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The High-Flying Duchess
About Mary
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High-Flying Duchess

The High-Flying Duchess / About Mary

Childhood and India

Mary du Caurroy Tribe spent her childhood in England living with an aunt. She was educated with her sister at Cheltenham Ladies College then left school at sixteen to join her parents in India, where her father became the Archdeacon of Lahore. The freedom of the lifestyle after Victorian England delighted her: she rode (astride when there was no-one to see her) for miles across India with her father, played tennis and even cricket, attended spectacular durbars and fell in love with a young army officer.


That first romance did not last. She moved to Simla, heart of the British Raj, with her father and was soon enjoying parties at Government House (the dance cards survive and form one of the many delightful and unusual illustrations in this book) where she met Lord Herbrand Russell, ADC to the Viceroy. Perhaps the Viceroy regretted his hospitality to the sparkling young girl: he had dreamed of marrying one of his own daughters to Lord Herbrand, younger son of the Duke of Bedford.


After a brief separation, during which Herbrand wrote Mary a series of charming love letters which totally belie the stuffy, cold image of him portrayed by his grandson the 13th Duke, they were married in Barrackpore and returned to England.

Their son

They lived at first in Scotland and it was here that their only child, Hastings, later the 12th Duke of Bedford, was born. Mary’s relationship with her son was the only conspicuous failure of her lifetime. Father and son were closer during Hastings’ childhood, although they later fell out spectacularly when Hastings appalled his father, imbued with the traditions of the army, by becoming a pacifist.

Life at Woburn

Mary was given little chance to develop a proper relationship with her son, for the boy’s father and grandfather denied her any part in his upbringing. She turned instead to a series of different activities, each undertaken with such single minded determination that she excelled at all of them. She became the finest woman shot in England, with only a handful of men in front of her; she was an ornithologist of international renown who loved to spend weeks in remote cottages on Hebridean islands; she climbed mountains, sailed to remote and inaccessible places, skated superbly, took spectacular photographs and painted beautifully. She was a highly skilled mechanic and made her own radios. She founded a boys’ bird watching club and could train animals to do almost anything, with the exception of her spoiled but adored Pekingese, Che Foo.
Herbrand unexpectedly inherited the Dukedom and Woburn Abbey, following the sudden deaths of both his father and brother. Life at Woburn was conducted much as it had been in the eighteenth century. A footman dressed in rose coloured livery stood behind every chair at meals and so many staff were employed in the house and on the estate that they had their own football and cricket leagues and played inter-departmental matches. Herbrand ran his empire with all the administrative skill he had learnt in the British army. Mary did only what was required of her and played no part in the administration. Miss Green, who had come to Woburn first as governess to Hastings, soon took her place, becoming a close friend of both Herbrand and Mary and remaining at Woburn for the rest of her life.

Medical Career and the Hospitals

Mary had always been fascinated by medical matters and, soon after the move to the Abbey, opened a Cottage Hospital in the town, which was succeeded shortly afterwards by a purpose built replacement which she designed herself. On the outbreak of the First World War, Mary converted buildings at the Abbey into a second hospital, working with such speed that the first war wounded patients were admitted within six weeks of the declaration of War. She took over full responsibility for the administration, while the Duke paid all the bills. Soon the hospital was being cited everywhere as an example of how a hospital should be run. Not content with her administrative role, she fulfilled her true vocation by becoming a nurse of exceptional calibre. She acted as theatre sister for almost every operation, and went on to learn the new skills of radiography and radiology.


In the late Twenties, Mary developed an interest in flying. She was now in her sixties, more than twice the age of most of those flying at the time. She found the exhilaration, and perhaps also the danger, intoxicating. Her first professional pilot, Captain Barnard, took an almost perverse delight in encountering, and sometimes seeming to create, terrifying situations. He would run out of petrol in places where landing appeared impossible, be overcome in the air, together with Mary and the engineer, by carbon monoxide fumes or encourage Mary to lean out of the open door of the plane to photograph Gibraltar, just as they were being sucked into a tornado.

Breaking Records

Barnard was keen to break records in the air and had little difficulty in persuading the Duchess to support and accompany him. Together with an engineer, they succeeded in establishing world record times for the flights from England to India and from England to the Cape.

Tragic Disappearance

At the age of 71, Mary was concerned that her pilot’s license might not be renewed. She was worried, too, about the future of the hospital, as even the Duke became aware of limitations on his spending power. She set out one dark March afternoon, in weather conditions which were deteriorating rapidly, to complete her 200 hours’ solo flying. The navigation system she was using had caused problems to other pilots even without the visibility conditions of that day. She and her Gipsy Moth disappeared together into the North Sea.



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