The Late Duchess of Devonshire
9th May 2017
The life story of the late Duchess of Devonshire (born Deborah Mitford) has been told many times but at today’s meeting a new perspective on the history and achievements of this remarkable woman was given by the speaker, Simon Seligman. From childhood Simon had wanted to work at Chatsworth and it was after he had graduated with an Arts degree that he took the bold step of writing to the Duchess and asked for a job. His letter must have caught the Duchess’ attention because it eventually led to his being given the opportunity to join the staff at Chatsworth. This was in 1991 and, for the next 19 years his career progressed to the point at which he had become Head of Communications there. Over this time, he developed a close working relationship with the Duchess and, as was clear from the way in which he talked about her, he came to admire and respect her immensely.
As is widely known, Deborah Mitford was the youngest of six sisters, most of whose controversial lives were notable for their political sympathies, ranging from communism to fascism. Deborah, however, was more conventional. At her marriage in 1941 to Andrew Cavendish, second son of the 10th Duke of Devonshire, she would have expected her future life to be one of straightforward, if upper-class, domesticity with, at the time, no idea of the high profile public life that was to follow as a result of the premature death in World War II of the heir to the dukedom, William Cavendish.
When the 10th Duke died in 1950, the Inland Revenue claimed £4.8 million in death duties from the Cavendish estate and it fell to the new Duke and Duchess (Andrew and Deborah) to settle this enormous claim. By disposing of many of the Cavendish lands, property and works of art, they finally cleared the debt but it took 17 years to do so. Throughout her life as the Duchess, working in close partnership with her husband, she was the instigator of, and driving force behind, the hugely successful business that Chatsworth has now become.
Ainslie Kelly and Simon Seligman