Born to an immensely rich Victorian industrial family, Colin Tennant used his wealth to live an eccentric lifestyle of self-indulgence from the 1940s to his death in 2010. He bought the private island of Mustique in the West Indies and made it one of the most exclusive destinations for the famous—royalty, film and pop stars, international businessmen and jet-setters flocked there. His parties were legendary. He was an original member of the Princess Margaret set (even suggested as a possible husband) and her visits to the island were always newsworthy. As Tennant's literary executer, Nicholas Courtney personally knew his subject and had access to unseen family papers and photographs. He tells the inside story of Tennant's remarkable and often tragic life which continues to cause ripples even after his death.
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About the Author
Nicholas Courtney is an author, broadcaster, and lecturer. In the 1970s he became the general manager of the Island of Mustique, where he stayed for four years. He then began writing fiction and historical non-fiction. Among his best-selling books are Admiral Beaufort and the award winning The Queen's Stamps.
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Lord of the Isle
The Extravagant Life and Times of Colin Tennant
By Nicholas Courtney
Bene Factum Publishing LtdCopyright © 2012 Nicholas Courtney
All rights reserved.
'I'm the Horrible Colin Tennant!' was how the 4-year-old son of the second Baron Glenconner innocently described his Honourable status to strangers. Few murmurs of dissent were heard, especially from his nanny. His mother, Pamela Paget, had perforce married Lord Christopher Glenconner at Wells Cathedral in 1925, in a lavish ceremony designed by the bridegroom's brother, the epicene Stephen Tennant, who dressed the bridesmaids in colours taken from the cathedral's stained glass, and turned up with a snake and tortoise concealed in his pockets. Colin was born the next year, on 1 December, at their home 76 Sloane Street, Chelsea, in the heart of London.
His birth was the cause of much rejoicing, not to say expense. Lord Glenconner rewarded Pamela with an exact replica of her engagement ring from Cartier that had flown from her finger as she threw sticks for her lunatic red setter, Netta, to retrieve from the Serpentine in Hyde Park. The original 'tutti-frutti' ring, set with a wonderful cabochon emerald, faintly tinged with blue and bounded by small emeralds and rubies, is presumably still buried somewhere in the mud of the lake. Pamela never wore the replacement and, seventy years later, Colin took the ring back to Cartier to have it stamped and hallmarked. The expense also reached as far as the tenantry and employees of Glen and Kirk House, the twin Glenconner houses in the Borders, who handsomely anted up for a Scottish silver quaich.
In a scene worthy of a P. G. Wodehouse novel, Evan, the name of Lord Glenconner's prize and favourite shorthorn bull, was seriously considered for the infant Tennant; as was Marmaduke, an alternative suggested by his great aunt, Margot Asquith, who declared it 'her favourite name'. Finally 'Colin' was chosen after the full-length portrait of Lady Gertrude Fitzpatrick, daughter of the 2nd Earl of Upper Ossory, by Sir Joshua Reynolds that hung in the drawing room at Glen. The girl is standing on a little hillock, or collina, behind Fermyn Woods Hall in Northamptonshire, which gave the painting its title.
And so the day before Christmas Eve Colin, dressed in the family christening robe trimmed with Valenciennes lace, was launched on society at his christening at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Street, where the faithful housekeeper, Tilly, had decorated the font with white heather brought down from Glen. His godparents, who included Sir Ian Colquhoun of Luss, appear to have taken no further part in Colin's life once they had renounced the sins of the flesh at the font and given him the additional names of Christopher, after his father, and Paget in deference to his mother's family, along with a tiny silver tankard. Colin's solitary nursery life ended dramatically with the arrival of his brother James in 1929, but typically Pamela could not remember whether the birth was on the fifth or sixth of March as she was staying with friends at the time.
Soon after the birth of James, when Colin was 5, the family moved into Admiral's House, situated at the highest point in Hampstead. This imposing eleven-bedroom house had been built at the end of the eighteenth century for Fountain North, an eccentric naval officer with high-ranking aspirations. Like Admiral Boon's house in Mary Poppins, the roof was divided into facsimile main- and quarter-decks of a frigate, complete with cannon, which he fired on George III's birthdays and to celebrate British naval victories. Immediately below the quarter-deck were North's quarters, built like the captain's cabin in the stern of a ship-of-the-line. In the 1-acre garden was a tunnel that came out on Hampstead Heath which, according to local legend, was the escape route of the highwayman Dick Turpin. The architect George Gilbert Scott once lived there, although he complained that the lofty elevation was 'too cold for him'. John Constable recorded the house twice.
For Colin and James life in the nursery situated in the former cabin of Admiral's House (or Adho as the family called it) appears to have been harmonious, well ordered and prosperous. There were servants everywhere, including Pringle the butler, and the aforesaid Tilly the housekeeper, who had been inherited from Lord Glenconner's mother (also named Pamela) when, after being widowed, she married her second husband, the former Foreign Secretary, Viscount (Edward) Grey of Fallodon. The daughter of a porter at St Pancras station, Tilly became the major force within the family. Not young when she arrived in 1922, she was to stay with Colin's mother until the day she, Tilly, died aged 97, devoting her life to the service of the family. When she was 70, for example, she broke her hip but insisted on continuing her work. To lay the table she would tie a length of string round her waist and crawl along the passage to the dining room. There she would drag the tray laden with plates and cutlery and place them piece by piece on the table above her. Payback time came when Pamela nursed the bedridden Tilly for the last ten years of her life. Tilly's toothy ally was Doris, the cook. The full-time gardener was appropriately called Mr Green. There was an oft-changed nanny and a nursery maid, or two, to look after the boys.
Every day in term time, and wearing their respective uniforms, Birley, the chauffeur, would sedately drive Colin in the new 8-litre Bentley down Fitzjohn's Avenue to Arnold House, his day school, and collect him in the early afternoon. Holidays were spent either at Glen or sometimes on a lavish trip abroad. In the spring of 1931, for example, Pamela took the boys to stay in Lausanne, but their visit coincided with the crash of the London Stock Market. Pamela's immediate reaction was to vacate the luxurious Paris Hotel and take a house in the town, which was cheaper. The devastating collapse of the money markets at home, on top of the Wall Street crash of 1929, was to change their lives forever. However, up to that time, harmony reigned in the lofty nursery and the servants' hall in the basement, but all was not well with Christopher and Pamela on the floors in between. They clearly never should have married and a dark cloud was to form on Colin's otherwise sunny childhood sky.
In the long, lonely evenings of later years in St Lucia, Colin spent many hours poring over the visitors' book from Wilsford, his paternal grandmother Pamela's house near Salisbury, where she had lived with her second husband Edward Grey. Colin would delight in the names of the fashionable, the intellectual, and the family members who visited Wilsford, then piece together the frequent house parties hosted by Pamela. Many of these were to introduce her handsome, rich and eligible sons, Christopher and David (though not Stephen, who was gay) to a succession of equally beautiful and eligible young girls – the likes of Alice Astor, granddaughter of William Astor of New York City, and Cary Brand, scion of Viscount Hampden. Nancy Mitford and her sister Diana were also visitors.
While Pamela Grey applied her considerable energies to finding suitable wives for her marriageable sons, she was also on the lookout for a husband for her goddaughter and namesake, Pamela Paget. Her father, Sir Richard Paget, always known as Artie, had been an admirer of Pamela before she married Edward Glenconner, and the close friendship extended to his wife, Lady Muriel Finch-Hatton. The visitors' book reveals that the Pagets often came to Wilsford before the First World War, their house at Cranmore in Somerset being just far enough away to warrant an overnight stay. After the war they were always accompanied by their daughter Pamela. It is clear that she was unofficially being groomed to marry, though the paucity of eligible men after the First World War made the task considerably harder. In the meantime she joined her sister, Sylvia, at Newnham College, Cambridge where she read Anglo-Saxon history. Soon after her arrival she was surprised to receive a visit from Christopher, who had been dispatched by his domineering mother to sound out the possibility of her marrying his brother David. It was typical of Pamela Grey to think that just because she was fond of Artie Paget and Lady Muriel, her son would be happy with Artie's daughter. Christopher knew that his debonair brother was heavily involved with the ingénue Hermione Baddeley (whom he later married after the birth of their daughter Pauline), and therefore was most certainly not romantically interested in the provincial, blue-stocking Pamela, nor she, most likely, in him. 'I had no one as it happened' she once confided to Colin. In the end, Christopher carried off this ewe lamb and proposed to Pamela himself. Her acceptance was solely motivated by what she thought was expected of her, laced with a heavy dose of parental pressure. It was not a propitious start to any union.
Christopher and Pamela could not have been more different. The catalyst was, of course, Pamela Grey and when she died in 1928 her considerable influence on Christopher and her protégée Pamela died with her. The couple's relationship deteriorated over the next few years until Christopher felt that he could take no more of his wife and moved out of 'Adho'. Amongst other things he could not cope with her attitude to wealth. When he passed through a difficult time at the head of the Tennant financial empire she would remark what fun it would be to be poor – he did not think it fun at all.
There was no one else involved in the ensuing divorce. Universal condemnation was heaped on Christopher for his defection but, in his defence Pamela was, as Colin was to admit, 'terribly, terribly difficult, with a temper as well'. The decree absolute was granted in 1935 when Colin was barely 9. He had a clear recollection of his mother coming into his bedroom while he was resting after lunch to tell him that she was no longer married to his father. He just said 'Oh!' but the news struck him very forcibly. Both he and James were far more affected by the divorce than they realised and, by his own admission, it taught Colin thereafter never to rely on other people's affections. He overcame the trauma by 'being outward and ambitious to get on'. He became irrepressible, but as he said 'what was being repressed was very damaged [and] quite neurotic'. When it was suggested that Colin should see a psychiatrist to help cope with his neurosis, his father was furious, declaring that no son of his 'was going to be psychotic'. The neurosis that began with a traumatic childhood only increased over the years.CHAPTER 2
Colin's parents' divorce meant that he and his brother, James, were brought up almost exclusively within the sphere of, and influenced by, the Paget family. The brothers did see their father on occasion, but at that time Colin remembered Christopher as a distant figure: 'There was never any intimacy with my father. I cannot recall him ever hugging or kissing, or even touching me at all. He just held his hand out – I was always surprised that the boys Charles and Henry rushed forward to kiss me. He was very undemonstrative, and we saw so little of him.' He recalled being taken by his father to the Ritz for dinner just once, but his step-mother, Elizabeth, Lady Glenconner, remembers otherwise. They met always in the holidays and during school exeats. Years later Colin flew into an abject rage when he showed his cousin, John Chancellor, a letter from his father that was signed just 'Yours, Daddy'. It can only have been a momentary aberration as all other surviving correspondence invariably carries the valediction 'with love from Daddy' or 'Best love, Daddy'. Colin kept the book he was given by his father for his eleventh birthday that had been signed by his secretary: 'To Colin from Lord Glenconner. Christmas 1937.'
Neither did Colin's mother show much tangible affection: according to Colin, she never kissed or cuddled her sons. Pamela did, however, devote her life entirely to them. Having no inkling that Christopher was leaving her, she was totally overcome by the divorce when it came. But she never stopped loving Christopher and was grateful to Elizabeth, his second wife as, unlike her, she made him happy. For some time after the divorce Pamela appeared somewhat 'scatty and uncoordinated'. As Elizabeth Glenconner said: 'She was terribly unhappy, and you don't behave very well when you are unhappy.' Pamela was finally saved by the advent of the Second World War which gave her something useful to do when, among other voluntary projects, she worked in a munitions factory.
Despite the trauma of the divorce, life at Adho continued very much as before. Christopher had settled an extremely generous £5,000 a year on Pamela which, with her modest and careful nature, was more than enough to run the house with a full staff that by then included a governess, Stella Toy (Colin never forgot her address, a boarding house in St Ives '1 Clodgy View'). Indeed Pamela created an enchanting, if alternative, environment for her sons. She was pretty and although marriage had prevented her from finishing her degree at Cambridge she was highly intelligent. She introduced Colin to the delights of algebra and Latin. In true Paget fashion, conversation was on anything and everything, particularly at mealtimes. Pamela spoke in a precise, witty manner somewhat reminiscent of her great aunts, Camilla and Louise Rice, who were Jane Austen's great nieces. Pamela thought of them as 'very auntified aunts'. She would often embark on some wild story that lasted throughout the meal, going off at tangents, but always coming back to the key point before they had finished eating. Another Paget trait was to sing songs at mealtimes.
Colin's school holidays were generally spent either at Glen, with his father and step-mother and their children, Emma and Toby (Catherine was born after the Second World War) or at Cranmore when Pamela, the only Paget with any money, used to rent the house from her parents. Lady Muriel, her mother, was rarely there, having 'usually just left for Latvia'. However, when illness anchored her to Somerset, to her obvious delight Colin and James visited her. She wrote to Artie: 'Children are the most delightful companions. Colin v. clever & thinks things out to their logical conclusions. He bought some sweets for old Mrs Birch yesterday & said, "You see, if I am kind to old people when I am young, young people might be kind to me when I am old."'
Pamela's grip on Colin was loosened when, in 1936, he was sent to Scaitcliffe, a preparatory school set in a commodious, red-brick Victorian house on the edge of Windsor Great Park at Englefield Green in Surrey. The school was owned and run by the ferocious Ronald Vickers, son of Col. Tom Vickers who had been Chairman of the armaments manufacturers of the Maxim machine-gun and, later, battleships. Mr Vickers was very good-looking with a classical appearance, noble brow, and big round eyes. The feminine element of the school was provided by Mrs Vickers and their two unmarried daughters who had once been ravishing beauties. It was said that the Duke of Sutherland had been interested in Rosemary [May] who was 'really pretty, big eyes [and a] big round face'. There were also three nurses: Nurse Major, Nurse Minor and Nurse Minimus. Colin remembered Mr Vickers as ruling the school with a rod, if not of iron at least of cane. He had a ferociously explosive temper, and had been tutor to the Duke of Albany or one of the younger princes. Mr Vickers had a very unusual system. Every morning at assembly, he rattled off twenty questions – Latin or Greek words, a paradigm or whatever – 'so fast that we did not have time to write the answers down on a chitty of paper. The head boy collected up the papers and threw them straight into the waste paper basket'. He then gave out full marks to the senior boys – even if they hadn't written anything at all – going down the class to the last boy in the class who was given the lowest marks, whereupon Mr Vickers exploded with rage and dragged the wretched child into his study where he was soundly beaten. There was no way out of the routine.
Colin claimed that he never minded the system or that Mr Vickers despaired of him. Even when he was soundly beaten, two minutes later he would meet the headmaster in the passage and greet him warmly with: 'Hello Mr Vickers'. As he maintained, he was always a very cheerful child, 'sociable and never shy'.
Colin's life at Scaitcliffe was very much the same as at any other preparatory school of the time. There were baths twice a week. The masters were mostly failures of one kind or another, save for Mr Owen, who was obviously clever and taught Latin and Greek. Colin shone at Latin and could recite long passages from the Epic Poets. He always maintained that he was more a Paget than a Tennant and by this time he was tall for his age and bean-pole thin. He was 'springy light [with] strong legs' and in his time he won the long jump and the 100 yards. The boys were allowed home most weekends and Birley the chauffeur would collect Colin and deliver him back on Sunday night whether Pamela was there or not.
Excerpted from Lord of the Isle by Nicholas Courtney. Copyright © 2012 Nicholas Courtney. Excerpted by permission of Bene Factum Publishing Ltd.
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Table of Contents
1 Admiral's House 5
2 Wickham's, Eton 10
3 7 Oriel Street 19
4 6 William Mews 31
5 Holkham Hall 55
6 Ortinola, Trinidad 65
7 The Old Great House 70
8 Old Park Farm 80
9 35 Tite Street 91
10 Bond Street 98
11 Fort Liverpool 105
12 SS Antilles 111
13 Les Jolies Eaux 123
14 The Great House, Mustique 139
15 Glen 148
16 The Ritz 162
17 The Waterfront, Souffrière 172
18 Hill Lodge 181
19 Jalousie Plantation 191
20 The Chattel House 200
21 The Tents, Lagoon Bay 208
22 The Great House, Beau Estate 214
Appendix I Three Astral Women 235
Appendix II Tennant's Stalk 243