Polesden Lacey is one of the National Trust’s most popular country houses, an idyllic place to visit, rich in the atmosphere of the age of Edwardian entertaining, and a commemoration of a gifted hostess.
Margaret Greville was the illegitimate daughter of a wealthy Edinburgh brewer, William McEwan, and a boarding-house landlady, Helen Anderson. Her parents married when she was twenty-one and, carefully screening her origins, she rose without trace in English society to become the valued confidante of three kings, Edward VII, George V and George VI. (The Prince of Wales, briefly King Edward VIII, thought her a “bore”, which she seems to have regarded as no great loss.)
A vital step in her ascent was her loving, childless marriage to Ronald Greville. They commissioned Charles Mewès and Arthur Davis, the architects of the Ritz Hotel, to redesign Polesden Lacey in 1906 but Ronald Greville died two years later.
As “Mrs Ronnie”, she entertained at Polesden Lacey and in London, travelled the world, and seemed to know almost everyone of significance in English high society.
Siân Evans’ biography, entitled Mrs Ronnie: the society hostess who collected kings (National Trust 2013) shows how Margaret Greville used her father’s wealth and her husband’s status to impress the highest in the land.
She endeared herself to King Edward VII while he was still Prince of Wales: she provided varied, interesting company, the standard of luxury to which he was accustomed, and consummate discretion: “I don’t follow people into their bedrooms,” she said. “It’s what they do outside them that’s important.”
After her father’s death in 1913, recognising that she had no family member to whom she could bequeath her substantial wealth, she intimated to King George V and Queen Mary that she would leave her estate to one of their descendants, with a presumption that it should go to their second son, then known as Prince Albert.
This may indicate why the prince brought his bride to Polesden Lacey for part of their honeymoon in 1923: the thought may have crossed their royal minds that one day all this would be theirs.
Mrs Ronnie lived until 1942, sitting through the Blitz in her penthouse at the Dorchester, teasing her friends who cowered in the basement. She was buried in the garden at Polesden Lacey near to the house.
Her will revealed that she had left Polesden Lacey to the National Trust, and among her many bequests she willed “with all my loving thoughts all my jewels and jewellery” to Queen Elizabeth. The Queen took this surprise philosophically, writing to the King, “I am not sure that this isn’t a very good idea because it is a very difficult place to keep up, terribly expensive I believe and needing a millionaire owner”.
Among many other bequests, large and small, Mrs Ronnie left £20,000 to Princess Margaret and £10,000 to Osbert Sitwell.
Her net estate amounted to £1,505,120 5s 10d.