp in a top hat and morning coat, the countess festooned in lace-trimmed satins and studded with jewels, beneath a parasol - they herded their disgruntled children on to a bus, down into the newly built Underground and back up at Hampstead to begin the long walk to Primrose Hill where their father approved of the vicar. Beauchamp tolerated this inconvenience as he considered taxis to be an extravagance and that Sundays should be a day of rest for cars as well as horses.

Lunch was an ordeal, because each child took it in turns in front of their father to speak in French. Every day they swam. The pool at Madresfield was primitive and unsanitary - the water was never changed - and their only training, according to Sibell, was to be "simply thrown in the deep end and told to make movements". When the women and children had withdrawn from the poolside, Beauchamp would announce, "Gentlemen may lower their costumes", and only then could they swim bare-chested.

Depending on the season, riding or hunting was used "as a way of getting rid of us", although the girls in particular were passionate about the chase and hunted side-saddle all their lives. As children, they were accompanied by a groom who was costumed in black worsted, buttoned in polished silver and top-hatted in silk. While the girls rode over three counties, the boys - like their father - mastered boxing and lawn tennis, both of which he regarded as essential social skills. And, if the children fell ill or had a riding accident, stoic endurance was expected. Lady Beauchamp would be infuriated by the inconvenience of it all and subscribed to her doctor's view that a glass of champagne cured every ailment.

Although the English have traditionally dressed their children for practicality rather than for show, the Lygon children were so parsimoniously dressed in hand-me-downs sent over by their cousins that most garments were threadbare by the time the youngest wore them. It amused Sibell Lygon that when they were abroad they were mistaken for "charity children".

As the girls grew up, and despite the racy set of "Bright Young Things" that their two older brothers had fallen in with at Oxford, their social lives were restricted. With the exception of local hunt balls and tennis parties with similarly ranked relations, and tea dances in the Long Gallery to the accompaniment of the local church band, the countess made no preparation for the girls' coming out; they were innocent of alluring or beguiling tricks of dress or manner. Cleaving to her outmoded sense of propriety, Lady Beauchamp insisted that, while the rest of society Charlestoned in flapper dresses, her girls were dressed like vicar's daughters. She instructed the seamstress to attach sensible sleeves on to all their sleeveless evening dresses.

One evening after a dance, Mary and Sibell returned to Halkin House at 1am, but could not get in because the footman had fallen asleep. In those days, ladies did not carry money and would not have had a key to their parents' front door. Stranded in Belgravia and dressed in their white Norman Hartnell gowns, they decided that the only solution was to walk round to the only other local family they knew, the Baldwins, at 10 Downing Street. They remembered that the Prime Minister had a doorman, a footman and a policeman, one of whom was sure to be up.

The disgruntled servant at No 10 refused to admit them until he had roused the Prime Minister to vouch for them. Fortunately, Beauchamp and Stanley Baldwin were old friends. The following morning the Prime Minister telephoned Beauchamp and asked him to send round a lady's maid with a change of clothes and a carriage. "Balderdash and poppycock!" retorted the earl, insisting his girls walk home in broad daylight and full evening dress. The novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote this comical scene into his 1930 parody of the Bright Young Things, Vile Bodies.

The countess was no Mrs Bennet, reasoning that such matters "just sorted themselves out!", though Sibell was the exception to her rule:

Mother hoped I'd marry the Dean of Gloucester who was about 72 and whose wife had died. I was 16. She really did! She was very odd, a religious zealot. He, of course, treated me like a child, which I was.

Sibell Lygon's world fell apart when her father was hounded into exile in 1931. He was bisexual, and, denounced by his brother-in-law the Duke of Westminster, fled abroad in order to avoid prosecution. Sibell and her siblings conducted a rota to stay, one by one, with their father as he roamed the world, longing for his children and for Madresfield. Virtually overnight, the family became social outcasts - save for the loyalty of a few friends, including Evelyn Waugh. Their tragedy later became his 1945 best-seller Brideshead Revisited.

In their parents' absence, Madresfield became a playground for many of the Bright Young Things. This was a private world of laughter, although occasionally their antics were publicly recorded in the society pages that Lady Sibell Lygon contributed to Harper's Bazaar for pin money. Waugh, who frequently stayed with them to write, drank deeply from the Lygon life style, absorbing the details of aristocratic manners, whether it was the decanting of champagne, the use of a nursery patois and nicknames to exclude outsiders or the drop-hipped slouch dressed in Fair Isles and tweeds. He developed an avuncular relationship with the Lygon girls, sharing with them the absurdities and obscenities of the outside, grown-up world - about prostitutes he had met in Africa or wild divorcees in New York.

Although Lady Sibell's two sisters, Lady Mary (known as "Maimie") and Lady Dorothy ("Coote") became two of Waugh's closest friends, Sibell regarded their habitual house guest as "rather tiresome and terribly rude". She tittered at his attempts to take up the upper-class pastime of hunting and disapproved of his bitchiness.

Miss Jagger, a local spinster, lived with the family and she - like the sisters - was not part of the fast social London scene. She was gentle and devoted to the family and they, in turn, adored her, which infuriated Waugh:

He kicked her in the ankles, on purpose - pure jealousy - because we liked her so much. We even had a word for "to help" - "to Jagger". He was always copying our nicknames and vocabulary.

In 1939 Lady Sibell married a fighter pilot, Michael Rowley. After marriage she spent all her life in Gloucestershire, hunting, racing and attending point-to-points. Constant rows with friends and family kept her sparky; there was always one feud on the go at any one time, though they never lasted long. Her tough upbringing served her well; she was hunting side-saddle well into her eighties and for many years she served as the Master of the Ledbury Hunt.

The last year of her life was passed in a nursing home, reading the memoirs, diaries and biographies of her peer group in an attempt to keep up with all the families that, by birth, she would - had her father not fallen from grace - have counted amongst her circle. I asked her on many occasions what effect her father's exile had had on her family. "Oh, we coped" was her usual, stoic reply. But in the last months of her life, when we had become a little better acquainted, I asked her again. She hung her head and one tear fell on to her tweed lap. "It was very difficult really," she said.

Jane Mulvagh

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