Friday 20 September 2019

Obituary: The Duchess of Abercorn

Public-spirited doyenne of Northern Irish life and a close confidante of Prince Philip

CLOSE: The Duchess of Abercorn with her husband (left) and Prince Philip. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock
CLOSE: The Duchess of Abercorn with her husband (left) and Prince Philip. Photo: Rex/Shutterstock

The Duchess of Abercorn, who died on December 10 aged 72, was the wife of James, fifth Duke of Abercorn, and a public-spirited doyenne of Northern Irish life who, among other ventures, founded the Pushkin Prizes to encourage children in creative writing.

Alexandra Anastasia Phillips was born on February 27, 1946, in Tucson, Arizona, where her father was living briefly for health reasons. Always known as Sacha, she was the eldest daughter of Lt-Col Harold 'Bunny' Phillips and his wife, Georgina Wernher, later the wife of Sir George 'Loopy' Kennard. Her father served in the Coldstream Guards and had been a lover of Edwina Mountbatten, the family coming originally from Royston in Hertfordshire.

Her mother's ancestry was even more exotic. She was the daughter of Sir Harold Wernher of Luton Hoo. The Wernhers originated in Darmstadt, and became rich through diamonds and mining interests in South Africa. His wife, Lady Zia, was the daughter of Grand Duke Michael of Russia (grandson of Tsar Nicholas I), and his morganatic wife, Sophie von Merenberg (Countess de Torby), whose mother was the younger daughter of the great Russian novelist and poet, Alexander Pushkin.

Alexandra was distantly in line to the British throne, by descent from Sophia, Electress of Hanover, and royal links were further strengthened by Lady Zia being a sister of Nada, Marchioness of Milford Haven, who was married to the uncle of the Duke of Edinburgh.

Through Pushkin, Sacha descended from Abram Petrovitch Gannibal (or Ibrahim Hannibal) (c 1698-1781), the African-born protege of Peter the Great. More conventionally, Princess Marina, Duchess of Kent, was her godmother, and Lord Mountbatten her godfather.

She grew up at Thorpe Lubenham in Leicestershire with her four siblings, Nicholas (who inherited Luton Hoo, and died in 1991), Fiona, Marita and Natalia (later Duchess of Westminster). She was first educated in a school run in a local farmhouse, then at St Mary's, Wantage, and finally at a school in Westminster.

Perhaps the most formative part of her education was the storytelling of her father, which fired the imaginations of all his children.

She travelled around South America with her parents before enrolling for a secretarial course at St James's College, London. Later she trained as a professional counsellor in transpersonal and depth psychology and became an admirer of Carl Jung.

In July 1964 her grandmother, Lady Zia Wernher, gave a dance for her at Luton Hoo, at which the dinner was attended by the British Queen and Prince Philip, Princess Marina, Prince Michael of Kent, Lord Mountbatten, the Margrave of Baden and his brother, Prince Ludwig.

On October 20, 1966, she married the future fifth Duke of Abercorn (then Marquess of Hamilton, MP for Fermanagh), to whom she had become engaged after a visit to the American millionaire, Henry McElhinney, at Glenveagh Castle. Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the Queen Mother, Prince Charles, Princess Anne, the Duchess of Gloucester, Princess Marina and Lord Mountbatten attended the wedding in Westminster Abbey, and Prince Andrew was one of the pages.

The reception was held at St James's Palace. For the first decade of their marriage, the Hamiltons lived in London, the then Marquess serving in the House of Commons. Both were tall (the new Marchioness rather Russian in appearance) and they made what Sir Charles Johnston described as "a towering, strikingly handsome" couple. Three children were born, two sons and a daughter.

The new Marchioness had never been to Ireland before visiting the Hamilton family seat, Baronscourt, Co Tyrone, in May 1966. They moved into the house, a few miles from the Border, in the mid-1970s; the fourth Duke and his Duchess took a self-contained unit in the west wing.

The Abercorns (as they became in July 1979) employed David Hicks to convert Baronscourt, a magnificent Georgian country house, into a comfortable and stylish home for a young family, Hicks making his plans within two hours and effecting the changes between March and Christmas 1977.

They arrived in Northern Ireland together when the Troubles were at their worst, with almost daily bombings, years she described as like "a long, dark tunnel", and her seven-year-old daughter suffered from nightmares.

Not long afterwards came a sharp reminder of the dangers with the assassination of Lord Mountbatten. This was no short-lived crisis. A visitor in 1985 noted that theirs was a large, insecure house, a mere five miles from the Border. The Duke was in danger as a public figure, but described himself as a naive optimist.

Sacha became well-known for her public work in Northern Ireland. She was inspired to help children affected by the Troubles to express their thoughts and feelings through creativity.

Inspired by Pushkin, the 150th anniversary of whose death was celebrated at Luton Hoo in 1987, she founded the Pushkin Trust to carry his message into Northern Ireland and help children to find a voice. This developed, with a creative writing course for stories and poems (judged by Doris Lessing, Roald Dahl and others), and by the mid-1990s some 50 schools were participating. There were exchange visits with Russia, a summer school in creative writing for teachers and a partners in education programme established. Catholics and Protestants worked together.

At Baronscourt she built the Pushkin House, a wooden dacha-like structure inspired by an 18th Century church in Russia. For all this work she was appointed OBE in 2008, and in 2015 the Russian ambassador presented her with the coveted Pushkin Medal. Her ventures were inspired by her belief that the power of compassionate imagination was the key to solving insoluble political problems.

She was also patron of the Mariinsky Theatre Trust and served on the council of St George's House, Windsor Castle. She was a governor of Harrow School and honorary secretary of the Northern Ireland Centre for Trauma and Transformation in Omagh, Co Tyrone, and patron of the Omagh Community Youth Choir, founded following the IRA bombings there in 1998.

She was house patron of Abercorn House at Cambridge House Grammar School in Ballymena, Co Antrim, and received the Ireland Fund of Monaco's Princess Grace Humanitarian Award in 2006. In 2003 she published a volume of prose poems, Feather from the Firebird.

Her husband's interests included politics, business, farming and estate management, and he served the Queen as Lord Steward, was Colonel of Irish Guards, was appointed a Knight of the Garter in 1999 and Chancellor of the Order in 2012. While he was softly-spoken, the Duchess was Slavic and extrovert. She was also known for her unconventional relationships with Lord Mountbatten and Prince Philip. She was frequently described as the woman closest to Mountbatten in his later years. She admitted he loved her, and did not discount the possibility that had she been unmarried, she might have married him when he was a widower.

Likewise, she attracted unwelcome publicity when described as one of Prince Philip's confidantes - he had known her since she was a little girl. They became close when her brother was running shoots at the Gables, and were drawn together by an interest in Jung, which involved "riveting conversations".

The Duke used to go to Eleuthera, their home in the Bahamas, and to Baronscourt for carriage driving. Pressed by Gyles Brandreth, she described Philip as "a very special man… It was a passionate friendship, but the passion was in the ideas."

She is survived by her husband and three children.

© Telegraph

Telegraph.co.uk

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