HG the 13th Duke of Bedford

Through sheer tenacity and ingenuity John Ian Robert Russell, 13th Duke of Bedford (1917-2002), saved his family estates from crippling death duties and his stately home Woburn Abbey from near-collapse when he inherited the dukedom in 1953. His decision to open Woburn to the public in 1955 was controversial but Russell’s gift shop, game park and £90 ‘Dine with a Duke’ parties set a blueprint that has since been followed by many of the family-owned stately homes of England. When he handed Woburn over to his son the Marquess of Tavistock in 1974, the Duke had fulfilled his duty to leave the estates intact and in profit.

Ian Russell, as he was known, wasn’t even aware that he was in line for a dukedom until he was sixteen. On reading about the ‘Flying Duchess’ of Bedford’s record-breaking solo flight to South Africa, Russell was told by a parlour maid that the lady in question was his grandmother. His father, Hastings Russell, was estranged from the formidable 11th Duke who would not forgive his son’s pacifism and refusal to fight in the Great War. Russell goes into detail about his peculiar father in the 1959 book A Silver-Plated Spoon. One of his letters read, ‘Underneath your Christian cloak lies a small, narrow, mean mind incapable of forgiveness, generosity or feeling’. Of his youth, Russell said ‘I was kept away from school and other children, and then more or less abandoned in a Bloomsbury students’ hostel with £98 a year while my parents’ marriage broke-up’.

The 11th Duke did invite his grandson to Woburn Abbey, usually for the day, to what Russell would describe as ‘this self-centred household’ adding ‘my grandfather lived completely isolated from his contemporaries and the affairs of his time. His only concern was the administration of his estates’. A year before the 11th Duke died in 1940, Russell’s father Hastings disinherited him to show his disapproval of the boy marrying a divorcee thirteen years his senior. A penniless Russell had resorted to working as an estate agent tasked with rent-collecting in Stepney. He joined the Coldstream Guards in 1939 but was invalided out of the army. In 1940 Lord Beaverbrook gave him a reporter job on the Daily Express. Russell’s father, now the 12th Duke, was also in the news. As he wrote, ‘My father had no political judgement whatsoever … he seemed to think that Hitler was by no means the worst of a thoroughly bad bunch of political leaders in every country’.

Estranged from the Duke, Lord and Lady Tavistock (as Russell was now titled) were staying at The Ritz when the first of their two sons, the future 14th Duke of Bedford, was born. Tragedy was to strike when Lady Tavistock’s health began to fail and she relied increasingly on the painkillers and sleeping tablets that were to kill her in 1945. Lord Tavistock would marry again in 1947 to Lydia Lyle, a sister-in-law of the Aga Khan, and the couple emigrated to South Africa where they bought a fruit farm and vineyard near Cape Town. The 12th Duke never lived at Woburn Abbey and allowed it to decay while living in a house on the estate with his menagerie of parrots. In 1953 the 12th Duke shot himself – whether deliberately or by accident – leaving Woburn with £4.5 million death duties.  Receiving the news in South Africa and consulting Beaverbrook, the 13th Duke was told ‘come back and be Duke of Bedford’.

Considering he had spent so little time at Woburn Abbey, the Duke’s decision to rescue the house and grounds in the face of requests to sign Woburn over to the National Trust was little short of heroic. The shy, gentle man would become the most famous duke of his generation drumming-up press and publicity to draw-in the crowds when he opened Woburn to the public in 1955. He and Lydia Duchess did much of the menial work themselves; cleaning an 800-piece Sèvres dinner service given to the 4th Duke by King Louis XV of France, greeting visitors and opening a souvenir shop that brought in £180,000 in the first year. The money was ploughed back into the estate. The butcher’s bill alone for feeding the lions in the game park was £1000 a week. Of his decision to rescue Woburn Abbey, the Duke said ‘I have learned the most important lesson of my life from opening Woburn. It is that the pleasure you give to other people is the most rewarding thing in the world. I regard it as the main purpose of my life to keep Woburn Abbey for my family’.

Though the Marquess of Bath and Lord Montagu of Beaulieu were also opening their stately homes to the public, the Duke of Bedford was a pioneer amongst few. He said ‘I do not relish the scorn of the peerage but it is better to be looked down on than overlooked’. As his Independent obituary read, ‘The Duke of Bedford was a name scarcely out of the news in the 1950s and 1960s’. In addition to ‘Dine with a Duke’, the 13th Duke was a regular guest on television and always had an eye for a headline. When the film Nudist Paradise was shot in the grounds of Woburn, the Duke quipped ‘I wouldn’t mind going nude myself’. He was also a prolific author following A Silver-Plated Spoon with The Duke of Bedford’s Book of Snobs, The Flying Duchess and How to Run a Stately Home. Of public attention at Woburn, he said, ‘Far from feeling degraded at having to share my stately home with people, I feel flattered that they seem eager to share it with me’.

In 1960 the 13th Duke divorced Lydia Duchess and married French TV producer Nicole Milinaire. He routinely appeared on the International Best Dressed List with his suits tailored by Henry Poole & Co and his shirts cut by Turnbull & Asser. Unlike his family, who in his words ‘thought themselves slightly grander than God’, the 13th Duke was a man of his time and a fashion leader in Swinging London throughout the 1960s. In 1974, the 13th Duke handed over Woburn Abbey to his son Lord Tavistock reasoning ‘I left England because I felt that if I stayed I would always be giving my son advice about how to run the house, I thought it better to give him his head and get out of the country altogether’. The 13th Duke and Nicole Duchess lived a peripatetic existence living in France, Italy, Switzerland and Portugal before settling in Monaco. The 13th Duke was inducted to the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame in 1985. He died in New Mexico in 2002.

(c) James Sherwood



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