Nicole, Duchess of Bedford: Résistante who went on to help secure Woburn Abbey's future

The Duke and Duchess were both in TV ads, she for hair gel, he for Flash and Jaffa Cakes

Nicole, Duchess of Bedford, was the third wife of the 13th Duke. She was born and brought up in France and married Ian Bedford in 1960. She became one of the leading châtelaines in England's burgeoning stately homes business. She helped to turn Woburn Abbey in Bedfordshire into Britain's premier stately home, with record attendance figures and big profits.

With Nicole's help and enthusiasm the Duke managed to pay off a massive and crippling death duty bill and provide the almost bankrupt Woburn estate with ample funds to keep the 350-year-old house in good repair. When they both "retired" from running Woburn in 1974, they passed on a healthy and solvent business to the Duke's eldest son and heir, Robin, Marqess of Tavistock.

Nicole Schneider was born in Paris in 1920 and educated at a convent in the city. At the age of 18 she married Henri Millinaire; they had two sons and two daughters. The marriage was never really a success and she lived apart from her husband for many years, eventally divorcing him in 1956. During the Second World War she was recruited into the French Resistance by her friend and lover, Michel Bompard. She was often beaten up by the Gestapo; Bompard died in a concentration camp in 1945.

After the war she went on to have a successful career in exports. Later she went on to meet Sheldon Reynolds, an American television producer, and it was through an affair with him that she went on to become an acclaimed producer herself. In 1957 she went to England to work on a comedy series for ITV, Dick and the Duchess. In order to publicise the series a real duke, in the form of the Duke of Bedford, was brought in to help. He posed with her in photographs carrying with his Woburn Abbey guidebook. In one of the publicity shots, Nicole was shown looking through the guide book; he wrote on one of the pages, "Would you like to come to the theatre?" They became friends, marrying in 1960 after he divorced his second wife, Lydia.

In many ways they had similar personalities. They were both interested in people and were good at projecting themselves, having a shrewed idea of how to exploit the media. They also had a great sense of humour and were constantly thinking up new ways of getting publicity for the Abbey and planning new ways to bring in extra cash. When Lord Bath, at Longleat, imported lions into his park, the Duke soon copied him in opening up a safari park at Woburn. Lord Bath jokingly called the Duke a copycat, but the Duke rightly pointed out that Woburn had had a stock of rare animals in its park, cared for by previous Dukes of Bedford, long before Longleat opened its doors to the public. The Duke also opened a pub at Woburn, near the Abbey's souvenir shop.

The new Duchess developed money-making ideas of her own. She had an empty stable block converted into antique shops and then rented them out. She persuaded the Duke to invite paying guests to stay with them in their private wing for long weekends. Their magnificent Sèvres collection of porcelain, hidden away for many years in one of the stable blocks, was cleaned and put on display in the gold and silver vaults at the Abbey. The ticket prices were increased as a result.

Neither were prepared to turn away highly profitable television advertising work during the 1960s. The Duchess , in her rather sexy and slightly husky French accent, would appear in adverts recommending Vitapoint, a hair gel for women which came in an easy-to-use tube. Not to be outdone by his wife, the Duke took to advertising a floor cleaner called Flash. "Hello," he would say, '"I'm the Duke of Bedford. I get thousands of visitors every year. Flash helps to keep my floors really clean!" Egged on by the Duchess, he also advertised Jaffa Cakes and would bite into one saying, "Hmm, orangey!"

The Bedfords were quick to realise that TV characters could make useful publicity for the Abbey. So they invited Ena Sharples, Minnie Caldwell and Esie Tanner, along with other characters from Coronation Street, for afternoon tea one Sunday. And at the State Opening of Parliament, the Duchess always knew that if she wore the fabulous and priceless Bedford tiara on entering the Lords, this would bring admiring gasps, even from royals like Princess Margaret, and ensure photos in the tabloids the next day.

The Bedfords often joked that their "marriage" to Woburn came before their own marriage. By 1974 they had worn themselves out and were ready to hand over to the younger generation. So Lord Tavistock reluctantly took over the reins from his father and stepmother. The Duke believed that unless his son took over in his thirties he would soon be too old for such a demanding job.He believed that running a stately home was not a job for someone to start doing in their forties or fifites. There were other reasons for an early handover: the Duke was determined to avoid the ravages of estate duty that had nearly destroyed Woburn when he inherited it in 1953 .

Following their "retirement" in 1974 the couple went to live in the tax haven of Monte Carlo. The Duke always loved a warm climate and they were at home there with the international jet set, though they loved to travel the world and would sometimes be away for many months at a time. The Duke died in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at the age of 86 in 2002. In his 1959 autobiography A Silver Plated Spoon, the Duke ended: "I may be the 13th duke, but if we can keep Woburn I shall count myself a very lucky man." Of course, his real luck came in marrying Nicole a year later. Together they turned that dream of saving Woburn into a reality.

Nicole Schneider, résistante, television producer and businesswoman: born Paris 29 June 1920; married 1938 Henri Milinaire (divorced 1956; two sons, two daughters), 1960 Duke of Bedford (died 2002); died Monaco 7 September 2012.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
News
people
Life and Style
President Obama, one of the more enthusiastic users of the fist bump
science
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Griffin holds forth in The Simpsons Family Guy crossover episode
tv
Life and Style
Upright, everything’s all right (to a point): remaining on one’s feet has its health benefits – though in moderation
HealthIf sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
News
Kristen Stewart and Rupert Sanders were pictured embracing in 2012
people
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Agile Tester

£28000 - £30000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: An ambitious...

Senior SAP MM Consultant, £50,000 - £60,000, Birmingham

£50000 - £60000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: Senior SAP MM C...

SAP BW BO

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: SAP BW BO - 6 MONTHS - LONDON London (Gr...

HSE Manger - Solar

£40000 - £45000 Per Annum: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: HSE Mana...

Day In a Page

A new Russian revolution: Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc

A new Russian revolution

Cracks start to appear in Putin’s Kremlin power bloc
Eugene de Kock: Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

Apartheid’s sadistic killer that his country cannot forgive

The debate rages in South Africa over whether Eugene de Kock should ever be released from jail
Standing my ground: If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?

Standing my ground

If sitting is bad for your health, what happens when you stay on your feet for a whole month?
Commonwealth Games 2014: Dai Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Greene prays for chance to rebuild after injury agony

Welsh hurdler was World, European and Commonwealth champion, but then the injuries crept in
Israel-Gaza conflict: Secret report helps Israelis to hide facts

Patrick Cockburn: Secret report helps Israel to hide facts

The slickness of Israel's spokesmen is rooted in directions set down by pollster Frank Luntz
The man who dared to go on holiday

The man who dared to go on holiday

New York's mayor has taken a vacation - in a nation that has still to enforce paid leave, it caused quite a stir, reports Rupert Cornwell
Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business, from Sarah Millican to Marcus Brigstocke

Best comedians: How the professionals go about their funny business

For all those wanting to know how stand-ups keep standing, here are some of the best moments
The Guest List 2014: Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks

The Guest List 2014

Forget the Man Booker longlist, Literary Editor Katy Guest offers her alternative picks
Jokes on Hollywood: 'With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on'

Jokes on Hollywood

With comedy film audiences shrinking, it’s time to move on
It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

It's the best of British art... but not all is on display

Voted for by the British public, the artworks on Art Everywhere posters may be the only place where they can be seen
Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Critic claims 'I was the inspiration for Blanche DuBois'

Blanche Marvin reveals how Tennessee Williams used her name and an off-the-cuff remark to create an iconic character
Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Sometimes it's hard to be a literary novelist

Websites offering your ebooks for nothing is only the latest disrespect the modern writer is subjected to, says DJ Taylor
Edinburgh Fringe 2014: The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee

Edinburgh Fringe 2014

The comedy highlights, from Bridget Christie to Jack Dee
Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

Dame Jenny Abramsky: 'We have to rethink. If not, museums and parks will close'

The woman stepping down as chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund is worried