Mary Russell, Flying Duchess–and Much More

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How did the free-spirited daughter of an obscure English clergyman become the famous Duchess of Bedford, best known as The Flying Duchess? The little book above, written by Mary’s great-grandson the Marquess of Tavistock, tells her story. Mary Du Caurroy Tribe was born and educated in England, but as a young teenager she went to join her family, stationed in India.  Her father’s chaplaincy duties took him on dirt roads and over mountain passes to Indian villages.  For six years, Mary happily went along for the ride, taking turns with her father on their one pony. She loved every moment of outdoor adventure.

Lord Herbrand Russell, my photo taken from book "The Flying Duchess," cited above

Lord Herbrand Russell, my photo taken from book “The Flying Duchess,” cited above

In 1888, at age 23, she married the dashing Lord Herbrand Russell, aide-de-camp to the Viceroy. He was 27, and as an aristocratic younger son he had to make his own way in the world. A life serving Queen Victoria in India seemed likely for the young couple.

Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, Public Domain

Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, Public Domain

But in quick succession, Lord Herbrand’s father and childless older brother died, and hey presto! the young couple became Duke and Duchess of Bedford.

Woburn

Along with the title came Woburn Abbey, seat of the Dukes of Bedford for over 300 years. In the twentieth century, war and industrialization took a toll on all great country houses. Woburn opened to the paying public in 1953, preserved from steep tax bills thanks to pragmatic plans that included a golf club. But it is still the family’s home. And rare breeds of deer still roam the park.

In her early married years, the Duchess gave birth to her only child, a son named Hastings.  Besides dressing up and wearing a tiara when required, she did all manner of good works in her community. She loved nature and being outdoors. She traveled on her yacht, hunted, fly-fished, and canoed, often alone, down rivers where she “shipwrecked” more often than she probably cared to admit. She took up bird-watching. Never one to do things by halves, she became a world authority on birds.

One of her prized pets was a rare swan named Sabina, a rescue bird who ferociously attacked any creature, man or beast, that ventured near her pond. She was no match for Mary Russell. The Duchess wrote in her diary, “I made a stand and gave Sabina to understand that in my case at least such behavior could not be tolerated.” Soon Sabina was following the Duchess around and allowing herself to be picked up. She haunted the terrace in front of the house, watching for the Duchess. She even asked for kisses. A male swan was drafted into service as a mate for her. Sabina tolerated him, but her first love was the Duchess.

Duchess of Bedford as a nurse, my photo taken from "The Flying Duchess" book cited above

Duchess of Bedford as a nurse, my photo taken from “The Flying Duchess” book cited above

The Duchess designed and built a state-of-the-art community hospital in Woburn. But she didn’t stop there.  For 34 years, she actually worked in the hospital, shoulder to shoulder with her employees. If she noticed a dirty floor, she scrubbed it. 

When World War I came, she converted large outbuildings on the estate into a war hospital. She hired an eminent London surgeon, Mr. Bryden Glendining, as her head of staff.  She trained as a surgeon’s assistant and stood by his side for about a dozen operations a week.

Realizing that the new science of radiology was crucial to diagnosis, she learned radiology and headed that department.  I can just hear her saying, “How hard can it be?” The War Office had so much confidence in the Duchess’s hospital that wounded soldiers were sent to Woburn directly from the Front.

MaryRussellBedford

At age 61, the Duchess took up flying.  Again, how hard could it be? In 1937, at age 71, she had 199 hours of solo flight under her belt when she took off from the park at Woburn, alone in her De Havilland Gipsy Moth. She was never seen again. It seems likely that she strayed over the Channel and went down at sea.  Pieces of her plane eventually washed up on shore, but she was never found. Her beloved husband survived her by three years.

If the Duchess had lived on into the years of World War II, no doubt she would have tossed her flying helmet onto a shelf, rolled up her sleeves, and marched straight back into her hospital work.  A BBC article about her life is at http://www.bbc.co.uk/threecounties/content/articles/2008/08/12/flying_duchess_feature.shtml

 

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