Obituary: Deborah Vivien Cavendish, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire DCVO

Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire: Chatelaine of Chatsworth was the last surviving ' and least controversial  ' Mitford sister. Picture: Getty
Deborah Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire: Chatelaine of Chatsworth was the last surviving ' and least controversial ' Mitford sister. Picture: Getty
Share this article
Have your say

Born: 31 March, 1920, in Oxfordshire. Died: 24 September, 2014, in Derbyshire, aged 94

For more than half a century Debo, as she was universally known, was the chatelaine of the magnificent Derbyshire house, Chatsworth, the seat of the powerful Cavendish family. Her sisters – the Mitfords – all gained a certain notoriety in the 1930s for their contrary politics. Unity was obsessed by Adolf Hitler; Jessica, a follower of the hard left, eloped to fight in the Spanish Civil War, and Diana was the second wife of the British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Deborah remained delightfully normal and retained a highly sensible and balanced view to life. Around Chatsworth – where she was held in high regard – was she known as the “housewife Duchess”.

She was a most gracious hostess: always handsome, well dressed and blessed with a fine sense of humour and a winning smile. The Duchess entertained some of the most noted people in the land, especially in 1963 after she had attended the funeral of President Kennedy, to whom she was related.

The Duchess flew back with the then Prime Minister, Sir Alec Douglas-Home, James Callaghan and other dignitaries in a private jet. Half way across the Atlantic they were informed that fog had closed Heathrow and they had to land at Manchester. Unperturbed, the Duchess arranged for beds to be made up at Chatsworth and the entire company was housed for the night. The dignitaries all left at daybreak and the Duchess was left alone, and exhausted, in Chatsworth.

The Honourable Deborah Vivien Freeman-Mitford was the sixth daughter of the 2nd Baron Redesdale.

The Mitfords’ childhood, immortalised in her sister Nancy’s novels, The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate, was the quintessence of British eccentricity. The Duchess remained loyal to her sisters and enjoyed their company throughout their lives.

The Duchess was brought up in some style at the family estate near Swinbrook in Oxfordshire. The education was rudimentary and the Duchess principally concentrated on country pursuits such as hunting – a sport to which she remained attached all her life. Indeed, she spoke out vehemently in 2002 against the Blair government’s proposed ban on fox hunting.

While her sister Unity was in Munich in 1937 the Duchess and her mother went out to visit her. They were greeted warmly by the Fuhrer and asked to stay for tea. She recalled he was very different from the crazed individual that is now preserved on film. “I was so amazed,” the Duchess recalled. “In his bathroom all the towels were embroidered with ‘AH’.

“But we could not converse as we did not speak German. It was an odd experience.”

In 1941, she married Andrew Cavendish, who later became the 11th Duke of Devonshire.

They moved into Chatsworth House in 1959 and the Duchess immediately started to renovate the building and replant the garden which had been used as a girls’ school during the war. The family faced huge death duties.

Both were passionate gardeners and they took immense pleasure from renovating the Great Conservatory and creating a Maize.

The television personality Alan Titchmarsh has written: “Chatsworth’s greatest strength is that its owners have refused to let the garden rest on its Victorian laurels. It continues to grow and develop, and that is what makes it one of the best and most vibrant gardens in Britain.”

Much of the credit for that revival is due to the painstaking care and foresight of the Duchess.

Her fine sense of taste and style greatly enhanced the interiors of the stately home. The grand staircase was surrounded by fine paintings and beautiful objects. With much care she introduced new facets to blend in with the existing artefacts.

The exceptional collection of pictures was re-hung with an expert eye.

The Duchess set up – and often served – in the Farm Shop which only sold local produce. One unusual hobby was keeping chickens, ensuring she always had fresh eggs.

Asked about her life on the estate, the Duchess once said: “Well, it’s not peaceful and it very often isn’t quiet, but it is my life, my home and my work – everything I want is here.”

She was a published authoress and her wonderful memoir, Wait For Me!, was so-called as she was always running to catch up with her older, longer-legged, siblings.

The book recaptures a different lifestyle and an era long disappeared. But the Duchess told of her youth in a straightforward and charmingly unaffected manner. The book was a touching, funny memorial to the season, debutantes and young men with grand titles who didn’t know how to behave in taxis.

She only started writing in her 60s – initially about Chatsworth but she had a verve and an ability with words that is fondly captured on the page. One of her most popular books is composed of the collected letters she exchanged with her life-long friend Paddy Leigh-Fermor.

Asked when she wrote the Duchess replied: “In the early morning. Before the shipping forecast.”

The Duchess had an indefatigable zest for life. Her energy seldom faltered and her politeness, enthusiasms and drive to renovate Chatsworth were rewarded with it now being one of the most visited country houses.

Certainly she was from a bygone age. She spoke very proper English but to her great credit she didn’t pretend to be anything she was not. “Time-honoured hierarchies,” she once commented, “are better than faceless modern conglomerates. The 600 people employed at Chatsworth know who they should moan at if things go wrong. And they do. And I listen.”

She had a human and loving personality and remained approachable and courteous all her life.

The Duchess was asked if she liked the (several) portraits painted by her friend Lucian Freud – to whom she often used to deliver Chatsworth eggs. “The older I get the more I seem to resemble them,” the Duchess said. She then added with a broad grin: “Even the one with a green moustache.”

The Duchess was made Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order in 1999.

Her husband died in 2004 and her son Peregrine Cavendish is the 12th Duke. She assumed the title the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire. Her son and her two daughters survive her.