Titan of the Thames

By Sandy Nairne and Peter Williams

The first biography of Lord Desborough, a towering figure of early 20th century public life.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Willy and Ettie

Dear Titan supporters

We are very grateful for your support for Titan of the Thames: The Life of Lord Desborough and wanted you to know that we are making good progress with the fund-raising (now at 71%, and all the Titan marmalade spoken for). Of course, we are keen to spread the word, so do pass on information about the book to anyone you think might like to become a supporter and help us get to 100%. And if you’d like to offer more support yourself then that would be great.

We are continuing with the final stages of our research and refining those chapters which are already drafted. As part of this we wanted to share something of how the 31 year-old Willy Grenfell and the 21 year-old Ethel Fane (always known as Ettie) met, and how they formed the crucial relationship at the centre of their lives, which survived many pressures and trials. It is no surprise that sport provided their first contact.

With all best wishes, Sandy and Peter

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In describing the early days of lawn tennis, Arthur Balfour recalled how:

The game which I first played on the lawns at Latimer was afterwards, in the early ‘eighties, transferred to the gardens of Devonshire House in Piccadilly, and these became, as the game developed, a regular centre of afternoon amusement. Lady Desborough, then still Miss Fane and in her teens, has told me since how from the upper windows of her uncle Henry Cowper’s house in Stratton Street, where she lived at this period, Devonshire House gardens could be seen. She well remembers that during the intervals of her being prepared for confirmation, she would look out from the school-room window and see all the Latimer party, including Alfred Lyttleton, myself and her own future husband, Willie Grenfell, and many others, amusing themselves in this new fashion.

Ettie had been less than two when her mother Adine Cowper died after the birth of her brother, Johnnie. Her father the diplomat Julian Fane died when she was only three, and Ettie was just nine when Johnnie caught a fatal attack of whooping cough. Given that Willy’s father died when he was five and a half and he inherited Taplow Court aged twelve when his grandfather died, close family losses were something they both endured.

Ettie’s biographer Richard Davenport-Hines explains how, alongside her losses, Ettie benefited from ‘a very precocious engagement with adult social life’, and was launched, not yet 18 – though attractive and confident - into the London season of spring 1885. Her success, as he describes it, was ‘swift, assured and striking’ as ‘she combined a natural, eager manner with an air of contrivance, leaving men to puzzle whether there were far-reaching intentions behind quite simple remarks.’


Willy photographed in Madras in 1891 and Ettie by Lord Battersea in the early 1890s (detail)

In her first season of 1885 Ettie caught the interest of three titled suitors, but she also met a persistent admirer of lesser status: William Grenfell, ten years older, handsome and a famous sportsman. His status as a commoner meant he might have been considered as a relative ‘outsider’ despite being about to be elected for a second time as MP for Salisbury and already having served as Private Secretary to Sir William Harcourt, Chancellor of the Exchequer, and one of Ettie’s godparents.

Later in life Willy and Ettie’s daughter Monica joked that her mother had fallen for Willy because she,

 … loved the idea of water parties [and] had been taken down to Taplow for one, when Kitty Drummond, a young married woman, was the chaperone. She told me so often that she married Daddy because the special brand of ginger beer at Taplow was so good, that I still almost believe it.

In fact, Willy wooed Ettie through 1886, and it was only gradually that he seems to have won her over. In March Ettie’s close friend Mabell Airlie (recently married to the Earl of Airlie) wrote:

My darling Puppy, First and foremost about W.G…. If you do not absolutely hate him I should marry him, I think; first everyone says he is an absolute angel; and he may be a little dull, but after all what a comfort it is to be cleverer than one’s husband! Then he has got awfully nice relatives, and he is altogether so sweet, and if you care for that sort of thing you could get him made a peer any time. My goodness me, you could do anything you liked! But if you make up your mind for him I should go at him hammer and tongs and not look at another man till you have finished him off – because when a man really wants to marry a girl he is so awfully particular. You don’t mind me saying this do you?

Despite this fulsome encouragement, Ettie hesitated, and towards the end of the year Willy was writing to say, ‘Dear Miss Fane, I meant to find out on Sunday whether you cared for me at all, but somehow I couldn’t as I felt like an owl. But I hope you will not mind me writing to you now … if you do could you get Lady Rose to drop me a line to Horthfield Place Ashford, Kent, and I would come on Sunday – and if you don’t … will you drop me a line to say the house is full or that they have all got scarlet fever or mumps. Yours W.H.Grenfell.’ Something further was offered - and agreed, because two days later on December 9th he wrote from Hothfield Place in Kent:

I cannot say how delighted I was to get your letter today – I can get out of this place tomorrow if I can see you – if you will send me a telegram ‘most important, come at once’ … you can sign it Snooks or Tomkins or Dr Jeykel [sic] and I can make up something – though I am rather a bad hand at it … they shoot tomorrow but there are plenty of guns without me – could I come to dinner I wonder? What do you think your respected relatives will say? Mine will be delighted, and with good reason … but perhaps yours will think I am not nearly good enough, in which case they will be quite right. I wonder what you thought when you got my letter. I suppose you laughed. Yours aff. William G.

Despite Willy’s nervousness, four days later on 13 December 1886 they sent a joint letter to Sir William Harcourt, writing, ‘As a god-daughter and a late (and inefficient) Private Secretary are about to unite their fortunes they take the earliest opportunity to write to their godfather and chief to express the hope that their action may meet with his approbation.’ Approval was clearly offered from all sides as their wedding was arranged for just two months ahead. Willy’s mother recorded in her journal that she, ‘Gave Ettie my Bible and Quilt – She is quite charming’. By January 1887, Willy was writing to Ettie from Eaton Hall in Cheshire, where he was a guest of the Duke of Westminster, to say:

There are a lot of people here. They all ask a great deal about you and say that you are the most charming person they have ever seen & want to come to the Wedding – the snow is on the ground here and last [night] it froze.

Willy and Ettie’s wedding took place at St George’s Hanover Square on 17 February 1887: with Frederick Temple, Bishop of London officiating, the Prince of Wales signing as a witness and an extensive range of society guests attending, some of whom joined the family for luncheon at the Cowper family house at 4 St James’s Square. The guest list ranged from princesses, counts and ambassadors to earls and marquises, and the newspapers took considerable interest. The report in the Hertfordshire Mercury carried not only the guest-list but detailed the wedding presents. 125 presents were offered to Ettie including an astonishing array of jewellery: headed by three diamond peacock feathers from Earl Cowper and a large diamond dragonfly with ruby eyes and a diamond ring from Countess Cowper. The groom received 75 gifts from well-wishers, plus silver candlesticks and salvers from the tenants and staff at Taplow Court. The couple received, between them, no less than ten clocks and six inkstands (though the list in the press may have led to a burglary at Taplow Court a year later).

For some society commentators, Willy Grenfell may not - by class or worldly standards - have been the very best match that Ettie could have achieved, but in Taplow Court he had a large estate and a well-positioned house supplemented by income from the family business. Perhaps more important was the fact that as Jane Abdy and Charlotte Gere comment in their book about the Souls, ‘He adored her and put her on a pedestal for ever; he was of sterling quality, “the finest kind of Englishman” who could always be relied on to behave with perfect integrity.’

Ettie’s friend Mabell commented to Ettie sixty years later, ‘When we married what children we were; and how we leaped into our happiness with such trusting faith.’





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