David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale
, (13 March 1878
- 17 March 1958
), was an English landowner and was the father of the Mitford sisters
, in whose various novels and memoirs he is depicted.
Redesdale was the second son of Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale
and Lady Clementine Gertrude Helen Ogilvy. The Mitfords are a family of Northumberland landed gentry
, dating back to the 14th century; Redesdale's great-great-grandfather was the historian William Mitford
. His father, Bertram, called Bertie, was a diplomat, politician and author, with large inherited estates in Gloucestershire
as well as Northumberland. He was raised to the peerage in 1902, and thus his son then became known as The Hon David Freeman-Mitford
, although the surname Mitford was more commonly used.
Mitford's legendary eccentricity was evident from an early age. As a child he was prone to sudden fits of rage. He was totally uninterested in reading or education, wishing only to spend his time riding. (He later liked to boast that he had read only one book in his life, Jack London
's novel White Fang
, although in fact he read most of his daughters' books.) His lack of academic aptitude meant that he was not sent to Eton
with his older brother, but rather to Radley
, with the intention that he should enter the army. But he failed the entrance examination to Sandhurst
, and was instead sent to Ceylon
to work for a tea planter. In 1900 he returned to England and joined the army for the Boer War
, in which he served with distinction and was severely wounded, losing one lung.
Marriage and children
In February 1904 he married Sydney Bowles, whom he had first met ten years previously, when he was 16 and she was 14. She was the daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles
, a journalist and Conservative MP, who in 1863 had founded the magazine Vanity Fair
, and some years later the women's magazine The Lady
The couple had one son and six daughters, who all used the surname Mitford rather than Freeman-Mitford; the girls were known collectively as the Mitford sisters:
Redesdale appears as Uncle Matthew in Nancy's novel The Pursuit of Love (1945), and in Jessica's memoir Hons and Rebels (1960). In a typical passage from the former: "As soon as breakfast was over, he would begin striding about the hall, bellowing at the dogs 'Come here, blast you! Get off that coat!' Kick. 'Stop that noise, blast you!' - shouting for his loader [gun], damning and blasting anyone rash enough to cross his path. Nevertheless, both daughters' accounts make it clear that between rages Redesdale was an indulgent father who loved riding and hunting with his children.
Work and war
Mitford had no real occupation other than managing his estates until the outbreak of World War I
in 1914. For a time his father-in-law employed him as manager of The Lady
, but he showed no interest in or talent for this. The Mitfords travelled regularly to Canada
, where Mitford owned a gold claim near Swastika, Ontario
: no gold was ever found there, but he enjoyed the outdoor life.
In 1914 he immediately rejoined the army and served as a transport officer in Flanders, gaining distinction for his bravery at the Second Battle of Ypres.
In 1916 his father died, and Mitford became the 2nd Lord Redesdale, his elder brother having been killed in action in 1915. He took over the family estate in Oxfordshire
, and in 1917, when he was invalided home from Flanders, was appointed Assistant Provost Marshal
of Oxford, in charge of training reservists in the county.
Although Redesdale was now a large landowner, he was not a wealthy man: the estates were poorly developed and rents were low. With seven children to feed and five servants to pay, he could not maintain the expense of his large home at Batsford in the Cotswolds. He bought and extended Asthall Manor and then moved to nearby Swinbrook. Here he indulged his passion for building by building a new large house, named after the village, which appears as the family home in the books of his daughters Nancy and Jessica. The expense of these moves nearly ruined Redesdale, who was a poor manager of money. This, plus his increasing disappointment that all his later children were girls, led to the deterioration of his temperament which became legendary through his daughters' portrayals of his frequent and terrible rages.
Political views and family splits
As a peer Redesdale was a member of the House of Lords
, then a wholly hereditary chamber. He attended the House conscientiously, although he was not really interested in party politics or in legislation, except for being opposed to nearly all change. In the 1930s, however, both he and his wife developed a strong sympathy for fascism
, and Redesdale became known for his extreme right-wing views, particularly anti-Semitism
. His daughter Diana, herself a keen fascist and from 1936 the wife of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley
, described him as "one of nature's fascists." As a result he was permanently estranged from his daughter Jessica, who was a communist
from her teenage years, and partly estranged from his eldest daughter Nancy, who was a strong anti-fascist though not as left-wing as Jessica.
Redesdale was an instinctive xenophobe: he came back from World War I with a dislike of the French and a deep hatred of the Germans. As Uncle Mathew put it in The Pursuit of Love: "Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends. Thus he was initially scornful of the enthusiasm shown by his daughters Diana and Unity for Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler: Hitler was, after all, a Hun. In November 1938, however, the Redesdales accompanied their daughters to Germany, where they attended the Nuremberg Rally and met Hitler, with whom Unity and Diana were already acquainted. Both the Redesdales were immediately won over by Hitler's apparent charm and his declarations of Anglophilia. Redesdale later spoke in the House of Lords in favour or returning Germany's colonies, and became a strong supporter of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Germany. Lady Redesdale went further, writing articles in praise of Hitler and in support of National Socialism.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 precipitated a series of crises in the Mitford family. Redesdale was above all a patriot, and as soon as war was declared be recanted his support for Hitler and once again became violently anti-German. Lady Redesdale stuck to her Nazi sympathies, and as a result the pair became estranged, and separated in 1943. Unity, who was in love with Hitler, attempted suicide in Munich on the day war was declared and suffered severe brain damage. She was brought home an invalid and Lady Redesdale cared for her until her death in 1948. Diana and Oswald Mosley were interned in 1940 as security risks and spent three years in prison. Jessica's husband Esmond Romilly, was killed in action in 1941, deepening her bitterness towards the "fascist branch" of the family - she never spoke to her father again, nor to Diana until 1973, although she was reconciled with her mother in the 1950s.
In 1945 Tom Mitford was killed in action in Burma
, a blow from which Redesdale, already depressed by the break-up of his marriage, never recovered. According to Nancy Mitford's biographer: "Although she [Nancy] was deeply grieved by his death, it did not mean for her, as it did for her parents, that all pleasure in life was over." Redesdale retreated to Inchkenneth
, an island In the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland
, which he had purchased in 1938. Later he moved to Redesdale
in Northumberland, his family's ancestral property. He lived there as a virtual recluse. By 1950, when Nancy visited him, he was "frail and old." He died there in 1958 and was buried at Swinbrook, where three of his daughters (Nancy, Diana and Unity) are also buried. His title passed to his brother Bertram
5. The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family, by Jonathan Guiness with Catherine Guiness. Jonathan Guiness is the grand-son of David and Sydney Freeman-Mitford. Published 1984 by Viking.