OBITUARY:Mary Waldegrave

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No one who met Mary Waldegrave at any stage of her life would doubt being in the presence of an unusual character. The looks, the limp, the enchanting smile and the ready laughter were striking and rare.

She was born on Christmas Day 1909, the eldest of four daughters of Lt- Col Arthur Grenfell by his second wife, Hilda, daughter of General Sir Neville Lyttelton. She competed easily with the demands of a beautiful mother and of her three sisters, Mrs Patrick Lort-Phillips, Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, and the late Lady Ballantrae. The limp she owed to an attack of poliomyelitis in her teens. She never allowed it to handicap her, though it gave her considerable pain in her last years.

In 1928 she won a history scholarship to Somerville College, Oxford, from St Paul's Girls' School, but disappointed her tutors by cutting short her academic career in order to marry Geoffrey Waldegrave in 1930, six years before he inherited the title of Earl Waldegrave. She gave him five daughters, and in the Second World War, when their house in Somerset was requisitioned for troops, made the difficult decision to take them to Canada. Then she added a son to their family, James, the present Earl, in 1940 and after their return to England, in 1946, a second son, William, the Tory minister. She was happy to end her exile before the war ended, and to return to Chewton, not without ignorant opposition from those who took a different view of what patriotic duty required of a mother of young children in wartime emergency.

The rest of her life was spent at Chewton, the centre of a rich family life and the support of many good causes. But she found time to put her strong intellect and historical training to producing from the Waldegrave archives a history of the family which has unfortunately not found a publisher.

The successes of her husband and family could not spoil Mary: she remained serene and delightful, the confidante, comfort and inspiration of all who came to her. She retained to the end her inimitable sense of humour and her strong Christian faith.

John Stephenson

When Wilmarth Sheldon Lewis, the great Horace Walpole collector, went British country house visiting, his aims were utterly ruthless, writes James Fergusson. He was going, by a playful variety of New England charm, outright cheek and airmail bombardment, to cajole the "private owner" (the most difficult nut, he said, to crack) to part with every item possible connected with his favourite 18th-century author. The Waldegraves at Chewton were an obvious target, and it is to Mary Waldegrave's credit that, unlike so many casual heirs to great collections, she armed herself for the fray by making herself as much of an expert on her husband's family history as "Lefty" Lewis was himself.

She might equally have devoted herself to her own family history - her father was one of nine distinguished Grenfell brothers (cousins of the poet Julian), two of whom, the twins Francis, who won the VC, and Riversdale, were killed in the First World War and memorialised in a book by John Buchan; while her mother's family were the political and cricketing Lytteltons - Mrs John Buchan was a cousin and Mrs W.E. Gladstone her great-great- aunt. But instead she set about organising the Waldegrave archives at Chewton, which go back to pre-Tudor times and the beginnings of the family's tradition of royal and public service, and made the telling of their story an act of devout scholarship.

The most sensational period of the archives, and the one which exercised Lewis, was the hundred years spanning the reigns of the second to the eighth earls and including in Maria Walpole, Horace's favourite niece, and the much- married Frances Braham two notable earlier countesses. On the death of Horace Walpole in 1797, he left Strawberry Hill, his Gothic extravaganza in Twickenham, and its collections to his niece's descendants. In 1842 its contents were largely dispersed in a sale that took over 32 days - 16 days for the library alone.

Lewis was an extraordinary scholar collector. Of the 6,500 titles in Walpole's library, he accounted world-wide for 3,300, and personally acquired 80 per cent of those. He elicited by fair means or foul - including from the Waldegraves, for Geoffrey was a softer touch than Mary - the majority of the surviving manuscripts, and in 1933 set in train the massive Yale Edition of Walpole's correspondence. In an obituary on his death in 1979, Mary Waldegrave affectionately saluted his "banditry", recalling his "menacing" letters from the Thirties in the run-up to the war. "It was soon obvious that Lefty wanted everything we possessed in the way of Walpoliana," she wrote. "Books, prints, pictures, manuscripts, pulls from the Strawberry Hill press, miniatures, snuff boxes (or one particular snuff box), the lot."

They came, eventually, Lefty and his wife Annie Burr, "like merciful dentists", and took two cases of papers, very reluctantly leaving the Waldegraves with all the "paraphernalia"; the Lewis material is now at Yale, while the rest, through Mary Waldegrave's able custodianship, remains - more accessibly for English scholars - with the Waldegrave family.

William Waldegrave contends that if his mother had not settled for the role of wife and materfamilias she would have been a professional historian or academic administrator. Her finished work was never published in her lifetime but he intends that it should now be published, in part as her memorial.

Mary Hermione Grenfell: born London 25 December 1909; married 1930 Geoffrey Waldegrave (succeeded 1936 as 12th Earl Waldegrave, died 1995; two sons, five daughters); died Chewton Mendip, Somerset 13 November 1995.