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Obituary: The Marquess of Normanby

Richard Hannay
Thursday 03 February 1994 00:02 GMT

Oswald Constantine John Phipps, landowner and charity administrator: born 29 July 1912; styled Earl of Mulgrave 1912-32; succeeded 1932 as fourth Marquess of Normanby; served 5th Btn Royal Green Howards 1939- 45; MBE (Mil) 1943, CBE 1974; PPS to Secretary of State for Dominion Affairs 1944-45, to Lord President of Council 1945; a Lord-in-Waiting 1945; Member of Council, St Dunstan's 1944-80, Vice-President 1980- 94; Chairman, King's College Hospital 1948-74; Lord-Lieutenant of North Riding of Yorkshire 1965-74, of North Yorkshire 1974-87; Chairman, National Library for the Blind 1946-77, President 1977-88; High Steward of York Minster 1980-88; Chairman, National Art Collections Fund 1981-86; KG 1985; married 1951 The Hon Grania Guinness (two sons, five daughters); died Lythe, North Yorkshire 30 January 1994.

OSWALD, fourth Marquess of Normanby, was a late survivor of a heroic age of the English nobility.

Born in 1912, to a father born in 1846, he was brought up in Spartan circumstances at Mulgrave Castle on the ferocious cliffs of North Yorkshire and preserved in his nature and his occupations the mettle of an earlier age. Entirely confident of his own judgement, Normanby had no time for fools, snobs or time- servers, except as they might further his enterprises. Aware of real authority - God, friendship, virtue, family, country - he was merciless with sham authorities, such as immigration officers, the head waiter at Petrossian in New York, busybody officials. Of all the advice he gave me, I remember particularly: 'If you need to dynamite a country house, do do it early on Monday morning.'

He believed in charity, but not in any sentimental sense. Because he understood the beauty of sight - the sight not just of Mulgrave in its incomparable setting, but of his family and travels, his garden and pictures and Greek and Etruscan antiquities - he devoted years of his life to teaching the blind to see. His generosity to individuals will now never be measured but he had a particular talent for seeking out institutions with the potential for brilliance and then worrying at them till they got there. In politics, he was Whiggish rather than Tory, and he didn't fit into the political categories handed down by the French Revolution: for a while he was known to his Yorkshire neighbours as 'the Red Marquess'. Later he became disgusted with the class and appeasement politics of the post-war Labour administrations, with the aggression of the Thatcher years and the unprincipled and philistine careerism of the Major era. He loved Yorkshire, and above all the land between the moors and the sea round Whitby, and his family.

The Phipps family had been established in North Yorkshire since the 18th century. It was always on close and respectful terms with the sea and Oswald Normanby's forebear Constantine John Phipps had led the Admiralty expedition to Spitzbergen in 1773 and named the polar bear.

Oswald Phipps was styled Earl of Mulgrave in the lifetime of his father, the third Marquess of Normanby, for much of his life a vicar in Lancashire, and surely the only Reverend Marquess in the English peerage. In later life, he ran a school in the castle. Oswald Mulgrave was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, whence he was sent down after two terms for desecrating a Belisha beacon. His father died in 1932, when he succeeded as fourth Marquess of Normanby.

At the outbreak of war, he enlisted with his local regiment, the Green Howards, and went to France with the 5th Battalion, which escaped from the pocket of Arras and was then ordered to hold the ring round Dunkirk for four days at the Houthem canal under unremitting dive-bombing and artillery fire. On 31 May 1940, just after dinner, a shell hit the small chateau which was housing battalion headquarters and Normanby was hit by shrapnel in the right ankle and back, where a portion of metal punctured his lung. He was evacuated with the other wounded to a house in the Dunkirk suburbs. In the confusion, they became separated from the survivors of the battalion, who were evacuated from the Dunkirk mole by jumping on to moving destroyers. Normanby never mentioned this: he spoke of the war reluctantly.

Imprisoned at Obermassfeldt in Thuringia, he was strongly affected by the condition of a small group of prisoners that had been blinded in action. With the help of a Larousse dictionary, he constructed a Braille alphabet with match-heads stuck through cardboard, and tried to teach them to read: he later said he was the only man in the world who could read embossed type for the blind only by sight and only upside down. The Germans were suspicious: the head prison doctor, who appears to have been a Nazi, was once heard to curse him as 'den verdammten plutokratischen englischen Lord', but, after the move to Kloster Haina in 1941, and after Normanby secured the secondment of a blind German Great War officer called Captain Adolph and a British eye specialist then in captivity, Major Dr David Charters, the school grew and gradually collected the blind British and Empire servicemen scattered about the Reich. It also widened its field of studies to typing, music, business correspondence, bookbinding and, rather unsuccessfully, anatomy.

Normanby had no connection at this period with St Dunstan's, the organisation set up after the First World War for the large number of soldiers blinded by gas in that conflict, but he managed somehow to persuade the Germans that he was the head of all the blind organisations in the United Kingdom. He was also a martinet - no doubt an echo of his childhood at Mulgrave; at one stage, when morale appears to have been at breaking-point, he instituted classes before breakfast, a form of torture then unique in the world to Eton: there was a mutiny instigated by a seaman, which was ruthlessly suppressed.

Through the mediation of Dr Celender, of the Swedish YMCA, Normanby managed to have this group of prisoners repatriated. A first effort in 1941 failed - Hitler changed his mind, as Normanby mildly commented - but, in October 1943, a group of 28 men was safely evacuated to Gothenburg and then to the cheering quays of Liverpool. Normanby, appointed MBE for this work, moved to London and became Parliamentary Private Secretary to Viscount Cranborne, Secretary of State for the Dominions, and then Government Whip in the Lords. With the advent of the Attlee government, he sat as a Labour peer until 1950, when, horrified at the Government's spendthrift economic policies, he announced himself an Independent.

It was inevitable that Normanby would take over the chairmanship of the National Library for the Blind, which had been set up in 1880 to provide embossed-type books, and also, at the very least, join the council of St Dunstan's. But the chief event of this period was his marriage in 1951 to the Hon Grania Guinness, the daughter of Lord Moyne, who as British Minister in the Middle East had been murdered by the Stern Gang in Cairo in 1940. The equal of her husband in intellect, energy and sympathy, she helped him restore Mulgrave to its old prosperity, repaired and expanded the farms, collected pictures that had been lost, filled the gaps in the great naval library assembled by Constantine John and made a garden inside the castle's old vegetable plot, protected by brick walls from the sea and moor gales. It was the happiest marriage I ever witnessed. They had together seven children, who enjoyed paradisial childhoods and adolescences of intermittent conflict, and were present, all of them, during his last illness.

In 1948, Lord Normanby had become chairman of the board of governors of King's College Hospital, in Brixton, London, and, in the period of his leadership that lasted until 1974, helped convert it into the best teaching hospital in London. He raised funds to endow a department and a chair of academic paediatrics, and also the Normanby College of Nursing. Normanby thought nurses' pay was a scandal, long before it was patently so. He gradually withdrew from his work to concentrate on his beloved North Riding. He was Lord-Lieutenant of North Riding of Yorkshire from 1965 to 1974, and of North Yorkshire from 1974 to 1987, which included responsibility for the City of York with all its ecclesiastical and royal connections. He fulfilled these duties with pleasure, attracting both capital and patronage to the district, and positively enjoyed the dark journeys in wind and hail over the moors back to Mulgrave. He was also High Steward of York Minster and, when the south transept was struck by lightning in 1984, he had oak cut and sent from the Mulgrave Woods: oak that he would also be buried in. He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1985, and felt deeply honoured.

In 1981 he accepted an invitation to chair the National Art Collections Fund, where he stayed until his first bad illness in 1986. In his period at the NACF, by some distance its most brilliant, Normanby used his persuasive force and his friends to raise funds towards the purchase of, among other masterpieces, a Crucifixion from the circle of Duccio, though typically, given his Northern orientation, that was not for London but Manchester.

He did not understand 'heritage' in the modern sense. Normanby did not believe that he was a custodian of national property, but that, on the contrary, Mulgrave belonged to his family for which it was decent but not opulent housing. No National Trust functionary ever went through the hall doors, no Country Life intellectuals ever hissed proprietorially about what poor Oswald and Grania had done to that wonderful library, no tourists queued, baying for tea, against scarlet ropes; though the people of Sandsend and Whitby walked their dogs through the Mulgrave Woods as they had for long periods of recorded time.

His years after 1986 were marked by bouts of illness. He will be buried today at St Oswald's, Lythe, between the roaming sea and the woods he loved.

(Photographs omitted)

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