Mary, Lady Ponsonby, 100th. Birthday

Thomas Robley and Virginia Phipps with their aunt, Mary Ponsonby

Opening the cards

Haile Hall with Thomas Robley and Mary his wife

Cutting the cake

Champagne toast

The Queen's card

The birthday celebrations were a quiet affair for family, friends and neighbours. Mary, the daughter of Thomas Robley and Elizabeth Smith, was the first child to be born at her father’s new house, Ingleberg, in the village of Beckermet in Cumberland on the third of July 1901.

Cars outside Ingleberg about 1912. Mary Robley's mother, Elizabeth, is in the forefront.

Together with her two elder sisters she was educated at Dagfield School near Southport, Lancashire where the headmistress was Miss Clark. Mary went to school at the age of 5 years and left when she was 17. She describes the discipline as very strict and refers to a system of fines for minor breaches of discipline such as dropping one’s handkerchief. Deductions of sixpence per offence were deducted from her one pound allowance on each occasion.

Mary Robley at Dagfield School

In the early 1920s she accompanied her mother on a ‘Grand Tour’ of the Mediterranean and North Africa.

The Grand Tour, 1925. Mary Robley with her mother, Elizabeth, and a friend Robert Bunton (of Jacob's Biscuits) at the Acropolis.

In 1935 she married Major General Sir John Ponsonby and went to live at Haile Hall about a mile to the east of the village of Beckermet and on the edge of the West Cumberland fells.

Sir John was born in 1866 and was the eldest son of General Sir Henry Ponsonby GCB, the Private Secretary to Queen Victoria. The Right Honourable Sir Henry was awarded the Order of the Bath and was also a Knight of the Order of Saxe-Coburg and served the Royal Family between 1857 and 1895. He was Equerry to the Prince Consort and later was the Queen’s private Secretary. He was a General in the British Army and commanded a Battalion in Canada from 1864 to 1870. He was a Member of the Privy Council in 1880. Sir John’s mother was Elizabeth Bulteel, the daughter of John Bulteel of Fleet in Devon in 1861. Her mother was the daughter of Charles, the second Earl of Grey and the British Prime Minister who gave his name to Earl Grey Tea.

John was educated at Eton College and afterwards joined the Derbyshire Militia. He was commissioned in the Irish Rifles and in 1888 transferred to the Coldstream Guards where he saw active service in Matabeleland, Uganda and South Africa.

Sir John Ponsonby in Coldstream Guards' uniform prior to soldiering in Uganda, 1897.

In the latter he served with the Rhodesian Field Force where he commanded the 5th New Zealand Regt. While serving as Adjutant with the New Zealanders, their Colonel, (a New Zealander), retired. In an unprecedented move, the New Zealanders, who by all accounts were a very wild body of men, elected John to be their new Commanding Officer. This caused John considerable embarrassment but in due course his appointment was confirmed. When their tour of duty was completed and they were to return home John was pressed to accompany them and to retire in New Zealand.

However this was not to be and John went home to England to recover from a bout of Blackwater Fever in 1899. He was lucky to make a complete recovery. He then returned to South Africa with the 2nd Guards Mounted Infantry whose units were immortalised in Kipling’s poem ‘The M.I.”. There he served until the Armistice.

During the First World War he commanded the 2nd Guards Brigade in France and later the 40th and 5th Divisions. He was mentioned in Dispatches seven times and was awarded the CMG in1915 and the KCB in 1918. In addition he was awarded the French Legion of Honour, Commander of the Order of King Leopold of Belgium and the Croix de Guerre of both France and Belgium.

Between the wars he commanded the Madras District in India, where he enjoyed polo, racing and hunting. Thomas Robley, my brother, found his name in the Ootakamund Club records as a member of the Hunt Committee. He retired from the army in 1928 and moved to Haile Hall in Cumberland. His direct ancestors had lived at Haile Hall but had moved to Ireland in 1660.

His Marriage to Mary Robley in 1935 was a whirlwind affair. Their engagement was announced on the 19th of December in The Times’ and the wedding took place on the 21st of December in the Church of St. Martins-in-the-Fields at 8-30 am. The ceremony was conducted by the Rev. Dick Shepherd, well known as ‘the Bishop of Broadcasting on the BBC.

A few hours after the ceremony, the couple embarked on the SS ‘Oranto’ from Tilbury Docks bound for their honeymoon destinations of Majorca, Egypt and Malta. The wedding was a very private affair to avoid the press who were showing considerable interest because of the recent death of Lord Sysonby.

He was a personal friend of the South African President, Jan Smuts who was a frequent visitor to Haile. Mary continued to support actively many of her mother’s interests in community welfare and particularly in support of the Whitehaven Hospital, Red Cross and the Nursing profession and she has been a leading figure in West Cumbrian life over most of the past Century. She was founder/president of the Lakeland Horticultural Society and the beautiful gardens at Haile are a testement to her skills and hard work. She was the president of the Whitehaven and District RNLI for forty years.

She joined the Red Cross in 1919 and served with them during the Second World War as Commandant of the Third Detachment. From 1964 to 1974 she was the Divisional President, West Cumbria and holds the Red Cross badge of Honour. She started the Red Cross shop in the Whitehaven Hospital insisting that the profits were retained to be spent on equipment in Whitehaven rather than paid to the Red Cross headquarters.

Mary, Lady Ponsonby in Red Cross Uniform as Commandant of the 30th Detachment, Cumberland Red Cross. From a watercolour painted by Beryl Fowler at Haile on 24th March, 1944.

She was a member of the Haile Church Council from 1936 to 1952 and continues to show an interest in their affairs. She had a keen interest in the Cumberland Nurses Benevolent Fund and the beautiful Azalia gardens at Haile were opened to the public each year in support of charity. She also had interests in the NSPCC, the WRVS and the Womens Institute ( her Mother was a founder member of the Beckermet Branch.) . These organisations were represented in the many well wishers who came to Haile on the 3rd of July.

She continues to live at Haile Hall. The occasion was well summed up by a farmer from the village, “T’aud Leddies grand, aye champion, s’ good fur a few yeers yit like!"

Written by her nephew, John Robley, Lesmurdie, W. Australia

Lady Mary Ponsonby died on 18th April 2003, in her 102nd year. See Obituaries