Pamela Hambro and the lost world of Milton Abbey
She appeared to have everything but her story was ultimately tragic. Jane Dismore recounts the life of Pamela Hambro.
Published in December ’09
Throwing back her fair head and laughing delightedly, she would be thrilled to know that a vital part of a Dorset village, in the area where she spent the last days of her tragically short life, bears her name, and she would be flattered to be associated with something so useful. Providing an important service to a busy community, the Pamela Hambro Hall in Winterborne Stickland is a lasting memorial to a woman who should have become mistress of the great Milton Abbey estate near Blandford alongside her husband, Charles Hambro. Instead, she lived just long enough to learn that it was lost to them forever. Now a boys’ boarding school (attended by her great-grandson), until 1932 Milton Abbey itself was a magnificent private house. It was owned, when Pamela married Charles in October 1919, by his grandfather, the merchant banker and philanthropist, Sir Everard Hambro.
Pamela was no stranger to wealth herself. Born in January 1900 into the Suffolk brewing dynasty, the Cobbolds, she was the youngest child of a union between trade and title. Her mother, Lady Evelyn, née Murray, was an Anglo-Scottish aristocrat whose ancestral homes included Blair Castle in Fifeshire and Holkham Hall in Norfolk. But by the late 19th century, the power and wealth of the landed gentry was being eroded and Lady Evelyn’s father, the 7th Earl of Dunmore, had bankrupted himself extending his Scottish castle to impress her mother, who was the daughter of the Earl of Leicester and accustomed to the splendours of Holkham. John Dupuis Cobbold may have been trade, but he was immensely wealthy and in marrying him, Lady Evelyn acquired the financial security she otherwise lacked. Besides, John’s was hardly new money: his family had been successful brewers since the 1740s and had developed other lucrative businesses, too. They were also MPs, mayors and generous benefactors in Suffolk, for which they are still acknowledged today.
Pamela was raised on her father’s lavish Ipswich estate, Holy Wells, and spent the summers shooting at his hunting estate at Rannoch in the Highlands, but she was no spoilt brat. The Cobbolds had a long-established reputation for public service and, like John, Pamela could communicate with people at all levels of life. While she was very sociable and had a mischievous sense of humour, she hated pointless parties, much preferring to be with a few close friends or outdoors on her horse or her motorbike, shouting into the wind as she rode.
It was these characteristics that so attracted her friend and later husband, Charles Hambro. Over six feet tall, handsome and kind, he was a war hero by 1917, winning the Military Cross aged 19. Introduced to Pamela by his friend and her brother, Ivan, when they were at Eton, Charles implored her to write to him when he was sent to the Western Front. Their letters, written between 1917 and 1919, are a poignant, funny and vibrant account of their lives during and immediately after the Great War; they contrast her life in ‘stagnant Ipswich’, as she called it, and his as a lonely young officer at the Front, coping with the ghastliness of war and its aftermath.
To the delight of both families, Pamela accepted Charles’s proposal in May 1919, when she was 19 and he 21. In early June he took her to Milton Abbey, where both sets of parents attended for the formal announcement of the engagement and where she was to meet the formidable but kindly patriarch, Sir Everard. Extremely tall and still handsome at the age of 77, he was enjoying a new lease of life; having lost his beloved wife, Mary, in 1905, he had married in 1911 Ebba Whyte, a lady 45 years his junior.
Although she thought Milton Abbey sounded ‘too heavenly’, Pamela was anxious that she should impress Everard and wrote nervously to Charles: ‘Is he alarming?! Will he hate me? & be furious with you for even thinking of getting married!’
But everyone who met Pamela liked her and Charles’s grandfather was no exception. Pamela loved Milton, as so many did, including Everard’s friend, the late King Edward VII, who had considered it as a residence before he discovered Sandringham. It had been Everard’s father, Carl Joachim Hambro, the Danish baron, who had fallen in love with it on sight and bought it in 1852, when he was a renowned merchant banker but a lonely widower with three young sons. Commissioning the re-building of the Abbey, to which he welcomed the public, and building a new village school, the newcomer with the heavy Danish accent was to become well-liked.
The next in line for the estate after Everard was his eldest son, Charles’s father, Sir Charles Eric Hambro. Knighted for his trade negotiations with Sweden during the Great War, Eric was another handsome and charismatic figure. Pamela was very fond of him and Charles’s mother, Lady Sybil: petite, amusing and immensely talented, she had a penchant for smoking large cigars and was quite different from Pamela’s own mother, to whom Pamela referred as ‘the Western Front’.
Although Pamela and Charles’s expectation of Milton was some way in the future, it did not prevent Charles, who had spent many happy childhood days there, pointing out that it was important she should get to know it: ‘Because one day you will have to boss Milton….You Darling, how they will all love you!’
Meanwhile the couple settled into married life in Kent and in London, where Charles undertook his banking training which would lead to his becoming Chairman of Hambros Bank and Deputy Governor of the Bank of England. Through their lives and those of other significant families with whom they were connected – such as the 9th Duke of Devonshire and his family, the American banking family of Morgan, and the Wallenbergs of Sweden – are seen many of the fascinating social and political changes of the inter-war years. Pamela developed friendships with literary and political figures of the time and became interested in Buddhism – newly gaining popularity in Britain – yet contrarily still loved to hunt.
It was partly hunting that brought her, Charles and, by 1931, their four young children to Dorset during that year. Everard had died in 1925 and Charles’s father, Eric, had inherited Milton Abbey as intended, becoming Chairman of Hambros Bank at the same time. Sadly, Sybil had divorced Eric in 1929, due to his adultery with his stepmother’s younger sister, Estelle Whyte, whom he married that same year. Charles, Pamela and their children moved into the lovely Delcombe Manor on the estate so that Pamela could hunt, probably with the Portland Hunt, and so that Charles could keep an eye on financial matters, for he was concerned about his father’s extravagance. Always a generous man, Eric had smothered Sybil with diamonds when they were married and presumably was doing the same with Estelle. He loved exotic travel and unfortunately he was also a keen but not very successful gambler. The reality was that the estate could not sustain the financial burden Eric had put upon it, which was exacerbated by the Depression, and to the family’s great sorrow they concluded in late 1931 that the beautiful 8000-acre estate, which Charles’s great-grandfather, Carl, had thought would stay in the family for ever, had to be sold.
In the middle of all the anxiety, in December 1931 Pamela was kicked by one of her hunters and developed septicaemia. Shortly afterwards, when attending a Dorset hunt ball with Charles, she caught a cold which, with her resistance lowered, rapidly turned into pneumonia. She was confined to bed in Delcombe Manor. Their daughters were aged eleven, ten and six and their son, Charlie – later Lord Hambro – just 21 months. In April 1932, while Pamela weakened, they were in quarantine for whooping cough. The last time the girls saw their mother alive was by climbing a ladder to look through her bedroom window, but Charlie was too young and never saw her again. She died on 16 April 1932, aged 32.
Her funeral took place in Milton Abbey itself, her two favourite hunters being brought to the church door. Her body was then taken by car to her favourite spot on a hillside above Loch Rannoch in Perthshire, where she and Charles – later knighted, although she would never know – had spent their honeymoon. In Milton Abbey a plaque commemorates her.
The sale of the Milton Abbey estate was concluded in late 1932. Charles and his uncle, Angus Hambro, bought some lots, thus maintaining the family link with Dorset. In 1934 Charles built the memorial hall for Winterborne Stickland to replace its Reading Room, which had been sold off with the rest of the estate. He later gave it to the community on three conditions, mainly that it bear his late wife’s name forever. Pamela’s connection with Dorset may have been brief during her lifetime but it is everlasting in death.
3 Ken Ayres