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13 November 2014

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You are in: Beds Herts and Bucks > People > People and Personalities > Not just a Flying Duchess

Woburn Abbey

Not just a Flying Duchess

From flying to fishing and ice skating to aviation, Mary Duchess of Bedford excelled at everything she did. Toby Friedner met the archivist at Woburn Abbey, Ann Mitchell, in the Flying Duchess room to find out more.

Mary Russell, Duchess of Bedford, was a truly formidable woman. She spent most of her time pursuing her great passions in life. Although she was known for her achievements in aviation, she worked for decades, nursing the sick, at the cottage hospital she established near her home at Woburn Abbey.

She loved her husband Herbrand, the 11th Duke of Bedford, and knew the importance of having a family at that time but only had one child, Hastings, why?

AM: There was a story that he was born in a shepherd's hut but that really wasn't true. But it does seem to have been a traumatic birth. She wouldn't talk about it and the thought is that afterwards she had post natal depression. We wouldn't have called it that in those days but she really was quite brought down by it. It was something she didn't talk about or write in her diaries so it is speculation about what happened. But the fact that they had no more children would seem to lead to the fact that it wasn't an experience that Mary wanted to go through again.

She didn't have much to do with his upbringing, he had governesses and tutors at home. She didn't really form this rapport with him that a lot of mothers would have. The relationship with the Duke and his son was far closer when he was younger than it was with his mother.

She's known as the Flying Duchess, but for most of her life medicine was her passion, why?

AM: She'd always been interested in medicine but she wouldn't have been able or allowed to go into medicine or nursing because it wasn't for 'ladies' in those days. In the 1890s she had nothing to do with the running of the estate or the household so she was looking for something to do. She started a cottage hospital in a house on Leighton Street which had a small number of rooms and beds. Then in 1903 she actually built the cottage hospital, which is down on Leighton Street, called Maryland and is still there today.

As the 20th century wore on and we got towards the war she registered it as a hospital for the wounded. She employed Bridon Glendenning [sic] who was a very competent surgeon to run the hospital for her. He encouraged her to train in radiography and radiology. She also started to work in the radiotherapy field, using radiotherapy to actually cure people rather than just take photos.

She didn't expect her staff to do anything in hospital that she wouldn't do herself. So she'd be up at 5.45 in the morning scrubbing floors and getting the operating theatres ready for the surgeons. She became a very accomplished theatre nurse and in some cases did minor operations herself. So she really was very qualified in that field and this wasn't funded by the government at all, it was all funded by the Duke.

So how did she become known as the Flying Duchess?

AM: She was 61 when she started to fly. She'd been taken up for a short flight and so enjoyed it - and it helped with her tinnitus - so she decided it was a hobby she'd like to take up. So she got herself a pilot, Flight Lt. Barnard, and they had a number of close calls on their flights. He was the one that she did the record breaking flights to India and South Africa with.

In those days flying was in its infancy so they'd have to stop off to refuel often on runways made of sand. They'd be out in the middle of nowhere and if something went wrong they'd have to wait days for a part. It was also quite dangerous. On one of her flights they'd been flying over a desert area and it was only when they landed that they realised they had two bullet holes in the aircraft. They hadn't realised at the time that they'd been shot at by people on the ground.

She then employed Flight Lt. Preston, he was the pilot who plotted the course for her last flight. She had done 199 hours and four minutes and she had to do another 56 minutes of flying to reach her 200 hours of flying time. She wanted to do that because she was worried they would not renew her pilot's licence because of her deafness and because she was, by then, 71. She went on her last flight over towards Cambridgeshire and didn't come back.

So flying did for her in the end, what were the circumstances around her death?

AM: What happened was that when she took off the weather was good but then a snow storm came up. When she hadn't returned after an hour and a half Herbrand was very concerned and contacted the chief of Bedfordshire police who put out calls to neighbouring constabularies. But nothing was ever seen of her.

The feeling is that she had flown out over the sea by mistake and ran out of fuel and went down in the sea. There was speculation that it could have been suicide but a lot of people who knew her have said that there were so many things that could have gone wrong, it was just speculation.

last updated: 15/08/2008 at 09:37
created: 12/08/2008

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