Obituary: Barbara Burnett-Stuart, journalist and publisher

Barbara Burnett-Stuart
Barbara Burnett-Stuart
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Born: 11 February, 1917, in London. Died: 1 November, 2012 in Inverarnie, Inverness-shire aged 95.

Only days before she died, nonagenarian Barbara Burnett-Stuart was listening to Radio 4 – via her iPad.

A few years earlier she had mastered e-mail and become part of the Skype generation.

But her resourcefulness and curiosity were perhaps not entirely surprising, given her own history and heritage: the daughter of a Government Code and Cypher School founder whose feisty wife escaped South Kensington to set up an Essex dairy farm, she had been both a debutante and a war correspondent for Vogue.

A sense of adventure and an ability to adapt were evidently in her blood. They were also traits she needed to survive in the male-dominated world of Fleet Street where she was a successful magazine editor.

She went on to publish and edit numerous books, sometimes under the guise of a male pen-name, and enjoy a long relationship with journalist and broadcaster Jack Hargreaves before marrying the head of a newspaper group and retiring to the Highlands. There she introduced her grandchildren to rural adventures and delighted in the surrounding rivers, tracks and hills.

Though she was born in Hereford Square, London, she was proud of her Borders roots as a descendent of Kelso-born Sir Henry Maine, an “evolutionist” thinker and Cambridge University law professor.

Growing up in Kensington between the wars she enjoyed a privileged lifestyle with a maid, servants and cook, but a new life began when her mother introduced her and her sister to a “secret”. Thinking she was about to be presented with a pony she was terribly disappointed to discover it was a funny little thatched cottage, down a country lane, in the Essex village of Clavering.

In an effort to do something useful with her life, her mother had acquired the property where she proceeded to farm at the weekends, somewhat amateurishly initially, before moving outside the village to Mill End, where she bought some Jersey cows and established a dairy farm. For the youngsters, brought up as nursery children, Clavering was an idyll, a place where they could career around on bicycles and enjoy previously unheard of activities such as shopping for sausages at the local butchers.

Meanwhile, their father worked as a secretary to Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace where, in the late 1930s, young Barbara came out as a debutante. She then began her journalistic career at Vogue magazine where she reported and arranged photo shoots.

During the Second World War she married diplomat John Baddeley at Clavering, where she lived peacefully, avoiding the bombing raids endured by the capital. They soon had two children and, devoid of a pram, adapted an old goat cart to accommodate the youngsters, transporting them around the countryside where she continued to help out on the farm.

Cleared as a war correspondent for Vogue, in 1946 she was given permission to visit and report from Vienna. She later recalled one memorable episode during the trip – an evening spent drinking with Russians, French and British in a nightclub where the entertainment’s finale featured a naked young dancer parading on the back of a baby elephant. By the late 1940s her marriage had failed and she was working on the women’s magazine Home Notes. At a Fleet Street event she met the editor of Farmers Weekly, who offered her a job starting up a women’s section of the publication. She became the first editor of its women’s pages, writing and commissioning articles on the countryside and country living, the home, produce and recipes.

She was there for 14 years and was hugely encouraged by her partner Jack Hargreaves, with whom she began a relationship in 1948. Although they never married, she changed her surname to his by deed poll and published and edited numerous books as Barbara Hargreaves, including Handbook of Country Crafts and The Sporting Wife: Game and Fish Cooking. She also used the pen-name John Bedford and edited the book Restoring Junk, decades before recycling old furniture became fashionable. Other publications covered pressure cooking and deep-freezing food.

She left Hargreaves in the 1960s and married Angus Burnett-Stuart, a Dunkirk veteran and head of Thomson Regional Newspapers, in 1965. They had been social friends and he first fell for her when he saw her as a 16-year-old girl.

She was living on her own when he came into her life again and he was finally able to win the woman he adored.

They lived in Cheshire for some time and she continued her own publishing career when they moved north to the Highlands after he retired. They settled at Mains of Faille near Daviot and she was involved in many local causes, including the Samaritans.

She also enjoyed the company of her extended family, who would descend on her home in the holidays. She would pack a camper van with picnics and a gaggle of dogs, toddlers and older children, setting off on adventures with her little gang of explorers.

Little defeated her, not least a locked gate or private lane. Confronted by an irate gamekeeper or angry farmer, as she often was, the intrepid grandmother could quickly metamorphose into a charming, innocent old lady who had simply lost her way while shepherding her straying brood.

She retained a mischievous streak and cheeky grin coupled with an effervescent lust for life and was unfazed by the march of technology. At 91 she contacted a grandson via computer informing him: “It’s your ancient grandmother here, I told you I could crack this e-mail thing.”

Widowed in 2005, she moved, aged 88, to a smaller house at Brin Croft, Inverarnie, but continued to be involved in the local community life. Latterly she relied on a wheelchair and earlier this year, while being wheeled round a supermarket, she reached the electrical department and announced: “I want the best iPad you’ve got.”

She was ever eager to learn and it summed up her thirst for new experiences.

“More than anything else she wanted to be an independent woman with a career,” said her son Simon. “Her mother had tried it and never quite broken through. She used to say that her mother was always a bit disappointed with her life. My mum was anything but disappointed.

“She had a marvellous adventurous life and shared it with all her progeny. She liked the feeling she had made it in the world as an independent woman.”

She is survived by her children Simon and Bay, step-children Fiona and Jennifer and extended family.