THE DUKE of Bedford was a name scarcely out of the news in the 1950s and 1960s, though latterly he had disappeared from the popular press. But, in his heyday, the 13th Duke was to the fore as one of the pioneer stately-home openers, alongside the sixth Marquess of Bath and the third and present Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. It is impossible to imagine the furore in the press caused by the Duke's creating a funfair at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, just as the popular imagination was seized by Lord Bath's introducing "the Lions of Longleat", and perhaps less sensationally, Montagu's collection of vintage cars at Beaulieu in Hampshire.
The Duke of Bedford was a name scarcely out of the news in the 1950s and 1960s, though latterly he had disappeared from the popular press. But, in his heyday, the 13th Duke was to the fore as one of the pioneer stately-home openers, alongside the sixth Marquess of Bath and the third and present Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. It is impossible to imagine the furore in the press caused by the Duke's creating a funfair at Woburn Abbey, Bedfordshire, just as the popular imagination was seized by Lord Bath's introducing "the Lions of Longleat", and perhaps less sensationally, Montagu's collection of vintage cars at Beaulieu in Hampshire.
"Ian" Bedford had suffered grievous death duties when he inherited Woburn and the dukedom in 1953. His life's mission was to turn the estate round and pass it on in good condition to his eldest son, the Marquess of Tavistock. So successful was this that Tavistock has already made the same move and handed it on to his own son, while the grandfather was still eking out his days amidst relics of the jet set in the South of France.
He was born John Robert Russell, styled Lord Howland, in 1917, the elder son of the 12th Duke and his wife, Louisa Whitwell. In his early life, his grandfather was alive and living at Woburn, "the most awe-inspiring" character Ian Bedford ever met, a man who confined himself to the phrases "Indeed", or "So I have been led to believe". He was married to the so-called "Flying Duchess" and was estranged from his son, Ian's father, because he was a pacifist, and they did not talk for 20 years. Ian once brought them together, but as a result of the estrangement he did not see Woburn until he was 16.
The details of his career were slight. Privately and haphazardly educated, he dabbled in journalism with the help of Lords Beaverbrook and Castlerosse. He was commissioned into the Coldstream Guards in 1939 and invalided out in 1940 on grounds of ill-health and poor physique. As Lord Howland, he did occasionally engage the attention of the gossip writers. In 1936 he attended the Lying-in-State of King George V and was said to be living in London on £98 a year. Two years later he celebrated his 21st birthday with a party in an hotel, which was attended by neither his father nor grandfather.
He was disinherited for marrying Mrs Clare Hollway, several years his senior, in 1939. The couple spent their honeymoon night in the Ritz, but the cupboards in their room were locked against them. They then went to the South of France. Nevertheless, when their son Robin (the new Duke) was born in the Ritz in 1940, the bills were picked up by Howland's grandfather, who died soon afterwards as the Battle of Britain raged.
Howland then became Marquess of Tavistock, and his father the 12th Duke. His father intended to move into Woburn, but it was taken over by a secret government department in the Second World War. Later, he discovered parts of the abbey were the victim of dry rot and simply pulled them down. (Later still Sir Albert Richardson, President of the Royal Academy, was brought in to rescue and remodel what he could.)
Tragedy struck in 1945 when Clare died of an overdose of sleeping tablets in a hotel in Sussex, an open verdict being recorded. The following year, Tavistock became executive director of an Indian import-export company in Curzon Street, and the year after that he married Mrs Lydia Lyle, daughter of the third Lord Churston and sister of Princess Joan Aly Khan.
In 1948 the Tavistocks moved to the Cape in South Africa in order to run a farm there. They returned to England when further tragedy struck in 1953. Tavistock's father, the pacifist, who lived in the High Street at Woburn with a ménage of parakeets and homing budgerigars, disappeared from his Devon cottage orné, Endsleigh, and after a prolonged search it was found that he had shot himself dead in the thick undergrowth near his home (apparently in an accident, but some said in order to create as many death duties as possible).
The new Duke took on Woburn Abbey, which had lain unoccupied for 13 years since his grandfather's death. The house was in a state of considerable decline, and there was no kitchen. The death duties were in excess of £4.5m, so the Duke decided to open the house to the public for six months a year. It attracted 181,000 visitors in its first season in 1955. The opening, on Good Friday that year, was not without its adventures. The Duke's dog was stolen, never to be recovered, and one visitor was apprehended cutting a piece of the curtain away as a souvenir.
From then on, there was little he would not do in the interests of promoting Woburn. He embarked on a lecture tour talking about old England, castles and etiquette. He allowed a film called Nudist Paradise (1958) to be shot at Woburn, declaring that he did not mind the content as long as it brought money to the house, and further stating: "I wouldn't mind going nude myself!" He created a funfair and a zoo park (introducing the muntjak to Britain with fateful consequences for gardens as far away as Hampshire). He took part in many a television show, and he invited guests to dine with him, for the price of £90. He wrote his memoirs, A Silver-Plated Spoon, in 1959, The Duke of Bedford's Book of Snobs, with George Mikes, in 1965 (in which he suggested that attendance at smart memorial services would well serve the social climber), and finally, also with Mikes, How to Run a Stately Home in 1971.
For all the flamboyance, the real man was shy and gentle. He was a modest figure who regularly greeted the tourists that flocked to Woburn – wandering alone through the state rooms and happy to answer all manner of questions from his visitors with time and courtesy.
In 1959 the press seized on stories of his romance with Madame Nicole Milinaire, a French film producer. Divorce and remarriage soon followed. His son Robin announced his own engagement to Henrietta Tiarks a few days after his father's third wedding in 1960.
By the 1960s the Duke had become a well-known and well-liked national figure. His 50th birthday in 1967 was attended by David Frost, then an up-coming television personality, by Lionel Bart, soon after his success with the musical Oliver, and the waif-like model Twiggy.
The Bedfords remained at the centre of national life for many years, the Duchess creating something of a sensation when she introduced into her memoirs, Nicole Nobody (1975), a story about being held captive in a Manchester hotel room for three days by a stranger "with a gentle-giant smile", who emerged "a superb lover" and left her feeling, "It was an awakening that every woman should experience." Some suggested cynically that this story might have been a ploy to gain publicity for her book, a gimmick which Ian Bedford would certainly have condoned.
Then, in 1974, aware of the dangers of death duties and taxation, the Duke handed over the estate and set off to live abroad, in a variety of countries. There were occasionally mistily printed photographs of him in a white dinner jacket at some Monte Carlo gala, published in magazines such as Hola! and Point de Vue. He died in Sante Fe, New Mexico.
It is impossible not to admire the 13th Duke of Bedford. Inadequately raised, he kept his head. When called to the challenge of Woburn, he faced it head on, and he succeeded, despite the hazards of high taxation and with public opinion to be won round. Finally, well in advance of the need to do so, he left, thus fulfilling the essentials of his destiny, that he pass on his inheritance in a better state than that in which he found it.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies