The Last of the Mitfords

Debo – An Obituary

Deborah Vivien Mitford Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, who died a few days ago at 94, was according to common opinion, one of the nicest of the six Mitford sisters. Only Pamela, the quiet, private sister can be regarded as her equal in that respect. I never met any of them and thus have no way of knowing if this was true. Moreover, niceness is not a quality generally associated with this eccentric and sometime notorious British family.

Diana, married first to a Guinness heir and then to the fascist leader Oswald Mosley, spent part of World War II in gaol as a possible threat to the British state. Unity too was a fascist and intimate friend of Adolf Hitler. Jessica supported the Communist Party and the Civil Rights Movement in the United States. Nancy, the eldest, achieved fame as a socialite, competent novelist and creator of the terms ‘U’ and ‘non-U’. Indeed, three of the Mitford girls achieved success as writers.

However, when history finally passes judgement on the sisters, it may be Deborah who will be deemed the greatest. This was the lady who, by her own efforts, saved Chatsworth.

In 1941, Deborah, (Debo) married Andrew Cavendish, second son of the Duke of Devonshire. The couple had no expectation of the title. Indeed, by Debo’s own assessment, they were poor; poverty is of course a relative term. However, Billy Cavendish, Lord Hartington, heir to the dukedom, who was also the husband of Kathleen Kennedy, sister of JFK, was killed in action in Belgium, and Andrew became Duke on his father’s death in 1950.

Chatsworth was in a poor state of repair through neglect. When Debo first saw it she thought it more like a barracks than a country home. Moreover the estate was subject to punitive death duties introduced by Clement Atlee’s post-war Labour government. The late Duke had already made over the estate to Andrew in order to avoid a tax of up to 90% but had not survived the five years required to mitigate the law. 80% duty was now due on all the family’s possessions.

Chatsworth House, one of the most beautiful stately homes in England, was built by Sir William Cavendish and his wife Bess of Hardwick in the 16th century. Two of the best-known women in history had lived, or spent time there – Mary Stuart, Queen of Scots, an occasional “guest” of Bess herself between 1573 and 1582, and of course Georgiana Spencer Cavendish, famous society beauty and the fifth Duchess.

Acres of land and many works of art had to be sold to pay the debt to the Treasury. But in the fifties, Debo Mitford and her husband set to work to repair and restore Chatsworth House to its former glory, and to improve the amenities of the park and gardens. Debo has turned Chatsworth into a proper business, opening a farm shop and restaurant as well as a shop and tearoom at the house itself. In 1982, Debo wrote her first book about Chatsworth, The House, which was a commercial success not only at the house but around England. It also sold well in the United States. By 2012, she had published six more. Her efforts over nearly sixty years culminated in 2011 when BBC cameras were welcomed to Chatsworth by the present Duke and Duchess to film a series about the estate, its villages and farms, and the many events that take place there.

Chatsworth is the Devonshires’ family home, but it also belongs to the nation and is a major employer of over seven hundred people.

Thank you, Deborah, and long may Chatsworth continue to delight and inspire those of us who value your legacy!



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