Society chairman David Winpenny takes a look at a new book shedding light on the life of the 2nd Marquess of Ripon.
In 2009 Ripon Civic Society marked the centenary of the death of the 1st Marquess of Ripon with a ceremony at his statue in the Spa Gardens and with a talk by his descendant, Richard Compton of Newby Hall. The 1st Marquess was a remarkable man, with a long political career that encompassed the Vice-Regality of India and the Mayorality of Ripon.
On his death Lord Ripon was succeeded by his son, Frederick Oliver Robinson, until then usually known to most people by his courtesy title Lord de Grey and by his friends as Olly. Unlike his father, whose career spawned a number of books and many articles in his lifetime and in the century since his death, Olly has never had the benefit of a biography, until now.
So we must be grateful to Rupert Godfrey for filling the gap in our knowledge of a man who succeeded in a very different field – literally – from his father. For Olly was almost universally acknowledged as the greatest shot in Britain and Europe, with more than 500,000 head of game brought low by his gun in his lifetime.
Rupert Godfrey is well placed to write about Olly. A sportsman himself, he is a regular contributor to Fieldsports magazine and has written extensively about the history of shooting. It was while he was researching the rise of driven-game shooting in the second half of the 19th century that he was inspired to write about ‘the greatest shot of all.’
If you are not into shooting you may expect the book to be a catalogue of shoots and bags, of hearty men (including royalty) and country house parties whose participants aim their guns at anything that moves between dawn and dusk. And certainly there is quite a lot of that, all told with a light touch that involves readers, even those who may not wish to know that when he was 16 he went out from Studley Royal with his father and nine other men and, on Hutton Moor, as the Ripon Gazette reported in 1868, “the magnificent total of 1,196 head were bagged – comprising the following: 453 hares, 620 pheasants, three partridges, 113 rabbits, six woodcocks and one small bird”.
There are testaments to Olly’s remarkable ability to shoot vast numbers of birds, aided by his expert loaders. He rarely missed – misses were remarked on by his shooting friends – and he was indiscriminate in what he shot. He kept meticulous lists, which included, as well as the usual game birds, species such as curlews, bustards, sparrows and swallows. When abroad, he shot tigers, jackals, cobras and rhinoceros, as well as parrots and kingfishers.
His shooting skill never deserted him. On September 21 1923, the day before his death, he went out shooting solo, returning with a bag of 131 partridges, 15 hares and four rabbits. It was entirely fitting that the following day he died in the shooting butts at Dallowgill, having brought down 51 grouse in his final drive.
But it would be wrong to think of Olly just as a man who expressed himself through his gun. He was also a connoisseur and collector of fine china, a gifted sketcher and interested in music. He was a trustee of the Wallace Collection. In particular he was closely involved with the renaissance of the Royal Opera House – a task in which he was influenced and spurred on by his wife Gladys. Originally Gwladys, she always pronounced it ‘glade-is’.
Gladys was vivacious and gregarious, where Olly was – except on the moor in his tweeds – shy and retiring. The portrait of Lady de Grey – from 1909 the 2nd Marchioness of Ripon – penned by Rupert Godfrey is fascinating. A sister of the 13th and 14th Earls of Pembroke, she developed an early reputation as a headstrong girl.
She grew very tall – she was much taller than Olly – was dark-complexioned and always dressed in the height of fashion. Her first husband was the dissolute Lord Lonsdale, and during their four-year marriage she gave birth to a daughter, Juliet – though Lonsdale was almost certainly not the father.
An intimate friend of Alexandra, Princess of Wales, Gladys knew everyone in society; after Lonsdale’s death there were engagements, real or rumoured, to several eligible men – none came off, possibly because of her reputation for extravagance and her lack of fortune. When courted by Olly she seems to have been struck by the chance to become at least a Marchioness and possibly, later, a Duchess (Olly’s father was expected to receive a dukedom after his term as Viceroy; that never happened).
The simple marriage ceremony took place at St Martin-in-the-Fields on May 7, 1885. Olly was happy – and accepting enough over the years, it seems, to see his wife have a number of affairs (he had previously had his own liaison, too, and an illegitimate son). It is said that the dancer Nijinsky was one of Gladys’ amours. She was a devotee of writers, musicians and dancers – among her friends were Oscar Wilde, Nellie Melba and Diaghilev. And she, with the help of Olly and her aristocratic friends, was certainly instrumental in reviving the Royal Opera. And despite the scandal that sometime wafted about her, Olly was genuinely lost when she died in October 1917. As a friend wrote on Gladys’s death: “She was one of those who, at whatever age they leave the earth, die young”.
The story of Olly and Gladys is told by Rupert Godfrey with verve and discrimination in his book, simply entitled Olly. It has brought them both out of the shadows and whets the appetite to know more about them. Olly is no longer a figure in the shade of his remarkable father and Gladys can glitter once more in the light of her many achievements.
lOlly is published privately in a limited first edition of 1,500 copies and can only be ordered from
www.rupertgodfrey.co.uk, or by phone on 01380 722985.