High Society
Victorian Homes|February 2017

This victorian socialite created a home for entertaining royalty and the political elite.

Susie Kearley

Margaret Greville, the last resident owner of the English estate Polesden Lacey, was the daughter of a wealthy Scottish brewer. She gained political influence, became friends with royals and amassed great personal wealth. Her husband, Ronald Greville, was wealthy in his own right. A relentless socialite, Dame Greville loved to mix with celebrities. The Grevilles bought Polesden Lacey in 1906, and with their connections to King Edward VII, regularly entertained members of the royal family at the house. Dame Graville used the central hall at Polesden Lacey for parties and the dining room for intimate dinners.

 After purchasing the estate, the couple contacted architects Charles Mewés and Arthur Davis, who had designed the famous Ritz Hotel in London. The Grevilles commissioned the fashionable architects to turn the house into a grand stately home, and decorators White, Allom and Co., to add sumptuous fixtures and fittings. Money was no object. Dame Greville brought her collection of fine art and furniture into the house, and added all the latest modern conveniences. 

The property still retains much of that grandeur today. Ronald died in 1908, and Margaret, childless, bequeathed Polesden Lacey to the National Trust in 1942, which remains open for visitors.

Before the Grevilles moved in, a series of wealthy owners made a variety of improvements to the house. The earliest parts of the building date to 1630, when Anthony Rous, an English politician, built a country house on the land. It was later owned by the politician and playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who lived there from 1797 until 1816. In 1818 Joseph Bonsor, a wealthy tradesman, bought the estate and commissioned architect Thomas Cubitt to design and build part of the present house, which integrated parts of the earlier property into its design. In 1853, the estate was sold to Sir Walter Farquhar, who extended the walled garden. Then in 1902, it was acquired by Sir Clinton Dawkins, a businessman and civil servant, who further extended the house, creating the grand property as it stands today. He died in December 1905, and Ronald and Margaret Greville purchased it in 1906.

Despite the sumptuous surroundings at Polesden Lacey, the staff weren’t always on their best behavior. Dame Grenville’s butler was once so obviously intoxicated that she placed a note on his silver tray reading, “You are drunk; leave the room at once.” The butler, in turn, passed it onto the guest of honor, Sir Austen Chamberlain, who spent the rest of the evening in mystified silence. When Dame Grenville explained what had happened, Sir Chamberlain said it was the first time he’d been silenced by a drunken butler.

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