Author, Actress, Fashion Designer & Interior Decorator
pictured with her faithful companion 'The Blackness'.
Winifred Fortescue (nee Beech) was born in a Suffolk rectory on 7th February 1888, the third child of a country rector and connected, on her mother's side, to the Fighting Battyes of India. When she was seventeen - in order to ease the strain on family finances, and at the suggestion of Consuelo, Duchess of Marlborough - she decided to try to earn her own living and went on the stage. Following training at F.R. Benson's Dramatic School she went on to perform in Sir Herbert Tree's company, and later in Jerome K. Jerome's The Passing of the Third Floor Back. Amongst numerous others plays in the West End and on tour she also appeared in Faust, Pinkie and Fairies and Arms and the Man.
In 1914 she married John Fortescue, the King's Librarian and Archivist and famous historian of the British Army. Life was split between London and Windsor Castle, where John's work was, and where he was required whenever the Court was present. The marriage, in spite of a huge disparity of age between them, (some 28yrs),was a uniquely happy one, and although Winifred Fortescue gave up her career on the stage, she later founded CINTRA, a successful interior decorating and court dress designing business. Illness forced her to close her business down but not until after she had held a fashion show at the famous Plaza Hotel in New York. It was at that point that she began writing, for The Times, Punch, the Daily Chronicle, the Evening News, finally inaugurating and editing a Woman's Page for the Morning Post.
Click on any of the pictures to see a larger version
The National Portrait Gallery holds the above 3 splendid studio photographs of Winifred Fortescue, aged 32 yrs, taken by Bassano Ltd, London on the 20th August 1920. The quality of the photos is excellent and well worth viewing in full size by clicking on the photos. The orignal NPG original plates are viewable at the link below!
The couple renovated an old house and created a home and spectacular garden called 'The Domaine' in the hills near Grasse. Sadly after only 2 years in Provence, Sir John died and there followed a period that was not altogether happy. However, out on her rambles one day Winifred came across a tumbled down stone house perched on a hill and surrounded by olive groves. After a long and somewhat difficult struggle she managed to secure its purchase. Her second best selling bookSunset House, published in 1937, documents this adventure. Under the house in the rock was an old sanctuary used a pigsty, amongst other things. Winifred converted this into a chapel which pleased her neighbours. Her writing continued, they had not been a wealthy couple and the move to Provence had been partially for financial and partially for health reasons and money was needed for work on the new house and its garden. Although known in her writings as 'Sunset House' Winifred decided to call it 'Domaine de Fort Escu'.
When war was declared in 1939 and there followed the Mobilisation Générale, Winifred opened her home to the often poorly equipped and bewildered soldiers. She went on to organise shelters all over the Alpes-Maritimes where they could rest and recover. With the entry of Italy into the war, being so close to the border, Winifred was forced to leave her house and village in a hurry before being detained as an alien. There followed a frantic car journey across the entire length of France, often dangerous, ending at St. Malo in Brittany where she only just managed to board the last boat for England before it fell to the Germans.
Back in England Winifred divided her time, initially at a cottage she named 'Many Waters' on an estate near East Grinstead in Sussex. She also spent time in John's home county of Devon and for some of the time lived in a small touring caravan she had managed to acquire. All the time though she raised and collected funds for 'Amis des Volontaires Francais', (Friends of French Volunteers). In 1945 she returned to her beloved 'Sunset House', turning it into something of a distribution centre,and devoted herself entirely to obtaining and distributing medicines, provisions and clothing to the people who were literally starving and ruined by years of war. She wrote about their terrible plight in her books and the people of Great Britain were extremely generous sending her package after package. It is important to record that she went to great lengths to inform the recipients that these gifts were from the British people and not from her. She became known as 'Maman Noel' and could often be seen visiting the homes of the needy on foot or in her small car. Life in France slowly returned to something like normality and she remained in Provence for the rest of her life.
The Last Years
Winifred suffered with an ailment she always called 'the poison' which was a form of blood poisoning she picked up when she was nursing wounded soldiers from WWI. She never managed to rid herself of it despite many various and expensive treatments in a variety of clinics including London and Paris. It caused her many problems in later life including a skin disorder and she took many hours using make up to disguise this disfigurement and would not go out until the make up was complete. Modern anti-biotics would probably have helped the condition but at the time even the famous institutes could offer little help. She never actually names the condition possibly because nobody was really certain exactly what it was. This alone put a strain on her body but she also had an enlarged heart.
Following two operations in 1947 and her exhausting lifestyle over the years, by the 1950's the toll on her body was enormous and she found it increasingly hard to cope. The slightest cold blew up into a fever, then bronchitis and it would recur irrespective of the season. Penicillin inhalations in Grasse became the prescription if not the cure. She became anaemic and more and more fragile. She always rallied and never missed a new birth in the village but after another bronchial attack her over-strained heart was now deemed to be enormous. She was forbidden to climb staircases or hills and prescribed rest. Obliged to vacate her home for tenants in early summer, she travelled to Luchon in the Pyrenees for a cure from their natural sulphurous springs. She had been there once before with her brother but this time was alone. On the journey she caught a chill and immediately fell ill on arrival.
Over Christmas 1950 she was very ill again but she had already wrapped the presents for the village children and placed them under her tree in the dining room-hallway. In the Spring of 1951 she had visitors from the Castello, (Elisabeth Starr's old home), Eskdale Fishburn, his wife Bunting and their two little boys Dale and Dudley rented the Castello. The family enchanted her. They came when her garden was unfurling its tapestry of spring flowers, along with the first appearance of her roses. She was prone again with congestion of the lungs and the Fishburns visited, bringing conversation and flowers and were given in return big bunches of the Czar violets. In spite of her weakness, those months of springtime were relatively happy ones. The Fishburn family brought freshness and cheerfulness, her friends came and went and she had her small staff to care for her.
On 4 March, Palm Sunday, she sent a bon voyage letter to the Fishburns at the Castello in the beautiful strong, flowing hand which never changed:
I hate the idea of your going for I fear I’ll never see you again and I loved you both at once.
Don’t pity my loneliness: And this one life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in everything. That’s me! But I can ‘faire la bombe’ [go on a spree] now and then.
This photograph of 'Sunset House', with strong hand written caption, is dated Easter 1951
Several weeks later, on the 9th April 1951, while preparing herself for the day in her bathroom she suddenly collapsed and died aged only 63 yrs. A rather lonely and certainly sad end to an amazing life, by this time most of her friends had either moved away or died and their houses had been sold off. Winifred was one of the last of the English living on the hill above Opio. Sadly, she never received the national decoration in recognition of her services that France had planned to award her.
Joyce Carew came swiftly from the Bastide and took charge. As she was a member of the family, formalities were quickly dealt with and Peggy was lain in her own small chapel. The following day the funeral service was taken in her garden. As the spring sunshine shone on the profusion of flowers which covered the coffin, filled her terraces and tumbled over the drystone walls, the Mayor gave a sincere and moving address, which, Joyce Carew said, ‘almost finished me off’. (See below).
Francis Navella, Elisabeth and Peggy’s loved and respected mason, who had looked after their houses for many years and carved Elisabeth’s rough hewn headstone, would now carve Peggy’s. She had always asked, when she died, that she should be taken to her grave in his familiar small truck and her wish was respected. As the cortège left her courtyard it was greeted by crowds of village children carrying posies of flowers. Led by Joyce Carew and the Mayor and followed by her household, Renée Goldspink, a cluster of other friends and almost every inhabitant of Opio, the procession descended the rue de la Fontaine, through the Quartier St Peyre, crossed the valley floor and climbed the other hill of Opio. Here, in the village cemetery, she was lain to rest on the terrace below Elisabeth.
On her headstone is engraved her badge of honour – the Croix de Lorraine
‘Maman Noel’ of Domaine Fort Escu, Opio
Wife of John Fortescue. Historian of the British Army. 1951
St. Matthew 25:40
The extract from the New Testament reads: ‘And the King shall answer and say unto them:
Verily I say unto you. In as much as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren ye have done it unto me.’
Eulogy read at the Funeral of Lady Fortescue
by Monsieur Michel Aime, Mayor of Opio,
11 April 1951
"It is my sad duty today, to address a final farewell to our distinguished guest Lady Fortescue.
Arriving to live in Opio more than twenty years ago, Lady Fortescue is known to have endeared herself to the entire population and local children's charities soon discovered her to be a devoted and generous patron.
Born in England, Lady Fortescue returned to her native land during the Occupation. During this time, as a great friend of France, she suffered terribly at the news of the terrible hardships inflicted upon her adopted country.
Upon her return here amongst us, we were shown her generosity of spirit as she endeavoured to aid those in need. We watched her go from door to door, bringing a little comfort to all. Our children benefited from the generosity of Lady Fortescue and this generosity wasn't just limited to her own village. We watched her drive off, her car crammed full of clothes and food which she would distribute to the children of the county, for some she was their "Godmother" and for others "Mother Christmas".
Fate has not allowed us the opportunity to honour her as she so deserved, having shown us such kindness. Just as the Government of the Republic was preparing to honour her with a thoroughly deserved award, our well loved and loving friend was taken from us.
'Madame Fortescue, as you were known in Opio, sleep in peace in the little graveyard you chose, opposite the house you loved so much. Your memory will remain for us, a model of generosity and devotion. These words of sympathy from a grief-stricken population, may help to ease the pain of those who grieve.
From the children, from the people, from all your friends' ..................................Adieu"
(Original kindly supplied by a niece of Lady Fortescue - Translation by Vicki Riley)
Mainly at home until age about 9 years and then with one of her brothers at the boys school, St. Augustine's, Cliftonville. She attended, at 16 years of age, Old Cedar House School, Slough, which later transferred to London and became Wentworth Hall, Mill Hill. She also attended F.R. Benson's Dramatic School to train for the stage.
30th April 1914 in Holy Trinity, Sloane St, Kensington. Sir John William Fortescue K.C.V.O., LL.D Edinburgh, D.Litt. (Oxford), Hon. Fellow Trinity College (Cambridge), Historian of the British Army, Librarian & Archivist, Windsor Castle.
1935 Perfume from Provence
1937 Sunset House
1939 There's Rosemary, There's Rue
1941 Trampled Lilies
1943 Mountain Madness
1948 Beauty for Ashes
1950 Laughter in Provence
9th April 1951, Opio, Provence, France. Click here to see death certificate. Probate was granted in London on the 8th August 1951 to her brother The Rev. Canon Guy Beech and Charles Humphrey Woolrych, Solicitor. She left £7587-13-2d, English.
Rev. Howard Beech MA Oxon, b.15.5.1855 Blackheath Park, Blackheath - d.31.3.1926 Kitchen Court, Petworth, Sussex.
Douglas Dashwood-Howard has carried out considerable research into Winifred Fortescue's family history. His findings to date are published on their own page and are extremely interesting. Follow the link at the bottom of this page.
Use the links below to more pages, pictures & documents