This book is billed as "Lady Lucy Houston, aviation champion and mother of the Spitfire". This is a bit of artistic license, for she had no real connection with that aircraft, but her life is an interesting one nevertheless. One of the great English eccentrics, Lucy Houston was a noted beauty, one of the richest women in England, a fierce patriot and a prodigious donor to charity.
- Miles MacNair
Born in 1857 into a humble background, she grew up into a beautiful child. She was to parley that beauty into a long-term relationship as a mistress and three marriages that brought her huge wealth and a title. Aged just sixteen she ran away to Paris with Frederick Gretton, a man twice her age and a member of the dynasty that ran the Bass brewery. When he died in 1882, he bequeathed her £6,000 a year for life – the equivalent of £750,000 in today’s money.
A year later she had married Lt.-Col. Sir Theodore Brinckman, 3rd Baronet Brinkman, which brought her an aristocratic husband. The marriage ended in an amiable divorce in 1895, the settlement giving Lucy more money and a hunting lodge in Scotland. Her next marriage was in 1901 to George Byron, 9th Baron Byron, a descendent of the famous poet. It was during that marriage that the First World War broke out. Lucy threw herself into supporting wounded servicemen, her prodigious efforts resulting in her becoming Dame Lucy Houston.
Lord Byron died in 1917 and it would not be until 1924 until she married again, this time to the wealthy shipping magnate to Sir Robert Houston, 1st Baronet Houston. Mentally unstable, he would die in 1926, leaving Lucy £5.5 million in his will – the equivalent of £250 million in today’s money. Now the wealthiest woman in England, Lucy would not marry again, becoming increasingly eccentric, heavily involved in politics, an extremely generous donor to charities and fiercely patriotic.
It is her involvement with aviation that she is best known for, famously giving £100,000 (over £6 million in modern terms) to finance Britain’s 1931 entry into the Schneider Trophy after the government refused to pay for it. The trophy was duly won and became Britain’s in perpetuity. The designer of the winning entry, R, J Mitchel, would go on to design the Spitfire, while the Rolls Royce R engine that powered it would be developed into the Merlin, one of the greatest aero engines of all time. Lucy cannot truly be called the mother of the Spitfire, but without her it may not have come into being.
The following year she would finance an expedition to fly over and photograph Mount Everest, the first time it had been attempted. With Lucy bankrolling the enterprise, it was a triumph, returning home with dramatic pictures. Continuing to be a thorn in the government’s side, and with the UK’s defences at a low ebb during the Great Depression, she would offer £200,000 on several occasions to finance several squadrons of the most modern fighters to defend London. The government declined on the grounds that they could not accept the money as long as there were conditions attached to its use. More pragmatically, it’s not difficult to imagine the political storm that would have erupted were it to emerge that a hugely wealthy individual was paying for the defence of the nation’s capital.
The offer sprang out of Lucy’s steadily increasing involvement in politics, perhaps sparked by her third husband’s brief tenure as an MP. On the right of the political spectrum, Lucy was an admirer of Benito Mussolini and sought a similar right wing strong man to rejuvenate British politics and Britain’s place in the world. She would at times court Winston Churchill and Lloyd George as potential leaders of a party she was willing to bankroll. More pragmatically, she would financially support candidates of whom she approved at by-elections, while simultaneously arranging for the peaceful disruption of their opponent’s campaigns.
Lucy also brought a weekly newspaper – The Saturday Review – to promote her political views. She penned much of the content herself, some of it so libellous that newsagents periodically refused to stock it. Undeterred, Lucy would hire an army from the unemployed to sell it in the streets until she’d penned some less controversial content for the follow-up editions.
Lucy was also a lover of horseflesh, owning a string of successful racehorses. In steadily declining health, she was seldom able to see them race, but enthusiastically bet on those she particularly fancied. Characteristically, she kept neither the winnings from the racing nor from her betting but distributed it amongst her servants and staff.
There was always a high turnover among that staff, for Lucy was fabulously eccentric and fabulously demanding, expecting her employees to be at her beck and call night and day. She also believed that fresh air was the key to health, resulting in the all windows in her houses being wide open, irrespective of the season or the weather. And she believed in the exposure of skin to the elements was an essential part of living a long life, so would walk in the nude in secluded places, even into old age.
Her fortune she gave away prodigiously to any she felt in need of help. Hospitals, charities, the needy were all wont to find a substantial cheque in the post. A classic example was in the Great Depression when Lucy found out many herring fishermen were destitute because of a fall in demand. Cheques were soon winging their way to the appropriate organisations in England and Scotland. In the latter part of her life Lucy was to give away the larger part of her fortune to the needy - often without any publicity at all.
Lucy died as she had lived – eccentrically. In 1936, at the age of seventy-nine, she lost the will to live, shut herself in her bedroom and refused to eat. Greatly concerned by this, and the winter gales howling in through the ever-open windows, her staff called a doctor, whose advice Lucy ignored. He left a nurse with her who advised her to try to sleep. “Yes, my dear”, Lucy replied, “and a damned long sleep it’s going to be”.
This book is more a biography than anything else, and difficult to write due to scarcity of reliable material; for Lucy left few papers behind and even in life was prone to mislead – particularly about her age. But it’s well written, entertaining and chronicles the life of a woman who was beautiful, fabulously wealthy, hugely eccentric and generous to a fault.