In my final King's Ginger adventure for 2012, I decided, perhaps unsurprisingly, to do something seasonal. I wanted to write about the Edwardian Christmas - what they ate and what they might have done for entertainment - and after only a few moments of research, discovered that a nearby National Trust property, Polesden Lacey, had an actual event on. So, last weekend, I went off to find out about the house's links to the one and only Edward VII. After all, ginger is nothing if not festive!
The lady of the manor of Polesden Lacey from 1906 to her death in 1942 (and the main subject of this piece) was Margaret Greville, a very famous Edwardian hostess. She was the illegitimate daughter of a beer baron, and most definitely “socially ambitious”, wishing to mingle with the very creme de la creme of Edwardian society. She was also rather a looker.
She had an unbelievable array of vastly expensive jewellery, built up over the course of her life that she actually left to the Queen Mother on her death is 1942, believe it or not. Our Queen doesn't wear the most famous tiara, but Camilla Parker-Bowles does. You get to wear one of her pieces in the house, as well as a fancy vintage top hat. Not the real one, sadly.
Anyway, back to the story. Mr and Mrs Ronald Greville moved to Polesden Lacey after it was purchased for them by her father, William McEwan, in 1906. They had a house in London as well, but Margaret had a true vision for her country residence, and upon moving in immediately began to remodel it, creating an additional suite of rooms, especially for use by a certain regal guest who I'll come to in a moment. I'm sure you can guess who it is...
The Grevilles used to entertain at Polesden Lacey from May all the way through until Christmas. Margaret was a true socialite, and a fan of all the finer things in life. And she was an absolute party animal. Sharp, witty and ascerbic, one of her most famous observations was a cutting put-down of Emerald, Lady Cunard – a woman who used to wear a lot of makeup. "You must not think I dislike poor dear Emerald," she apparently once said. "I am always telling Queen Mary that she isn't half as bad as she is painted.”
King Edward VII visited Polesden Lacey for the first and last time on June the 5th 1909. The Grevilles had entertained the King, a great friend of Ronald, many times before in their London home but they wanted his Majesty to experience their famous country pile house parties. The aforementioned 1906 extension to create an additional suite of rooms, was indeed especially for Edward's use.
Very sadly, Ronald Greville had died exactly two months earlier of pneumonia, brought about by an operation for his cancer. After two months of mourning, a house party hiatus that had never been matched. Society papers cried that “Mrs Greville was entertaining once again!', so it was only right that such an esteemed guest would be the one there. He came with his favourite mistress Alice Keppel (who had, in fact been introduced to the King by the Grevilles many years before in 1898), and Mrs Greville was stunned by his kindness – he didn't have to come but wished to support her in her grief and attempt to return to normality. Indeed, he displayed his usual mischievous streak as ever, as I managed to find a reference to King Edward VII being refused admittance through the french windows of the tea room! What a wag.
Here is an absolutely fantastic blog about the meal that was served to King Edward on that weekend in June - I could never do it such justice!
Some of her gifts from him are on display in the house. They are quite... well... Edward-themed.
A brooch with 'E7', a tortoiseshell box and an 'EVII' brooch
She always said that she found Edward to be a very dear, warm man. And surprisingly normal for a member of royalty, as demonstrated by the fact that he apparently wrapped his own presents. And this brings us neatly to the Christmas theme of this post. Polesden Lacey is decked out in Edwardian Christmas finery at the moment, and every weekend day in December, it's full of volunteers clad in period costumes, full of fascinating information about the festive parties that Margaret used to hold.
Christmas was a huge affair at Polesden Lacey. She had a minimum of seventy staff to attend to her guests' every possible whim. They wanted for nothing. These high-class visitors were used to the London Clubs of the time, and she very much wanted to recreate that experience for them in her home. The fare served was not really all that dissimilar to what we eat today (the pig's head aside). Traditional roast turkey and Christmas plum pudding were on the menu. Roasted nuts, mince pies and marzipan dates were on hand for snacking. Mrs Greville's French chef, Monsieur Delachaume would have pulled out all the stops for the veritable banquet served to around ten guests every year.
One of the smaller drawing rooms was decked out to represent Christmas morning, with coffee, presents and nibbles. It's full of curious artifacts as every room of Polesden Lacey - Mrs G didn't really get picky about the things she collected - if she liked it, it didn't matter what it was or when it was from. There's everything from Oriental antiquities to medieval portraiture and furniture from across the globe.
She would often employ popular musicians to play in the astonishingly shiny and luxurious Gold Room – later, Bert Ambrose, a favourite of Bertie's son Edward VIII, would play to esteemed guests.
Despite its opulence, I could really imagine Margaret sitting with her guests and friends, having a jolly old time.
I love the Edwardian crackers, sweets and glassware, but I just had to add in the brilliant photo of Mrs Greville hanging out in Hollywood with Spencer Tracy and Wendy Barrie in the late 1930s. She really did know absolutely everyone.
After a slap-up Christmas dinner, guests would retire to the Games Room, to smoke cigars, play billiards, cards and chess, and listen to four minutes at a time's worth of music on celluoid discs, on the wind-up gramophone. I tried to take a picture, but it was too dark! I love the sound of this (almost) technology-free Christmas... anything's better than old repeats and soap opera specials.
After the tour was over, I headed outside into the frankly freezing grounds. Since the King's Ginger would likely have been served to his Majesty after his motoring journey down and his huge meal when at Polesden Lacey, it's only right that I also partook in an attempt to warm up after my own feasting on culture inside.
30ml The King’s Ginger
20ml cloudy apple juice
100ml apple cider
Cinnamon stick to garnish
Add all ingredients into a pan or soup urn. Simmer on a gentle heat for 30 mins then serve. Garnish with a cinnamon stick.
Happy eating and drinking this Christmas! Do it like an Edwardian... by indulging in too much of both (and if you do, remember the King's Ginger is a wonderful digestif).