The aristocratic Mitford sisters – Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica and Deborah – hit the headlines throughout their lifetimes, with tales of scandal and intrigue filling the pages of the press from the 1920s and beyond.
Born to David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale, and his wife Sydney, alongside brother Thomas, the Mitford sisters often shocked society, whether it be through their political views, or their private lives.
In this special blog, we shall unravel the remarkable stories of the six Mitford sisters, from 1928 onwards, using pages from our newspaper Archive.
1928 – ‘Debutante to Wed’
We start our story not with the first born Mitford sister, Nancy (1904-1973), but the third born, Diana (1910-2003) and the announcement of her marriage to Bryan Guinness. The news of the engagement made the pages of national newspaper the Daily Mirror, which reported on 14 November 1928 how ‘one of the prettiest debutantes of the year is to marry the son of a Cabinet Minister.’
Eighteen-year-old Diana was set to marry 23-year-old Bryan Guinness, who was studying for the Bar. The young Diana Mitford had already impressed society with her good looks, and the engagement followed that of her elder sister Pamela (1907-1994), who had become ‘engaged recently to Mr. Oliver Watney, the only son of Mr. Vernon and Lady Margaret Watney.’
1929 – A ‘Broken Romance’ and A Wedding
But by 1929 Pamela Mitford’s nascent romance was over, the Daily Mirror reporting on 16 May 1929 how:
It was learned last night at the house of the Hon. Pamela Freeman-Mitford that her engagement to Mr. Oliver Vernon Watney, a member of the famous brewery firm, has been broken off. First arranged for last October, the wedding was postponed until January 22, but was then postponed indefinitely because Mr. Watney was suffering from pleurisy.
The article further outlines how Pamela had known Oliver ‘since childhood, the families being neighbours in Oxfordshire,’ and how the couple had got engaged at a ‘ball given by Countess Grey.’
Whilst Pamela’s marriage was called off, Diana’s went ahead. Photographs of her wedding made the front page of the Daily Mirror in January 1929, and the piece also included a picture of her younger sisters, Jessica (1917-1996) and Deborah (1920-2014), who were ‘prevented by illness from acting as bridesmaids to their sister, but threw rice as her car passed.’
The marriage of Mr. Bryan Guinness, son of the Hon. Walter Guinness, to the Hon. Diana Mitford, third daughter of Lord and Lady Redesdale, was solemnised at St. Margaret’s, Westminster. The lovely nineteen-year-old bride was attended by eleven bridesmaids.
The marriage, however, was not destined to last long.
1933 – An Engagement and A Decree Nisi
Four years later in June 1933 and Devon-based newspaper the Western Times reported how ‘the Hon. Diana Guinness was granted a decree nisi by Lord Merrivale in the Divorce Court yesterday on the ground of the adultery of her husband, the Hon. Bryan Walter Guinness, who did not defend the suit.’
The article outlined how:
According to Mrs. Guinness’s case she and her husband were perfectly happy until after the birth of their second child in 1931. Differences arose, and there were quarrels. In February, 1933, a deed of separation was entered into. A month later Mrs. Guinness received from her husband a letter stating that he had stayed with Miss Isolde Field at a Brighton hotel.
The latest bride-to-be is Lord and Lady Redesdale’s eldest daughter, whose engagement to the Hon. Peter Rennell Rodd was officially announced last week. The Hon. Nancy Mitford is not only charming to look at but also extremely intelligent and an entertaining conversationalist. Her fiancé is the second son of Lord and Lady Rennell.
Nancy Mitford, already a novelist, was not the only Mitford sister making the front page of magazines in 1933. Her younger sister Pamela was pictured by The Bystander on 12 April 1933, and described as ‘a very good-looking member of a good-looking family.’ Pamela would go on to marry millionaire physicist Derek Johnson.
1935 – Daughter of Peer ‘Nazi Guest of Honour’
By the mid 1930s the Mitford sisters were making headlines beyond the news of their engagements and divorces. The fourth Mitford sister, Unity (1914-1948), had travelled to Germany, where her ardent admiration of the Nazi regime and its leader made the pages of the press.
On 11 September 1935 the Daily Mirror published a piece with the headline ‘Daughter of Peer Nazi Guest of Honour.’ Unity Mitford was, apparently, the guest of honour at ‘the congress of Nazi groups abroad,’ which was held at Erlanger, in Bavaria.
But Unity Mitford wasn’t the only Mitford sister who admired the Nazis. Sat alongside her at the ‘speakers table’ was another of her sisters, who is not named by the piece, but we can suppose it to be Diana, who was another admirer of the fascist regime. The Daily Mirror also reported how Unity had penned a letter in Julius Streicher’s virulently antisemitic newspaper Der Stürmer, in which she termed herself ‘A Woman Fascist’ and expressed her ‘hatred for the Jews and praising Herr Hitler.’
1937 – An Elopement
The Mitford sisters undoubtedly held strong political views, but swimming against the tide was the second youngest member of the family, Jessica, who was a communist. In 1937 the nineteen-year-old made headlines when she eloped with the eighteen-year-old Esmond Romilly, who was a nephew of Winston Churchill. If the elopement was not scandalous enough, the couple left for Spain to participate in the Civil War there.
On 2 March 1937 the Daily Mirror published a piece which posited that Jessica and Esmond were the couple who had been ‘snowed up in a mountain hut in the Pyrenees.’ The article outlined how the pair had eloped:
Saying that she was going to spend a holiday in France, Miss Freeman-Mitford, aged nineteen, daughter of Lord Redesdale, eloped, and at a secret rendezvous at Bayonne met her fiancé, who has been serving with the International Force in Madrid.
It was subsequently learned that a young couple had been left stranded by the snow in a hut in the Tourmalet Pass, and two and two were put together. The theory was put to Jessica’s brother Thomas Mitford, who said ‘he could not imagine that the couple could be his sister and Mr. Romilly unless they were trying to enter Spain.’
Jessica had, however, left for Spain, and a few days later on 11 March 1937 the Daily Mirror reported on her departure from the country. She left Bilbao on H.M. Destroyer with Esmond Romilly, and arrived in St. Jean de Luz, France, where she was met by her sister Nancy, now Mrs Rendell Rodd. Having ‘passed the health authorities of the port,’ the couple ‘got into a motor-car with the relations and drove to the Hotel St. Jean de Luz, where a close guard was kept on them.’
1938 – Another Debutant and A Tragic Loss
The youngest of the Mitford sisters, Deborah, took to the limelight in 1938, the year that she turned eighteen and became a debutant. Magazine The Bystander on 13 April 1938 featured a portrait of her to mark the occasion.
Meanwhile, Jessica Mitford, now Jessica Romilly, was back in the headlines in June 1938, but this time for a tragic reason. The Daily Mirror on 4 June 1938 explained what happened after her elopement to Spain:
Mr. and Mrs. Romilly were in their teens and their families felt that they were too young to marry. They made their home in a strange place for the daughter of a peer and the relative of a famous statesman – Rotherhithe. Their rooms looking out onto rows of barges on the River Thames are reached by a tiny spiral staircase.
Jessica had given birth to a baby, a little girl named Julia Decca Romilly, ‘Decca’ being Jessica’s own nickname, in December 1937. But sadly, the baby was ‘taken ill at their home in London’s Dockland,’ succumbing to an outbreak of measles, and she died in May 1938. A neighbour told the Daily Mirror how the couple had been ‘happy,’ and how ‘they never thought or acted as though they were any different from us.’
1938 – A Wedding Revealed
In the same year, 1938, Diana Mitford’s secret second marriage was revealed by her new husband, leader of the British Union of Fascists, Sir Oswald Mosley. The pair had married in the Berlin drawing room of Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels, in the presence of Adolf Hitler, in 1936, but their union had not been made public.
But in the winter of 1938 Sir Oswald Mosley took to the pages of the official organ of the British Union of Fascists, Action, to reveal the facts of his marriage. His words were reproduced by the Bradford Observer on 1 December 1938:
It is now necessary to publish the facts of my marriage. In fact it took place just over two years ago. With the kind assistance of a few friends I was able to fulfil my desire for privacy.
He went on to outline his reasons for keeping his marriage private:
1. It is obvious that certain special risks are attached to my life and it was my strong desire that no woman should share them.
2. My first wife was subject to the most blackguardly abuse from sections of the Press and from some political opponents. It was again my strong desire that no woman should be subject to such treatment merely because she happened to be married to me.
3. In our movement no necessity arose to publicise the matter, because it is not in accord with our principles that a woman should accompany her husband in his public work or perform any function merely because she is married to a man who is charged with such duty.
Sir Oswald’s first wife, Lady Cynthia, had passed away in 1933. The need to his announce his second marriage no doubt came about following the birth of his third child, and first with Diana Mitford, Alexander Mosley.
1939 – ‘Nazis Shoot Unity’
The outbreak of war in 1939 left Diana Mosley and her husband in a precarious position. It also changed forever the life of Unity Mitford, who was in Germany at the time. Little was heard about the fourth Mitford sister until December 1939, when reports reached Britain that Unity had been shot. The Daily Mirror on 1 December 1939 related how:
Miss Unity Mitford, pro-Hitler daughter of Lord Redesdale, has been shot by the Gestapo, according to reports from Paris. It is stated that she demanded to return to England after stormy scenes with Hitler, and that the German secret police feared she might ‘talk.’ Hitler, says the reports, had told her many secrets, but after war began she began to lose her admiration for him. Himmler and his Gestapo hated her. They envied her influence with the Fuehrer. Whether Hitler knew of her execution, or even gave the order for it, may be a secret forever, the reports declare.
The account presented rumours of how Unity had been shot in her Munich flat, where she was recovering from an illness. In a ‘hopeless condition,’ she was taken to hospital, although it was reported how she did not remain there, and had ‘simply disappeared.’
Her youngest sister Deborah was quoted by the newspaper as saying:
A few weeks ago we heard through the Foreign Office that Unity was ill in a Munich hospital. Later other sources confirmed that her illness had not been serious and that she had since recovered. Since then we have heard nothing, and I am certain there is no truth to this report.
There was some truth to these conflicting reports, however. Unity, devastated by the outbreak of war between the two countries she loved, had shot herself with a gun given to her by Hitler. But she had survived the attempt to take her own life.
1940 – Unity Comes Home
A month later, on 2 January 1940, the Daily Mirror reported that Unity Mitford, the ‘Hitler-admiring daughter of Lord Redesdale, is expected back in England today.’ Waiting for her at ‘a channel port’ was her father, and she was accompanied on her journey from Paris by her mother.
It has been variously stated that at Munich she had a violent quarrel with the Fuehrer when he abused England; that she was afterwards found ill; that she was found poisoned; that she was discovered suffering from a gunshot wound; and that she had no quarrel with Hitler, because at that time she was in Munich Hitler was in Berlin.
News of Unity Mitford’s condition had apparently only reached her family through their old friend Count Janos Almassi. Almassi lived in Hungary, and wrote to say how ‘Miss Mitford was very ill in a hospital in Munich,’ and that an operation may be necessary to save her life.
Despite the war, the injured Unity travelled ‘across the Continent in a specially arranged ambulance train.’ She never recovered from her injuries, and died in 1948.
1940 – ‘Mosley’s Wife Detained’
Another Mitford sister would see the ramifications of their extreme political beliefs: Diana Mosley. On 30 June 1940 the Birmingham Weekly Mercury reported how ‘Lady Mosley, wife of Sir Oswald Mosley, who was one of the first British subjects to be detained under the Defence Regulations, has now been herself detained by the police under the same regulations.’
‘Plain-clothes officers’ arrived at Diana Mosley’s home in Buckinghamshire, and she was taken away by them. Meanwhile, the Sunday Pictorial on the same day related how since Sir Oswald Mosley’s imprisonment in Brixton Prison, his wife had given birth to their second son Max. Following her husband’s arrest, Diana had been ‘very ill,’ her private secretary told the publication. Her sons, Alexander and Max, were in the care of their nanny following her own detention.
Diana Mosley was subsequently interred at Holloway Prison, where her husband later joined her. They were released in 1943 on the grounds of his ill health, and placed under house arrest until the end of the war.
1941 – National Service
The youngest of the Mitford sisters, Deborah, was determined to do her bit for the war effort, however. Upon her marriage to 20-year-old Lieutenant Andrew Cavendish of the Coldstream Guards, and son of the Duke of Devonshire, in April 1941, Deborah ‘stopped the car when starting on her honeymoon and registered at a small Labour Exchange for National Service,’ as per The Sketch.
But the spectre of her infamous sisters was never far away, the Sunday Pictorial reporting how, on 13 April 1941, under the headline ‘Unity Again:’
Lord Redesdale’s daughter, Unity Mitford, who used to be a friend of Hitler, is expected to attend the wedding of her sister, the Hon. Deborah Mitford, to Lord Andrew Cavendish at St. Bartholomew-the-Great, Smithfield, London, next Saturday.
1957 – Nancy Mitford ‘Looks Love In The Face’
As the years passed, the Mitford sisters occupied less space in the press. Pamela settled down to a relatively quiet rural life with Italian horsewoman Giuditta Tommasi, Jessica emigrated to America and remarried after her husband Esmond was killed in action during the Second World War, Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire, Diana moved between her homes in England, France and Ireland, never reconciling with her sister Jessica, whilst Unity passed away in 1948. Their brother, Tom, was killed in action in Burma in 1945.
But long after the 1930s and 1940s the Mitford sisters still made headlines. Nancy Mitford took Britain by storm in the 1950s with her commentary on ‘U’ and ‘Non-U’ social types, and continued to publish her written works. In October 1957 the Weekly Dispatch (London) described how the writer was keen to ‘look love in the face,’ reporting how:
Call it ‘Non-U’ if you like, but Nancy Mutford isn’t afraid to look love in the face. Shut away in her elegant, 18th-century house on the arty Left Bank of Paris, she has been reading, thinking and writing about it for years. This week – having studied the aspects of love in cold climates and warm boudoirs – she flies to launch her latest book on the subject, Voltaire in Love.
Nancy Mitford, the novelist, was no doubt in part responsible for cementing the infamous legacy of the Mitford sisters. She passed away in Versailles at the age of 68, in June 1973.
Find out more about the Mitford sisters, high society, and much more in the pages of our newspaper Archive today.