The Lady Who Won the War

She was the pretty seventh daughter of a Warehouse Man in Camberwell, but she grew up to give Winston Churchill a cheque for £1,500,000 and expected a kiss for it. Sadly Winnie declined and offered her a cup of tea.
Lady-Houston
The pearls Lady Houston coerced her husband into buying for her.

Marshal of the Royal Air Force, Lord Trenchard, once suggested that there should be three monuments erected on the White Cliffs of Dover. They should glorify Winston Churchill, an Unnamed Airman and Lady Lucy Houston. It was also claimed that Lucy Houston was The Woman Who Won The War by biographer J. Wentworth Day.. A somewhat over blown claim but one that has some justification. So who, or was, Lady Lucy? The most commonly known fact is that she donated £100, 000 to the RAF to enter a plane in the 1931 Schneider Trophy Race. Which they won for the third time in succession and claimed for ever the trophy . £100,000 might not sound a great deal in today’s toy town money but in the thirties it probably had the buying power of around £10,000,000 today.

Lucy Radmall was the seventh child of Thomas Radmall, a London warehouse man who lived in Camberwell. When Lucy was three her father found it more economically viable to move into the City and live in rooms above the warehouse. Camberwell at this time, around 1860, was still a rural suburb of quiet, tree lined streets. It was a bit of a shock for the baby to find herself in the bustle and tumult of the busy streets in the shadow of St. Paul’s Cathedral. But she was inquisitive, vivacious, pretty and intelligent, very intelligent, and she soon took to her new playground . She was affectionately known by the sobriquet of Poppy, a nickname which was to stay with her for the rest of her life. From the start Poppy intended to have her own way. She became aware that to have any lasting effect on your surroundings you had to have money. And she wasn’t likely to get that as a shop girl, a child’s nurse or a skivvy. Poppy’s mother insisted on giving her children an education. Poppy quickly got tired of sitting at a desk knowing that outside the granite walls real life was passing her by. She was 16 when she decided to make a break for it. It was the time of the Stage Door Johnnies – pre Naughty Nineties. The theatres and Music Halls were ablaze with lights and attracted the rich and famous. Poppy was 16 when she presented herself at the front office of the Drury Lane theatre and asked to speak to the newly appointed manager, Augustus Harris. She was told to sling her hook. She understood what she was meant to do but ignored the suggestion. She tried cajolery- it didn’t work. So she tried the tactic which was going to stand her in good stead in the future when she was telling heads of state and Royalty what to do. She brushed aside the hirelings between her and her goal and marched into the head man’s office. Harris was enchanted by the beautiful, brown eyed teenager and employed her on the spot.

The stage was only a springboard for the ambitious girl and before long she was the darling of the gilded youths and rich lechers waiting at the stage door. Lucy was careful not to get a reputation as an easy lay. She wasn’t interested in a quick fumble and a couple of golden sovereigns left on the dressing table. She was after richer pickings. Fred Gretton, a millionaire with huge brewery interests in the East End, was more to her taste. Fred didn’t do things by half. He was a married man but he was so captivated by the sixteen year old dancer that he left home, picked her up as she left the theatre and high-tailed it for the ferry from Newhaven. He set up home in fashionable Paris with his young ‘bride’ a week later.

Paris was the centre of chic society as the century slide into the nineties. Life-style was everything. The boulevardier Parisians were more tolerant of ‘wives’ who weren’t than the rigid society in England, ruled over by the aging and increasingly despotic Victoria. It was a magnate for the flamboyant and foot-loose. Like a troika load of Russian Princes and noble men and even Victoria’s choleric son, Edward Prince of Wales. Poppy met the Prince at the atelier of Edward Detaille, a well-known painter of war scenes. Poppy was there with Madame de Poles – a remarkable hostess who managed to bridge the chasm between the haute monde and hoi polloi. When Poppy arrived with the wealthy Fred, Madams de Poles took an instant shine to the unusual couple and made it her mission to see them accepted by the friends and hangers-on over whom she ruled. Mr & Mrs. Gretton were an instant success. Fred was delighted with his young lover. When he died, after eight years of the most excitement he had found in his hard working life, he left his beautiful and vivacious widow £7,000 a year in his will. A vast sum at the turn of the nineteenth century. Cinderella from Camberwell was about to undergo a fascinating transformation.

Poppy returned to London and bought a house in the most fashionable part of the Capital, Portland Place, and still had enough left to pay for those most essential accoutrements, a butler, a lady’s maid, a coachman and Landau with a black ‘tiger’ to sit on the box, a constant string of maids and a willing and subservient seamstress. The gap-years in Paris had been the making of Poppy. Not only had she learned from her friend, Madame de Poles, how to handle men but she had realised that there was more to life than walking into a posh shop and buying a gown. Poppy was always the best dressed woman at any soiree. One of the top couturiers, on being told that the dress she was wearing was one she had designed herself was heard to exclaim, ‘ Madame, I confess I could do no better’.

Poppy ‘Gretton’ had the pick of the blades of London at her feet. She claimed, in later life, that Winston Churchill was one of her early conquests and If she had felt so disposed, could have married him. What is certain is that the great Parliamentarian retained a grudging admiration for her for the following 50 years. 50 years in which she went from strength to strength. Although she had adored Fred, there was always the possibility that the stigma of not being married to him might crop up at an inconvenient moment and spoil her chances. What she needed was married respectability which would plaster over her Parisian indiscretion. She found this with a young, dashing cavalry officer with a title in the offing, Theodore Brinckman – soon to become a Sir. He was five years younger and once Poppy had him in her sights he was finished. Although Poppy adored him he was a five day a week husband. Weekends were for carousing and womanising. When she found out he had a second ‘wife’ stashed away in an apartment she went to see his lover, threatened to horsewhip her but than changed her mind and divorced Theo. Theo had given her a taste for being numbered amongst the aristocracy but she needed a more senior member. She looked around and settled on Red Nosed George, the Ninth Lord Byron. She liked the sound of that and was soon hearing wedding bells ringing in her new name and status.. The ninth Lady Byron instantly became the capital’s Hostess with the Mostest. If you didn’t get an invitation to dinner at Byron Cottage in Hampstead you knew you were in trouble. The greatest notables of the day bellied up to her long dining table. She listened to the likes of Kipling and Rhodes discussing the British Empire and was completely captivated by the tales they told and the vistas they opened . It was a time of turmoil and change. The British Empire ruled the waves and little Lucy Radmall from Camberwell was in a position to take her place among the rulers.

Lady-Houston-Schneider-Trophy
Lady Houston congratulates the Schneider Trophy team.

Poppy wasn’t a feminist. She understood how much power a beautiful woman, with a high social position and money, could command. But she admired the guts the Suffragettes were exhibiting under the leadership of the formidable Pankhursts. On Saturdays she would climb in her coach and drive up to Hampstead Heath and harangue the crowds. Her support of women was fierce and unfailing. Having put the hecklers in their place and extolled womanhood she would climb back in her coach and go home. One of her dottier schemes to support the rights of women was to buy 615 parrots, house them in red, white and blue cages and teach them to screech, ‘Votes for Women’. It didn’t work out. She couldn’t find a method of getting them to chant in unison and what the listeners got was 615 parrots doing their bit in their own time. Cacophony was made of this. The ninth Lord Byron died in 1917 when WWl was at its bloodiest. 812,317 men from the British Isles had been killed and 2,400,988 had been wounded. Poppy hardly noticed the demise of Red Nosed George. They had been living in separate rooms for years. Besides Poppy had a new interest. She had been a frequent visitor to the hospitals where the wounded were sent to recuperate and had been astonished by the nurses and doctors. They seemed never to stop caring for their patients and were often in a state bordering on physical break-down. Poppy set up and financed a Rest Home for Nurses in Hampstead. When Rudyard Kipling heard about the Rest Home he became one of its most fervent supporters. King George V was so impressed with the work she had done that he awarded her the honour of Dame of the British Empire.

Sir Robert Huston was not a man to mess with. Not if you wanted to stay healthy anyway. He was big, bold and tyrannical. He sported a jutting, jet black beard with eyebrows and hair to match. The perceived wisdom was that he dyed it with Stephenson’s Ink. Lord Birkenhead, the Lord Chancellor of Britain, was foolish enough to repeat this in Sir Robert’s hearing and it cost him a million pounds. Houston had a fleet of merchant ships and hundreds of employees. His business ethics were not always according to Hoyle but his investors always showed a good return on their profits. In spite of this he was known in the business world as ‘The Robber Baron’. He was a merciless opponent of the Labour Government under Ramsey MacDonald whom he regarded as the instigator of much of the trouble that plagued business in the wake of WW l. Poppy was in her sixties when she decided to marry Sir Robert. She looked twenty years younger and was still a leading light in London Society. Poppy fascinated the Baron and he was more than a little frightened of her sharp tongue and demanding way. Once the decision had been made the marriage was inevitable. The knot tied Poppy wasted no time in moving in on the business side of Robert’s life. He soon recognised that she had an acute business sense and relied on her for tough, no-nonsense advice. As one of the leading shipping magnates he naturally had his own ship. A 1,600 ton steam yacht called Liberty. Poppy adored it. If fact after Robert died she spent almost as much time aboard the yacht as she did in Byron Cottage. Robert and Poppy were twin souls. She was as opposed to the drift towards Socialism, which in the wealthy couples book equated with Communism, as she was to the disgraceful way that the heroes of the war were treated in the land ‘fit for heroes’.

As an example of how manipulative the new Lady Houston could be we have the string of black pearls which she wore constantly. It was her birthday. The attentive Robert sent a jeweller to Byron Cottage with a display of jewellery for her to choose from. She found nothing to her liking and sent the man away. When her husband heard this he rang and asked her why. She said that she was saddened that he should send her such trash. Robert protested that there was a necklace worth £2,500. She retorted that she was surprised that he thought so little of her. Later another jeweller phoned. He wanted her to look at a necklace of black pearls he had just acquired. Lady Houston looked at them and it was love at first sight. But she played it cool. When her husband asked if she had seen anything she fancied in her visit t o the jeweller she said she had but it cost too much for him to pay. The price was £50,000. Sir Robert gasped and went white. But Poppy knew her man. He wasn’t prepared to let anyone think that there was anything he couldn’t afford. Lady Lucy had her Black Pearl necklace. He tried to recoup some of the money when he made his will leaving Lucy a mere £1,000,000. He showed it to Lucy before he left on a business trip. He returned to find the will torn in half, lying on his desk. When he tackled his lady-wife about it she said, ‘If that’s all I’m worth to you I suggest you leave me out and spread your money among those more deserving. ‘ The following day he showed her his new will. She would receive the bulk of his fortune – a massive six million pounds. ‘

Sir Robert Houston died in 1926 aboard the Liberty. Poppy was distraught. She accused everyone of murdering him and was inconsolable. She did not attend his funeral, she had a complete mental breakdown and was hearing voices. She declared that God had told her that her mission in life was to save the British Empire from the black heathenism of Russia and their atheistic creed. So violent was her mania that the Jersey authorities, within who’s jurisdiction the yacht was moored, had her certified insane and incapable of managing her own affairs. Execution of the will was prohibited. Typically Poppy counter attacked when she realised what was happening, She drafted in psychiatrist from all over the world to vouch for her sanity. When Lady Houston sailed out of St. Helier, sitting on the deck of her yacht at her Union Jack covered table, sipping China tea,she was the wealthiest woman in the world.

Naturally she attracted enemies. The newspapers were making a big play of her inheritance and suggesting that her buccaneering husband had been more than a little tardy in paying his taxes. A popular calculation put the amount unpaid at £3,000,000. The Inland Revenue had no chance of getting it as Sir Robert had employed a gang of top rate accountants to make sure that his money was safe. Lucy rang the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Winston Churchill, and demanded a meeting. When she arrived she was met by Winston and Lord Hailsham. She objected to Hailsham and he was forced to withdraw. Lady H pulled a cheque for £1,500,000 out of the big bag she always carried and laid it on Winston’s blotter. Churchill was amazed. Lady Houston leaned towards him. ‘Do I get a kiss?’ she asked. Winston shook his head. ‘No. You get a cup of tea.’ Lady Lucy thought that was hilarious.

Now in control of her vast fortune Poppy began to throw her weight behind causes close to her heart. Her most vicious attacks were saved for the Labour Party of Ramsey MacDonald. She even bought a weekly newspaper, The Saturday Review, so that her undiluted thoughts could be put before the public. In this she ranted against the cowardice of the government, which was largely Pacifist, and accused them of selling the country out to foreigners by cutting the Army, Navy and Air Force budgets. She became particularly belligerent in 1931 when she heard that the Labour Government did not intend to give the RAF the money to compete in the Schneider Trophy Race. Britain had already won it in 1914,1922,1927 and 1929. Another win, three in a row, meant Britain kept the trophy in perpetuity. The Daily Express ran an article on the front page saying that the government meant to leave the financing of the attempt on the speed record to private individuals. They pointed out that such a vast sum was needed that there was no possibility of any individual being able to afford to finance the effort. A challenge which, like her husband before her, Poppy could not resist. She had a meeting with the designer, R.J. Mitchell, and the pilot, Flight Lieutenant J.N. Boothman, who would fly the machine , and promised her whole hearted support. The following day a cheque was lodged in the bank for £100,000 and the Mitchell Vickers Supermarine Rolls-Royce S1596 Seaplane was born. The Supermarine won the Schneider Trophy at a speed in access of 400 miles an hour.

The Supermarine, basically, was to become known as the Spitfire – with floats. If Lady Houston hadn’t had the foresight to see that Britain needed an air defence to ward off the growing might of Nazi Germany, which she had witnessed at first hand, England would have stood defenceless in 1939. So sure was she of the coming conflict that she offered to put up £200,000 to finance an Air Defence for London. The Government turned it down. Lady Lucy Houston was not to see the benefits that her largess bestowed on Britain. Like the Supermarine/Spitfire designer, R.J Mitchell, she died before the Second World War started. But even in death there was controversy. It was known that she had made a will. But it was never found.

Motoring & Leisure – October 2004

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