Helen Venetia and Edgar Vincent
Manor of Stoke d'Abernon (including Parkside School), Stoke d'Abernon
Life beyond Elmbridge
'.......handsome, clever and rich.' Jane Austen's description of her heroine Emma Woodhouse might just as easily have been applied to Helen Venetia Duncombe Vincent. She was described in an 1899 edition of Cassell's Magazine as '..without doubt the most beautiful woman in England.' Her renowned beauty was captured in John Singer Sargent's portrait which was painted in Venice in 1904 and now hangs in the Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama, USA. Lady Helen was born in 1866 at her family's London home to a life of wealth and privilege as the second daughter of William Duncombe, 1st Earl of Feversham, of Ryedale and his wife Mabel Violet Graham. Their estate was Duncombe Park in Helmsley, Yorkshire. She became a skilled linguist, being fluent in French and Italian and was associated with 'the Souls', a noted group of intellectuals which included Henry James and Edith Wharton.
On 24 September 1890 at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge Lady Helen Duncombe married Sir Edgar Vincent (1857-1941) the governor of the Imperial Ottoman Bank in Constantinople. It was a glittering affair: the bride wore '.....a Venetian dress of rich white satin, tied at the waist with a girdle of silver.....Her veil was of choice old point lace and her ornaments a superb diamond necklace and diamond star.' There were over 500 wedding gifts including a gold smelling bottle from the Prince of Wales, a ruby and diamond sword pin from the Princess of Wales and an emerald and diamond bracelet from the Grand Vizier of Turkey. She was now launched into a life where she became '.... the celebrated hostess of her age..' and was '..by reason of her outstanding beauty, intelligence and charm, one of the most resplendent figures.'( Dictionary of Real People and Places in Fiction, 1993, p.919). Between 1899 and 1906 Lady Helen was an MP's (Conservative) wife as Sir Edgar represented Exeter in the House of Commons. She carried out her duties in meticulous style: for example, visiting all the districts with her husband on election day, 6 November 1899; hosting an ' At Home' for 1200 guests at the Victoria Hall, Exeter in May,1900 where it was reported that she '...quickly won admiration by her charming manner...' with '...both her ladyship and Sir Edgar giving a hearty hand-shake and kindly word for all.' ( Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Adventurer, 5 May, 1900); and her drawing power is exemplified by comments in the Exeter & Plymouth Gazette (31 0ctober 1905) which notes that the constituency anticipating a visit by the Vincents took every opportunity to arrange events 'Organisers know the value of Lady Helen's presence, and are not slow to take advantage of the fact: nor is the wife of our member at all chary in giving her patronage.'
Sir Edgar and Lady Helen Vincent were at home in the cosmopolitan society of London, Paris, Venice and Berlin. They were mentioned frequently in the society columns of The Times which on 12 September 1908 records that they attended the wedding of Winston Churchill and Clementine Hozier. They loved the fine arts, especially English painting and were generous donors: in 1949 Lady Helen (by then Viscountess D'Abernon) gave an impressive first century B.C., Greek marble head to the Fitzwilliam Museum; fine Venetian works of art including 'The Adoration of the Magi' by Piazzetta were given to the British Ambassador's Residence in Berlin; and she rebuilt the precious fifteenth century external staircase to the Palazzo Giustinian on the Grand Canal in Venice.
The First World War, however, brought her experiences very different to the gilded life she had led thus far. Lady Helen was vice-President of the Surrey Branch of the Red Cross and she would work in hospitals in France and Italy, experience bombing in Venice, the privations of life at the Front and family bereavement. In 1915 she was a nurse in a hospital in or near Dieppe when she observed that there was an inadequate supply of chloroform or ether and skilled anaesthetists were "entirely absent" leading to an increase in distress and anxiety for many patients as it was often not possible to use anaesthetic for minor operations. Nursing had increased Lady Helen's self-confidence and she came to believe that she would be of more use if she trained as an anaesthetist. There was a problem to overcome - to practise anaesthesia legally under British auspices required a medical degree. This is where her many contacts in the upper echelons of society came in useful; she returned home and approached Sir Alfred Fripp at Guy's Hospital with whom she had worked the previous Winter, he approved of her plan and placed her with his principal anaesthetist Dr. W. Page for a course of practical instruction. During the Winter of 1915-16, first as an observer, then gradually assisting in the administration of anaesthesia and finally taking the responsibility herself, after eight months, she became a 'nurse anaesthetist'. She left for a Croix Rouge Hospital in France in the early summer of 1916 with unsolicited testimonials from Dr. Page and others with whom she had worked. 'I consider Lady D'Abernon to be thoroughly careful and conscientious......she would be of great assistance wherever there was a shortage of qualified medical anaesthetists.' Howard Jones (anaesthetist to the Metropolitan Orthopaedic, St. Mark's and other hospitals) wrote that '........I have great confidence in giving her entire control of the cases under my care. In my opinion she is fully competent to undertake similar work in a military hospital.'
When she arrived in France in 1916 to act as an anaesthetist Lady Helen was already familiar with military hospitals. She thought they were well-planned and organised and provided the indispensable '...but absolutely nothing else.' On a visit to a French hospital in 1915 she noted poignantly that in the Officers' section '.......the faces were, almost without exception the faces of mere boys.' Lady Helen could hardly have been prepared for the nurses' accommodation which at Vic-Sur Aisne in October 1918 was '..... in a loft under a leaking roof ,alive with rats.' Because of the cold and damp weather they had to wear old riding boots and water proof leggings to work in! Between 1916-18 she administered 1,137 anaesthesias and did not lose a single patient as a result of the anaesthesia. Lady Helen kept careful notes on her patients which record the many difficult and distressing cases she dealt with: on 22 July 1916 she was involved in an operation to extract a bullet from the shoulder blade, close to the spine, the patient was 'out' for one hour and ten minutes, there was 'much struggling', 'respiration arrested, had to stop the operation and get him on his back', once the operation was completed and the patient was partially conscious '......[he] became violent and had to be held by several infirmiers until quieted...' and on 18 September 1916 during an operation on a very strong Moroccan '...the jaw and head never ceased to react strongly against me. A very exhausting case to administer.' In August 1918 Lady Helen arrived at Dolegna on the Austrian/Italian border to command a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) at the Clearing Station of the 2nd Army. The Italian forces launched their offensive on 18 August; the number of wounded passing through Dolegna during the first twelve days was 12,065, the peak came during 24-25 August when 1,128 patients arrived. As early as 19 August, Lady Helen recorded that 'The work is distressing. Many men are grievously mutilated, and there is very little we can do.' And on 21 August she wrote 'Yesterday, after Midnight, one man arrived stark naked, his poor face and head tied up in bandages, his senses gone.....it was not possible feed him or to do anything but give him a strong morphine injection.' Hoping to have some respite she went to stay at her apartment in Venice in September only for the city to be bombed while she was there.
Lady Helen was in Paris when the fighting finally ended on 11 November 1918. Three days later she wrote '.....I begin to realise that I am not merely tired but quite worn out.' She went on to confess that she would like to withdraw from some aspects of public life but in 1920 she took on a huge commitment when her husband accepted the position of British Ambassador to Berlin. Being the official representatives of victorious Britain in defeated Germany was extremely difficult and needed sensitive diplomacy. She was highly praised by Lady Curzon (wife of the Foreign Secretary) for her reorganisation of the Berlin Embassy and Residence. Lady Helen taught herself German during this period, she did her best to get to know Berlin and its people, concluding that 'Morally, mentally and physically they all look "down and out".' She concerned herself with health and housing conditions, especially in industrial areas and used her contacts with the Red Cross to provide some tangible help. Lady Helen and her husband were in Germany during the French invasion of the Ruhr and the hyper- inflation of 1923 which caused much hardship and distress and saw Hitler's first attempt (Munich Putsch, Nov.1923) to seize national power. The Vincents met the key political figures of Germany's fledgling democracy including President Ebert, Chancellor Stresemann and President Hindenburg. However, she and her husband left Germany in happier circumstances on 6 October 1926, the same year in which Germany's entry to the League of Nations was confirmed. They were both touched by the warmth of the tributes paid to them by their German contacts. On Lady Helen's ( Viscountess D'Abernon) death in 1954 The Times recalled of this period that '....Lady D'Abernon's tact and popularity among all classes and nationalities, and a capacity for putting everyone at ease, contributed much to the success which in untoward circumstances crowned her husband's efforts.....'
Life in Elmbridge
The Vincents' Surrey home, Esher Place, featured in their diplomatic role. During the early 1920s the Library there was the location for the drafting of the Treaty of Locarno (primarily to reconcile France and Germany and in so doing promote greater security in Europe) carried out by Lord D'Abernon, Austen Chamberlain (Foreign Secretary) and representatives of Allies. After long evening meetings the documents were placed in the strong room under the minister's seal. Chamberlain's efforts were rewarded with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1925.
Sir Edgar Vincent bought Esher Place and 83 acres of grounds c. 1893 for £18,600 (about £1.1 million by 2005 values). He engaged G.T.Robinson and Duchene to build a new house in the French Renaissance style, but incorporated some of the previous building as the Southwest wing. Edward, Prince of Wales (later, Edward VII) had an impressive private theatre added to the main house as a wedding gift for Lady Helen. The gardens, most of which have now been built on, were also impressive including a water garden, bowling green, yew hedges and an open air Greek theatre (created by the designer of the Cenotaph, Sir Edwin Lutyens). Esher Place became a magnet for London's social, political and cultural elite. In addition to their Royal guest the Vincents played host to the Churchills, Asquiths, Balfours and Cecil Rhodes. Marion Barker records one such occasion in her 'Esher Memoirs': ' One marvellously fine Sunday a most enthralling sight took place at Esher Place. Pavlova (1881-1931,one of the finest classical ballet dancers, Russian) danced like a beautiful sprite on the grass amphitheatre........All the most well-known people in society crowded there to see Pavlova fluttering about like a fairy in those beautiful surroundings.......to see Pavlova in such a setting was a sight which will remain pictured in my memory for ever.'
The Vincents endeavoured to support their local community in many ways. The Morning Post of 11 August 1897 records that they donated £100 to the Duchess of Albany's ( a neighbour at Claremont House) fund to provide a residence for the Rector of Esher and on 29 December of the same year the London Standard describes Lady Helen entertaining Esher Sunday School children at Esher Place '......[she] received her guests, helped to wait on them at tea which was served in the spacious tennis court.' Each child also received a gift and the adults were not forgotten as the workmen on the estate were given a festive meal. Both the Duchess of Albany and Lady Helen attended the opening of Esher's restored St. George's Old Parish Church in February 1911 and when she was at home during the First World War Lady Helen hosted 'knitting parties' to provide warm garments for soldiers.
As with many country estates Esher Place became untenable to run after 1918, many staff had left and the economic travails of the 1920s and 30s added to the difficulties. Most of the land was purchased by an estate company in 1929 and within three years about twenty houses had been built on the site. The Vincents' mansion and a small area of parkland went to The Shaftesbury Society and on I November 1930 The Shaftesbury Home for Girls opened providing accommodation for 180 until 1952. At that point it was bought by the then Electrical Trade Union for £23,000. Today the Vincents' former home is the 'flagship training and conference venue for Unite (Britain and Ireland's biggest Union).'
The Vincents (since 1926, Viscount and Viscountess D'Abernon) left Esher in 1934. They had bought the Viscount's ancestral home ( he had become the 16th Baronet of Stoke D'Abernon on the death of his brother Francis in 1936) The Manor, in Stoke D'Abernon. They set about restoring the house and adding to its beauty with Adam and Directoire furniture and displaying many ancestral portraits collected over the years. They also enlarged and enhanced the gardens. Edgar Vincent died in 1941 and his ashes are in a Roman casket in the chantry of nearby St. Mary's Church. His widow outlived him by thirteen years, dying in 1954 at the age of 88. She was much lamented: she was of course remembered for her outstanding good looks which she retained into old age but also for much more; The Times obituary (18 May 1954) wrote of her published diaries as '.....the shrewd observations of a woman who all her life had lived in a great world.....'; her hard and determined work as a nurse anaesthetist in the First world War was not forgotten nor was her intelligence and charm. On hearing of her death the Aga Khan described her as 'the most beautiful woman I ever knew, utterly unspoilt, simple, selfless, gay, brave and kind.'
Her remains lie to the west of St. Mary's Church and since 1979 her last home has been Parkside Independent Preparatory School for Boys.
- Ian G. Anderson, History of Esher, Wolsey Press, Esher, 1948
- British Library Newspaper Archive, Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf, www.surreycc.gov.uk
- Marriage of the Duchess of Leinster's Sister, The Belfast News-Letter (Belfast, Ireland), Thursday, September 25, 1890; Issue 23470
- The World of Women. Marguerite. The Penny Illustrated Times (London, England), Saturday, August 13, 1898; pg. 108; Issue 1942
- The Most Beautiful Woman in England, The Hampshire Advertiser (Southampton, England), Saturday, 6 May, 1899; pg.7; Issue 5520
- Lady Helen Vincent. " At Home" at Exeter, Trewman's Exeter Flying Post or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter, England), Saturday, May 5, 1900; Issue 10352
- Sarah Cox, Collections Assistant, Red Cross Museum and Archives
- D'Abernon, Red Cross and Berlin Embassy 1915-1926, Extracts from the Diaries of Viscountess D'Abernon, London, John Murray, 1946
- Lady D'Abernon's Album, Imperial War Museum Archives, London
- 'Taking Tea at historic Esher Place', Esher News & Mail, 4 June, 1997,Elmbridge Museum's Local History Collections
- History of Esher Place, www.unitetheunion.org/pdf/Esher%20History.pdf
- Chris Hodgson, A History of the Manor, Stoke d'Abernon, 2008, www.parkside-school.co.uk
- Lisa Hutchins, Esher & Claygate Past, London, 2001
- Intrepid Women: Helen Vincent, Viscountess D'Abernon,
- Arthur Melton, Esher Place, Historical Background, Elmbridge Museum's Local History Collections
- Penny Rainbow, The Tower of Esher, A William Wayneflete Landmark, 2010
- Ian D. Stevens, The Story of Esher, Hertfordshire, 1966
- The Times Digital Archive, Surrey Libraries Online Reference Shelf, www.surreycc.gov.uk
- Esher Old Church, The Times (London, England), February 06, 1911; pg.3; Issue39502
- Fitzwilliam Museum, The Times (London, England), January 25, 1949; pg.2; Issue 51288
- Villa Wolkonsky (Rome), www.ukinitaly.fco.gov.uk
Edgar Vincent, first Viscount d'Abernon (1857-1941) politician, financier, diplomat, art collector and writer. He took the name d'Abernon when he became a Baron in 1914 and was made first Viscount D'Abernon in 1926. He bought Esher Place in 1895, and had the house substantially remodelled in a grand French style. Edward, Prince of Wales (later Edward VII) commissioned an opulent private theatre, designed by Sir Edward Lutyens, to be attached to the house as a wedding gift to Lady d'Abernon, who was a great patron of the theatre. From 1920-26 d'Abernon was appointed ambassador to Weimar, Germany, and during the early 1920s the Treaty of Locarno was drafted at Esher Place by d'Abernon and Sir Austen Chamberlain.