Last Mitford sister dead: Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, dies away aged 94

The Mitford sisters where the original ‘It’ girl siblings of the Forties, and made headlines for their sometimes scandalous social lives

Jenn Selby,Jonathan Brown
Wednesday 24 September 2014 18:44
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The last surviving Mitford sister has died at the age of 94.

Deborah, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, passed away this morning, Chatsworth House in Derbyshire, where she was chatelaine, confirmed.

In a statement her son, the current Duke of Devonshire, said it was “with great sadness” that his mother had “passed away peacefully this morning”.

He said funeral plans would be announced shortly. A book of condolence will be opened tomorrow at St Peter’s Church in the Derbyshire hamlet of Edensor where she had lived in a former vicarage on the edge of the vast estate inherited by her husband, the 11th Duke, in 1950.

Visitors to Chatsworth and its celebrated farm shop – which the Duchess pioneered and made an unrivalled success – will also be invited to pay their respects.

The Mitford sisters where the original ‘It’ girl siblings of the Forties, and made headlines for their sometimes scandalous social lives.

Raucous lunches: the Mitford sisters, Nancy and Deborah, left, in Venice in the Forties

The lofty circles in which her family moved brought her into contact with Winston Churchill and John F Kennedy. She famously met Adolf Hitler in Munich before the war through her sister Unity who was fixated with the Fuhrer although she later played down the significance of the event.

"I didn't know Hitler. I only went to tea with him once,” she told an interviewer.

Her sister Diana married the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley and was jailed, while Jessica Mitford embraced the polar opposite ideology, running away to the Spanish Civil War and later becoming a powerful advocate of civil rights in her adopted home of California.

Eldest sister Nancy Mitford, who helped chronicle a now lost era growing up in the bohemian atmosphere of inter-war privilege, used to refer to her younger sibling as Nine – the mental age she believed her to have stopped developing.

But the Duchess’s early passion for chicken keeping, cooking and old-fashioned country life provided the perfect preparation for her marriage to Andrew Cavendish and what was to be her life’s work – establishing Chatsworth as a financially independent and viable modern day proposition.

Deborah Mitford, however, drew the nickname the “housewife duchess”, favouring domestic activities. Her pursuits ultimately led to Chatsworth became one of the most profitable stately homes in England.

She married Lord Andrew Cavendish, younger son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, in 1941. They had seven children together, although four of them died shortly after she gave birth.

Her daughter, Emma Cavendish, is the mother of fashion model Stella Tennant.

The Duke was later to admit that he was bemused by the fascination with his wife’s family history describing her as “on the bossy side” but adding “I've always liked that in a woman”.

She in turn publicly accepted his serial infidelity and alcoholism and theirs remained an enduring partnership. "People are so odd in England about marriage and what it means,” she said when challenged about the relationship.

Additional words by Jonathan Brown

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