Obituary: Lady Christian Bowman, aircraft factory worker and author

Lady Christian Bowman
Lady Christian Bowman
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Born: 3 December, 1920, in Monymusk. Died: 2 August, 2012, in Somerset, aged 91

IN THE early summer of 1939, she was one of the thousand debutantes presented at court and enjoying the gilded life of The Season. As the pretty daughter of an Aberdeenshire laird, Christian Grant whirled through a giddy round of dances and house parties, drinking champagne and being feted by a string of eligible young men.

“We would walk round these lovely gardens with nightingales singing and roses growing and the music of the dancing in the background,” she recalled. “Especially if you were wildly in love with somebody, I can’t think of anything more romantic … I would not want anything more romantic.”

But within weeks of The Season finishing, she was working gruelling 11 and 12-hour shifts in a grimy aircraft factory assembling Halifax bombers. The outbreak of the Second World War had swept away her innocence, along with her fiancé, and galvanised her into action to serve her country.

So significant was her contribution at the Handley Page factory that she was later recruited to help with secret radar work. And, once the war was over, her life continued to be punctuated by adventures of one sort of another, including three marriages, becoming a PR girl for the Savoy, an author, a trans-America cyclist and octogenarian backpacker.

The youngest of six children of the 10th Baronet of Monymusk, Sir Arthur Grant, she chronicled her privileged – yet oddly deprived – upbringing in the family seat during the 1920s in her book A Childhood In Scotland.

Born on the estate and brought up in the castle by her nanny and governesses, she experienced a fairly distant relationship with her parents. And after her father died in 1931, when she was ten, her mother used the last of her dowry to support her five dependent children, moving the family to a rented house in Chelsea.

Christian, whose first taste of school was in Inverness, continued her education at Downham School before coming out as an 18-year-old deb. That year she met “the handsomest man in England”, a wonderful, witty sailor, and fell wildly in love.

But after the war broke out, though she had his engagement ring, which he allowed her to keep, the relationship ended.

She later incorporated the ring’s stone into the clasp of her string of pearls, but in the meantime threw herself into the war effort.

Interviewed 60 years later for a documentary, she said: “One moment, I was being so lucky and spoiled and drinking all that Champagne, and the next minute I was working in a factory in Cricklewood, helping to make a bomber called a Halifax, which had four engines and was very splendid.”

It was hard, physical labour, with long days starting at 7:30am and she found herself ostracised by the other girls for her “silly” accent. However, they were fine with her once she explained it was simply the way that her family talked.

Though the aircraft factory was dark, smoky and dusty – all the windows blacked out for security – it had one advantage: a direct line underground to a Tube station just outside the Ritz. The girls would rush from the factory, jump on the Underground and within half an hour would be sitting in the Ritz bar where nobody batted an eye at their dirty old dungarees.

She met her first husband, Michael Angas, a captain in the Grenadier Guards, in 1942, and they married the following year, but she continued to work, passionate about doing her bit for the war effort. She worked in every department of the Handley Page Halifax production line except the toolmakers.

As a result of her detailed knowledge of the aircraft and her trustworthiness, she was asked to become involved in the installation of radar on planes. Her job in radar research was so secret that she didn’t even tell her husband where she was working.

The couple went on to have two children, but the marriage failed and she left him: a tough decision to take in the late-1940s. Determined to make a go of it, she took a PR job meeting, greeting and trouble-shooting at the Savoy hotel in London, a favoured haunt of stars, including Cary Grant, Judy Garland and Danny Kaye.

She said the experience of the aircraft factory had taught her the value of work and, consequently, she continued to work until remarrying.

She met her second husband, John Miller, in Italy, while recovering from a bout of tuberculosis. He, too, was from Aberdeenshire and they had known each other as children, through tennis parties at Monymusk.

He had been captured during the war, but escaped from an Italian prisoner of war camp and was harboured by a local peasant family in Abruzzi. He stayed on in Italy, as cultural attaché in Venice for a while, after the country was liberated.

They married in 1953, stayed initially in Italy but returned to London and then bought a stud farm near Newbury, which they ran until the late 1960s.

Her writing career began, as Christian Miller, when she was 40, sitting bored by the side of her husband’s bed in Austria, where he was nursing a broken leg following a skiing accident. Stories just came to her, she said, so she scribbled them off. She sold that first short story to Housewife magazine.

She also wrote for the New Yorker and Argosy magazines among others, and penned a novel, The Champagne Sandwich, featuring a mother living in a tiny, chaotic flat with two teenage daughters, a dog and a canary.

In 1977, she took off, aged 56, on a mid-life adventure. Armed with a folding bike and a tent, she crossed the United States, travelling from Yorktown, Virginia to Portland, Oregon, subsequently recording the trip in her book Daisy, Daisy: A Grandmother’s Journey Across America on a Bicycle.

After being widowed in 1992, she moved to Wells, Somerset, where she became involved in various organisations, including the Friends of the Cathedral and the National Trust. Throughout her adult life she had also been a relentless campaigner for, among other things, the right of mothers to remain with their children during hospital treatment and had been known to trawl a city with a sick daughter until she found a hospital willing to let her do so.

In 1994, she married for a third time, to widower Sir John Bowman, whom she had known from her earlier days at Newbury. Their extremely happy marriage lasted only 500 days before she was widowed again.

Undaunted and still possessing a robust sense of adventure, she trumped all her previous small adventures with one last big odyssey. Now 79, she took a cargo ship to Australia and backpacked to Uluru, formerly Ayers Rock. She celebrated her 80th birthday by climbing Sydney Harbour Bridge.

Not yet done, several years later, she was passing Mendip Gliding Club and mentioned she had always longed to go gliding. Her daughter swung the car into the club to be told her mother could take to the air immediately. She did. She was 87 and she loved the experience.

This summed her up, illustrating an inspirational and very determined woman, always wreathed in an air of gaiety.

She is survived by her daughters, Auburn and Cherill, four grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

ALISON SHAW