Following the death of the 10th Duke of Devonshire on 26th November 1950, his wife, Duchess Evelyn Devonshire, moved into Hardwick Hall where she lived as the Dowager until her death in 1960. Brian Spencer traces her far from reclusive life there.
It is fitting that two determined ladies should be associated with Hardwick Hall’s beginning and end as a private ducal mansion. The formidable Elizabeth Shrewsbury (Bess of Hardwick) built it in 1597 as her masterpiece, emblazoning the rooftop with her initials E.S. and filling the walls with glass. The Dowager Duchess Evelyn Devonshire moved in on the death of the 10th Duke whose crippling death duties meant she was the last of the Devonshire dynasty to live there.
Not one to sit back as a recluse in widow’s weeds, the Dowager Duchess continued the public life she had shared with her husband, albeit on a more local level in the north of England. Born in 1870 at the height of Queen Victoria’s reign, she married Edward Cavendish as he then was and with him had seven children. She must have caught the eye of Queen Mary at court and she was appointed to the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, an important position as she had to make sure that Queen Mary was always wearing the correct robes and awards at royal occasions.
Her position as Mistress of the Robes came to an end in June 1916 when the Duke was appointed as the Governor General of Canada and she became the Viceregal Consort. By then Lady Evelyn and Queen Mary had become good friends and the move was a disappointment to both of them. Five years later the couple returned and they became closely involved with local affairs, he as an MP until the death of his father the 9th Duke when he attained the title of Duke of Devonshire. As the Duchess of Devonshire, Evelyn continued her local work, becoming involved with such matters as founding the new Leeds University.
In 1925 the Duke had a stroke but lived on at his Eastbourne residence until his death in 1950. Because his eldest son Edward, had been killed on active service in Normandy after D-day, the second son, Andrew, became the eleventh duke. With two deaths in a comparatively short length of time, crippling death duties meant that the Devonshires had to make far reaching economies. One of these was to see the transfer of ownership of Hardwick Hall to HM Treasury who gave it to the National Trust, but this did not happen during Dowager Duchess Evelyn’s lifetime. However it was fitting that the public would be able to enjoy the splendours of this Tudor mansion, because through her efforts Hardwick Hall had in her lifetime been regularly opened to the public when it was frequently used for fund raising events.
When she moved into Hardwick she decided to use Bess of Hardwick’s bedroom as her own, but only with the additional comfort of central heating. Her sitting room overlooked the front lawns and the far reaching views of east Derbyshire. Here she indulged in her favourite pastime of embroidery in which she was highly skilled. She could turn her hand to most forms of embroidery and even helped repair the massive tapestries hanging in Hardwick’s Great Chamber. Several items of her work are currently on display and include two dining chairs and an elaborate hanging that surrounds her initials. In being a skilled embroiderer, she followed the tradition of her Tudor forebear, Bess, who along with the captive Mary Queen of Scots, spent many friendly hours sewing side by side.
As part of a special National Trust display in Hardwick’s attic, there is a curious chair intended for use by an invalid. It is controlled by two hand-operated handles that turn the chair’s castors forward and back, or from side to side. Enquiries about its use by Dowager Duchess Evelyn are quickly denied for it is certainly something the strong-willed lady would never have considered using, no matter what her condition. During her life at Hardwick amongst the many changes she made, was the planting of a rose garden in the East Court, a feature that gives great pleasure to today’s visitors every summer.
Of all these changes, the one for which she is best remembered, especially in an affectionate way, is the war she waged on woodworm infestation. Spotting where the dreaded insects were busy, she would wait until a head appeared and wham! A rolled magazine would end the life of at least on annoying creature.
A lady who had lived through a time of great change and the necessary economies of the 1930s great Depression, Evelyn Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire died peacefully on 2nd April 1960 and is buried alongside her husband in the family plot at Edensor.
The exhibition is in the rooms at Hardwick Hall used by Evelyn Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and is expected to run for at least the rest of this year.