Obituary: Margaret Ann Elton

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Margaret Ann Bjornson, historian: born Winnipeg 17 June 1915; married 1948 Arthur Elton (succeeded 1953 as 10th Bt, died 1973; one son, two daughters); died London 16 May 1995.

Many of Margaret Ann Elton's friends will remember her best in the library at Clevedon Court: a fire, a vodka, orderly pyramids of books on the tables and every book bearing a marker and every pile in progress.

Here, after her husband Sir Arthur Elton's death in 1973, she continued their battle on behalf of the family home, given in 1960 by Sir Arthur to the National Trust. She strove unremittingly to ensure that Clevedon Court, a 14th-century manorhouse on the coast west of Bristol, might be further endowed and that all its varied contents, telling the story of of a Bristol merchant family, might be retained after her death. And here also, surrounded by a superb local history library and by archives, pamphlets, catalogues, prints and albums of cuttings, she wrote Annals of the Elton Family. Published last year, it is a dense and brilliant book, one of the finest of all family histories.

Every visitor to Clevedon Court will remember the special warmth of her welcome, the slow and elegant gestures with which she replaced errant wisps of hair to a reluctant bun, her distinctive accent which bemused so many and, above all, her bold and original intellect.

Margaret Ann Elton, a Canadian of Icelandic descent, was the daughter of Olafur Bjornson, Professor of Obstetrics at Manitoba University, Winnipeg. In 1939 she was studying for a postgraduate degree in English literature at the university when she was asked to fetch John Grierson, the great pioneer of the documentary film movement, from the railway station. Shocked to find such an able girl working on Milton as the world was about to be overwhelmed by war, he employed her at the newly established Canadian film board in Ottawa. After the war, Grierson sent her to England where she met Arthur Elton, himself a former protege of Grierson and an outstanding documentary film-maker. They were married in 1948. In 1953 Sir Arthur inherited the baronetcy and the estate.

Sir Arthur was also a collector of vision, gathering together a vast number of books and works of art concerning the Industrial Revolution in 19th- century Britain. On his death in 1973, Lady Elton fought hard to keep this unique collection together and thanks to her efforts it eventually went in lieu of death duties to the Ironbridge Gorge Museum. Its controversial valuation had become closely involved with Lady Elton's determination to see that more of the contents of Clevedon Court were secured for the National Trust, that the endowment was increased and that more of the surrounding land was preserved for the people of Clevedon.

Beset by inventories, insurance problems, burglar alarms, repairs and such daily disasters as "filling in 20,000 holes in the garden (cattle in twice, each with four feet)", she became an impatient expert in the complexities of inheritance tax. "I am, after Hugh Leggatt," she noted, "the authority on how it does not work or is only made to work by persistent beavers like colonial me." Her wry humour sustained her: "Inevitably," she wrote in 1985, "it is I who have had to inform the National Trust that if I die in the same year as the Duke of Devonshire or the Earl of Barsetshire, Mother Thatcher's ceiling of pounds 3 million on In Lieu of provisions will cut out my modest but time-consuming efforts to benefit the nation by dying."

In Margaret Ann Elton's book Annals of the Elton Family, we are soon reminded that the earliest Eltons to own the Manor of Clevedon, acquired in 1709, "had obligations as well as rights". She described herself as a steward of the house, its contents and its history. To the partnership with the National Trust - a delicate relationship that can bring such crucial vitality and continuity to its houses - she brought a rare commitment and understanding, and great generosity. To her book, researched and written over 10 years, she brought a passionate belief in the value of local and family history.

Her book is as illuminating about 18th-century Bristol as it is about 19th-century Clevedon. She was, of course, especially qualified to write perceptively of Clevedon Court's literary associations, from Coleridge, Lamb and John Clare to Arthur Hallam, Thackeray and Tennyson. But few family historians can have so deliberately acquired such an exceptional breadth of background knowledge - of changing agricultural conditions, Bristol's trade, institutions and charities, the Poor Laws, ecclesiastical factions and fashions, Victorian drainage and sewage disposal and very much more.

The 19th-century Eltons were intimately involved with the development of Clevedon, its churches and schools, its pier, dispensary and hospital, exercising planning control often more effectively than can local councils today. Margaret Ann Elton understood exactly how interdependent this relationship between town and family had been and she maintained it unquestioningly, utterly unconcerned that there had long since ceased to be any return, beyond the deep affection of so many local people.

Comments