Lady Baillie’s Grand Parties at Leeds Castle

I haven’t visited Leeds Castle in Kent for around 10 years now, but it still has left an impression in me. It has often been described as the loveliest castle in England. I can easily see why with its impressive moat and medieval style architecture. It is even more appealing when you consider the women who were once in possession of this castle in its long history. From Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, to Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII, many royal women saw the castle as their home. However, not is all as it seems. Much of what we can see today was mostly reconstructed by Olive Wilson, later to become Lady Baillie after marrying her 3rd husband, the last owner of the castle. When she had brought it in 1927 for £180,000 (just over £9 million today), it was in a neglected state for the last person to live inside the castle had died in 1870.[1]

Leeds Castle (2010), Herry Lawford, Wikimedia Commons

As someone with dual American and English nationalities, Olive was looking for an English retreat away from London. She certainly found it in Leeds Castle as she is said to have fell in love with it instantly, despite the sorry state it was then in. For the rebuild, she hired Armand-Albert Rateau and other French craftsman, for she believed the French would be able to restore a sense of history to the site.[2] Other local men were hired too, but the French ones were needed to source French materials, such as chimneypieces and oak doors. For all the historical items added, including replica eighteenth century furniture, modern living was also a priority. Underfloor heating and en-suite bathrooms made of onyx were added.[3] As if that wasn’t luxurious enough, in 1939 an open air and heated swimming pool was added to the grounds, complete with a wave machine and nearby cocktail bar.[4] The bar was decorated with a mural depicting Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, skating on a frozen pond surrounded by statues of women and children representing Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Hermann Goering and Duff Cooper.[5] These additions reflected the use of Leeds Castle as a prominent place of entertainment for the great and the good during the 1920s and 1930s.

 

Lady Baillie playing croquet

The types of people invited to the weekend parties at the castle ranged from film stars such as Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplain, to royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales and his mistress Wallace Simpson, to ambassadors, ministers and MPS.[6] The one I find the most intriguing is the Russian Grand Duke Dimitri Pavolovich, one of the conspirators suspected of being involved in the assassination of Rasputin in 1916. During these parties, activities such as golf, tennis, squash, croquet, boating or skating on the moat or picnicking in the vast parkland, all before a lavish dinner and merrymaking with music to gramophones or watching the latest film releases.[7] Despite all these wonderful images created by such events, its curious to think that Lady Baillie herself often didn’t see the guests following their arrival on Friday night, until sometime on the Sunday. In truth, she was described as more of a listener than a talker, and much preferred to leave people to their own devices. Her friend, the Duchess of Argyle described her as an eccentric, yet shy person, often taking up to 3 days, or even a week, before she felt able to show herself in the company of new guests.[8]

Despite all this, her parties were full of the rich and famous, who were able to seek privacy at Leeds, as Lady Baillie refused to allow the press near. The guests were allowed to wander around freely other than at night, when the unmarried male guests were placed in the Maiden’s Tower away from the rest of the castle to prevent bed hopping.[9] For this reason, some guests described her hospitality style as “relatively restrained in behaviour compared with many of her much more notorious contempories”.[10] Perhaps that is why guests often were able to have a candid experience, as seen in the case of actor, David Niven. He often left the party to play cards with the servants in the servants’ hall instead.[11]

David Niven in Enchantment (1948), Photograph in possession of SchroCat, Wikimedia Commons

The parties continued even during World War Two, although in a different form. Most of the castle was taken over as part of a war hospital for injured soldiers. They were moved into smaller parts of the castle and often included some of the soldiers being rehabilitated there. Many of these were sent home following their repatriation from Dunkirk and included severely burned pilots.[12] They were never again seen on the same large scale as before the war, especially as Lady Baillie’s health was on the decline.

Similar small-scale parties were also occasionally held for the castle staff at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve, a large party was held for the local children, whereas on New Year’s Eve, one was held for the castle servants. During these events, Lady Baillie was known to dance with the butler, and her husband danced with the housekeeper.[13] These events showed kindness to her staff and ensured her legacy was one of a ‘lovely lady’ by them following her death in 1974, before the castle was handed over to the nation in the form of a charitable trust. The care Olive put into restoring the castle was certainly a legacy to remember in terms of the architecture and interiors but showcasing these to large numbers of famous people is perhaps what she will be remembered for most.


[1] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle (Leeds Castle: Leeds Castle Enterprises, 2007), p. 7.

[2] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 18.

[3] Leeds Castle Blog, ‘The Real Gatsby was a Woman: Lady Baillie and the Glamourous 1920s’, http://leeds-castle.blogspot.com/2013/05/the-real-gatsby-was-woman-lady-baillie.html

[4] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[5] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[6] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 34.

[7] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 35.

[8] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[9] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[10] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[11] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 53.

[12] Leeds Castle, ‘The Baillie Years’, https://www.leeds-castle.com/Visit/History/The+Lady+Baillie+Years

[13] Kent Online, ‘The Real Downton’, https://www.kentonline.co.uk/kent/news/the-real-downton-a64777/

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