Obituary: Mia Woodruff

Click to follow
Marie Immaculee Antoinette Acton, charity worker; born Berne 1 April 1905; married 1933 Douglas Woodruff (died 1978); died Marcham, Oxfordshire 5 April 1994.

MIA WOODRUFF was a driving force in the care of refugees in Europe during and after the Second World War and the inseparable wife, editorial companion and amanuensis of Douglas Woodruff, editor for 31 years of the weekly the Tablet, which she helped him transform into an internationally respected voice of Roman Catholicism in Britain.

She was born Mia Acton - and known by the abbreviation of her Christian names, Marie Immaculee Antoinette - in 1905 in Berne, Switzerland, the eldest of two sons and seven daughters of the second Lord Acton. Her father was a young diplomat at the British Legation, later posted to Holland and Darmstadt whence the family were evacuated at the outbreak of the First World War, spending the war years again in Berne and then returning to England to live at the Actons' family seat at Aldenham, in Shropshire. Mia's parents died early, her mother in 1923, her father in 1924. The family moved to London, to a house in Rutland Gate near the onetime London home of her grandfather, John Acton, the towering liberal historian. In character and personality Mia Woodruff was closer than anyone else in the Acton family to 'grandpapa', who owed his peerage to his friendship with WE Gladstone, and who is remembered for his maxim 'Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.'

She stood out in her numerous family, holding aloft its tradition while the male bearers of the title lived largely abroad and after the Second World War sold Aldenham Hall, where the Actons had lived since before the Domesday Book. Aldenham meant a lot to Mia, who remembered dances as a young girl in the ball-room where her grandfather's magnificent library had stood, all 60,000 volumes of which are now housed in the Cambridge University Library. The first Lord Acton - he died in 1902 - had ended his days as Regius Professor of Modern History, the first Roman Catholic since the Reformation to hold that office in Cambridge and Mia was looking forward to the centenary commemoration next year of his remarkable inaugural lecture.

The great historian's grandfather, Sir John Acton Bt, was Prime Minister of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, and through him the Actons' European relations extended to the princes of Dalberg in Germany, the Arcos in Germany and Austria, the Brignole-Sale and Visconti in Italy and to the French aristocracy. To the Italian cousins' branch of the Actons belonged Sir Harold Acton, the historian of the Neapolitan Bourbons, who died in Florence in February.

At her house, Marcham Priory, once part of the great abbey of Abingdon, Mia Woodruff lived surrounded by pictures and memories linking her and the Actons with English Catholic history, Papal Rome and European Christendom, all greatly transformed in her own lifetime. She had studied singing in Vienna and London, but her talents were in a more caring calling, nursing. It was in Lourdes, where she helped sick pilgrims, that she met the young Douglas Woodruff, then a brilliant Colonial Editor of the Times and originator of the witty Fourth Leaders.

They were married at the Brompton Oratory, in London, in 1933 and two years later 'DW' was asked to take on the Tablet, then a somewhat cantankerous, ghettoish journal. With Mia's help, he made it a platform in particular for Hilaire Belloc, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, Ronald Knox, Christopher Dawson, Martin D'Arcy SJ, and Gerald Vann OP, forming a sort of Woodruff circle with the blonde, attractive, clever, honourable Mia at the centre.

Their marriage remained, unfortunately, childless. But the stream of refugees from Germany and Austria led, shortly before the Second World War, to the formation of the Catholic Refugee Committee in which Mia Woodruff played a leading part. Her maternal instincts, engaged in the care of her remarkably absent-minded husband, were devoted to refugee children, Jews and Catholics. She became President in 1943 of the Catholic Women's League, which was then working mainly for the British forces.

In the darkest days of the war she was instrumental in co-ordinating the work of various charitable societies and organisations of all denominations to prepare for the time when Europe would be free and need help, collecting large sums of money and clothes and building up her teams to go and work in the field.

In 1944 the first team of the Catholic Committee for Relief Abroad (CCRA) went to the Middle East, later others travelled to liberated Rome, Vienna, Paderborn, and Maastricht, providing shelter, food, first aid for the disorganised and homeless victims of the war of every nationality and language. Mia Woodruff's women became known as the 'Crazy Christians Running Around', because there was nothing they could not make possible in the chaotic post-war conditions. She was the good spirit and protecting angel of all refugees, earning the respect and close friendship of two Popes, Pius XII and Paul VI, the latter of whom as Mgr Montini used to drop in at her CCRA offices in the Via Santa Lucina, practising his English and admiring the competence of English women. Italian women could never be organised like that, he said. 'What is your secret?' he asked. 'Englishwomen are natural nannies,' she replied, 'used to cleaning up the messes left by their menfolk and following them around the Empire.' She evidently spoke from personal experience. Montini was duly impressed.

The Woodruffs identified much with Roman Catholicism as it was before the Second Vatican Council, as indeed her own grandfather had identified with the opposition against papal infallibility at the first Vatican Council. And they were closely linked with the post-war work of reconciliation between the combatant countries that was started by George Bell, Anglican Bishop of Chichester, and the publisher Victor Gollancz. In 1956 she was a prominent helper of 18,000 Hungarian refugees, and later raised a quarter of a million not yet inflationary pounds for Arab refugees; afterwards the Vietnamese refugees became her special charge under a Pontifical Mission. She received many papal honours and was a Senior Dame of the Sovereign Order of the Knights of Malta. The books which her husband, following her grandfather's example, never tired of amassing, found a new home in Notre Dame University, in Indiana after his death in 1978.

Like her husband, Mia Woodruff was a leading figure in the Catholic world in England, a veritable grande dame who retained an admirably clear mind, memory and trenchant wit down to her last days despite failing eyesight and increasing use of a wheelchair. Like him, the passionate journalist who was struck by increasing blindness, she was a devourer of the printed word, and used to compare herself jokingly to a female version of Mr Todd in Evelyn Waugh's Handful of Dust, who made all visitors read the newspapers to him. She took part, eagerly, in the gossip and affairs of the world while remaining lightheartedly detached.

She was refreshingly capable of irreverence about the great and pompous and consecrated, but never of malice. She was very much part of a noble tradition, combining justified Christian pride, and true humility with deep religious


(Photograph omitted)