Obituary: Ruth Fermoy

Hugo Vickers
Thursday 08 July 1993 00:02 BST

Ruth Sylvia Gill, concert pianist and courtier: born 2 October 1908; JP 1944; founder of the King's Lynn Festival 1951; OBE 1952; Extra Woman of the Bedchamber to Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother 1956-60, Woman of the Bedchamber 1960-93; CVO 1966, DCVO 1979; Hon FRCM 1984; married 1931 Maurice, fourth Baron Fermoy (died 1955; two daughters, and one son deceased); died London 6 July 1993.

RUTH, Lady Fermoy was a stalwart member of the court of Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, and her death, so soon after that of the Private Secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat, deprives Clarence House of two of its best-loved members.

The essential quality of the Queen Mother's court has long been its adherence to old-world standards and courtesies. Overseen by the Queen Mother, whose warmth of character and lively enjoyment of life permeated all reaches of Clarence House, there were the faithful older members of the court (of whom Lady Hambleden, Lady Elizabeth Basset and Sir Ralph Anstruther are the key survivors), and then some newer recruits brought in to boost numbers as the older ones died off. Effortlessly polite to all comers, they acted as a team, and every afternoon, at the appointed hour, the Queen Mother's courtiers took tea together to mull over the events of the day. As early as 1937 the lady-in-waiting to Queen Ena of Spain complimented Queen Elizabeth on being surrounded by some of the nicest women in England: 'the sort of women who ride in buses, pay their bills and are nice to old servants'.

Ruth Fermoy joined the Queen Mother's court as an Extra Woman of the Bedchamber in 1956, and was therefore a relatively recent acquisition to the Household. She was promoted Woman of the Bedchamber in 1960. She was a close friend of Queen Elizabeth, often on duty at Clarence House, and very much to the fore at the more social weekends at Royal Lodge, when guests were treated to readings by John Gielgud or Edward Fox or to musical entertainment.

Lady Fermoy was the founder and organiser of the King's Lynn Festival and was the animateuse of the Queen Mother's late July house party at Sandringham, which coincided with that festival. She also accompanied her on her private visits to France and Venice, along with the Duke and Duchess of Grafton and others. Despite being taken ill in March, she was still occasionally in attendance on the Queen Mother in the weeks that followed.

The Queen Mother had known her for many years, as the fourth Lord Fermoy had settled in Norfolk in the 1920s, where he served as MP for King's Lynn until 1935. When Ruth Gill married him in 1931, he was actually Mayor of King's Lynn, and they lived first at Sedgeford Hall and later at Park House within the grounds of Sandringham. It will be recalled that, even as King George V was dying, Queen Mary sent a message of inquiry about the birth of Lady Fermoy's daughter Frances (the mother of the Princess of Wales).

Lord Fermoy became a regular figure shooting with King George VI, along with Michael Adeane, the young Viscount Althorp (later the eighth Earl Spencer), Sir William Fellowes and others, the issue of whom have taken their places in the present court. It was thus that Ruth Fermoy, a Scot from Aberdeen, became a friend of Queen Elizabeth. And her work as a concert pianist (she trained with the great pianist Alfred Cortot) and for the King's Lynn Festival made her widely known in Norfolk.

Many years later she became nationally known as the grandmother of the Princess of Wales. At the time of the engagement it was generally assumed that Queen Elizabeth and Lady Fermoy had put their heads together to find a suitable candidate for Prince Charles. Reviewing the situation with hindsight, this would seem to be unfounded. When Lady Althorp left her husband, Lady Fermoy testified against her daughter, as part result of which Lord Althorp was granted custody of the children (including the Princess of Wales). Not unnaturally this led to a certain lasting froideur within the family.

When the Wales marriage collapsed, Lady Fermoy was in a particularly difficult position, and, as much as anyone else involved in that sad debacle, she suffered. The Queen Mother's natural loyalty to the Prince of Wales did little to smooth relations between the Princess of Wales and her grandmother. The revelations of Andrew Morton's book and her own subsequent portrayal in the disgraceful television mini-series that followed were anathema to her.

Nor was this the only tragedy she endured in later life. Her son, the fifth Lord Fermoy, committed suicide in 1984 and her daughter Mary's former husband, Sir Anthony Berry MP, was blown up by the Brighton bomb in the same year.

Many of those attending Sir Martin Gilliat's memorial service in St Martin-in-the-Fields today will feel a double sense of sadness.

(Photograph omitted)

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