The spirit of grief

Spirit of Ecstasy

I've finally gotten around to adding Montagu of Beaulieu (pronounced 'Bewley', apparently) to my irregular series of biographies of airpower propagandists. He's an important, but somewhat neglected figure, some of whose papers I've examined (those held at King's College London). He helped found the Air League of the British Empire in 1909, and devised the influential 'nerve centre' theory, which argued that the destruction of critical infrastructure would be one of the chief dangers of aerial bombardment in the next war:

an attempt would certainly be made to paralyse the heart of the nation by attacking certain nerve centres in London, the destruction of which would impede or entirely destroy the means of communication by telephone, telegraph, rail, and road.1

Later, in 1916, he stumped across the country giving speeches criticising the government for its failure to expand aircraft production sufficiently, and to call for the formation of an independent air force, the Imperial Air Service. He was a Conservative MP, then a Conservative peer, and all the time very wealthy (if you call 10,000 acres wealthy, anyway).

But today I'm going to talk about Montagu's personal life, and the way it impinged on his public one. The photo above shows the 'Spirit of Ecstasy', the mascot adorning the bonnet of every Rolls-Royce -- every one since Montagu put an early version on his Silver Ghost in 1911, that is, for he was a huge motoring enthusiast, and had his friend, the sculptor Charles Sykes, design it for him. Supposedly, the model Sykes used was Montagu's own secretary and mistress, Eleanor Thornton. (Though there's an alternate, and possibly more convincing, theory minimising the role of Thornton and Montagu.)

Now, Thornton and Montagu's romance seems to have been a bit, well, romanticised, by a few of the webpages about the Spirit of Ecstasy. Wikipedia, for example, says that claims that their affair was secret because of Thornton's lowly social status, and that Montagu was forced by family pressure to marry a bit higher up the social scale (the daughter of a baron, as it happened). But I doubt this. I haven't been able to find out when they met, but everything points to the 1900s. (The earliest date I have seen mentioned in this connection is that Thornton became Montagu's secretary in 1902.) And the fact is that Montagu, born in 1866, married Cecil (yes, really) in 1889. Their two daughters were probably already born by the time he and Thornton met. So, enough of the star-crossed lovers/upstairs-downstairs/doomed romance cliches -- for his part, he was a rich, powerful man who could afford both a wife and family, and a mistress, and was never forced to choose between them. There doesn't seem to be any evidence that the thought even crossed his mind.2

But he did love her, and in the end, perhaps even felt ashamed of the choices she had been forced to make. On 30 December 1915, Montagu and Thornton were on board the S.S. Persia, sailing across the Mediterranean towards Port Said in Egypt, where he was due to leave her on his way to India. But the Persia was sunk off Crete by a German U-boat. He survived, but she did not. In Montagu's papers are some pretty clear, if restrained, expressions of grief at her loss. For example, in a letter to H. H. Asquith, the Prime Minister, written in May 1916, he seems to be apologising for an overly emotional declaration of his desire to help the government on aviation matters, and at the end says that the Persia incident was the sort of thing that ended selfish aspirations.3 This could admittedly just mean his own personal brush with death, but there's more.

In Montagu's speeches around the country, he often mentioned the need to mobilise women for the war effort. In others, he referred to their role as mothers or lovers, such as one speech for the Navy League in April 1916. Here, he spoke of the sacrifices they made, meaning the men they had loved and lost. Then he says that he too has sacrificed, that this is driving him on his campaign for national aviation, for if he can rouse the country then his sacrifice and his deliverance won't have been for nothing. I think it's pretty clear that Montagu is referring to Thornton's death, and his own guilt at surviving.

Finally, in June 1916, Montagu gave a speech to the British Women's Patriotic League. Here he again spoke on the problem of airpower, and praised women workers, who have proven their right to a greater (but unspecified) part in government. But he's also worried about the falling birthrate. He pleads for a change in attitudes towards unmarried mothers, arguing that the shame of bearing a child out of wedlock is erased by the glory of bearing a child. When I first read this, I thought it just an interesting argument along eugenic lines (though Montagu was not talking about the upper classes being outbred by their social inferiors, but women workers). Now that I've read a bit more of the story of Eleanor and John, the real reason for this proposal has become clear. As my astute readers will no doubt have guessed, they had an illegitimate child together, a daughter named Joan. Whether or not the British Women's Patriotic League realised it, I think Montagu was attempting to make amends in some way for his part in his love's life and death. I don't think he ever publicly admitted his relationship with her; their daughter was placed with a foster family, although he did stay in her life as an 'uncle'. Montagu's wife, Cecil, died in 1919; he remarried the following year.4

I wonder if he could ever bear to drive a Rolls again.

Image source: anataman.

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  1. Montagu of Beaulieu, Aerial Machines and War (London: Hugh Rees, 1910), 2. []
  2. Divorce was out of the question, given the laws of the day, unless it could be proved that his wife was also committing adultery. Though he could have abandoned her, and then she could have eventually divorced him. []
  3. I'd quote the letter directly, but I'd need the permission of King's first ... The passages I'm paraphrasing are from the Douglas-Scott-Montagu papers, 5/13, 6/10 and 6/21, King's College London. []
  4. Incidentally, Montagu's son's sex life was even more historically significant: he was convicted of 'consensual homosexual offences' in a high-profile trial in 1954, which led to the Wolfenden Commission and the eventual decriminalisation of homosexual acts. []

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