Lady Mairi Bury of Mount Stewart

'I was anointed and made to curtsy to the King and Queen...'

County Down is renowned for its coastal beauty and rich heritage and tucked away along the shores of Strangford Lough is Mount Stewart Stately home - a National Trust property which combines these two qualities in one grand estate.
The estate which boasts celebrated gardens and is one of Northern Ireland's most popular National Trust properties was the home of the Londonderry family of Newtownards. The family link is ever present, as Lady Mairi Bury, whose father was the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, still lives at Mount Stewart. During a rare recent interview Lady Mairi talked about what it was like growing up surrounded by world famous visitors, in an idyllic corner of County Down.
The Londonderry family have been in Mount Stewart since the 18th century and Lady Mairi’s father was the 7th Marquess of Londonderry, Charles Vane-Tempest Stewart and her mother was Edith Helen Chaplin. Born in 1920, Lady Mairi has lived in Mount Stewart all her life and has fond memories of the estate.
The interview took place in the smoking room of Mount Stewart. A grand room, as you would expect, packed full of 1930s style furniture. French doors opened out to palatial gardens. The walls were adorned with ornate oil and watercolour portraits, which chronicled Lady Mairi’s lineage. Perhaps the most endearing of the paintings were two of Lady Mairi aged five, standing regally beside a dog.
Lady Mairi is warm and frank in talking about her extraordinary life.
A life, which has been full of Kings and Queens, Princesses, Prime Ministers and literary giants. ‘I was born in Mount Stewart and brought up here. I have always lived here. I did go away a lot, but this was always my permanent base,’ she said.
Life as a member of the aristocracy, Lady Mairi explained, was far removed from ‘normal’ 1930s life. Her daily routine was made up lessons and strict timetables. ‘I had a governess, she used to teach one here like a tutor. We used to do our lessons here every day but we had Saturday and Sunday off.
‘During those early years I travelled a lot with my parents, even more so later on. We went to places such as Paris, Vienna, Bucharest, Sweden and Germany, all over the world.’
It was custom for young women of wealth during this era to ‘come of age’ in society, a right of passage which symbolised a young lady’s eligibility for courtship.
Lady Mairi smiled when she recollected the moment she ‘came of age’ to the King and Queen: ‘I was presented at a very early age at 16. Most people were presented at 17 or 19. My parents said that because it was coronation year, that if I was presented I would see all the balls and all the good things. I did indeed go to all the big balls in Buckingham Palace, where I curtsied to the King and Queen - George the VI and Queen Elizabeth. When I was presented I had three white feathers at the back of my head and a train behind my dress. I was then anointed and made to curtsy to the King and Queen when they passed. I was glad I didn’t fall down.’
The Mount Stewart estate is surrounded by acres of lush woodland and ornate gardens that overlook Strangford Lough and Lady Mairi says she loved to play in the grounds as a child. ‘We rode a lot on horses around the estate and of course one flew all the time. In 1931 my father became Air Minister and shortly after that he built the airport in Newtownards.
‘We also had ponies here, we rode all the time. I had the first thoroughbred stud in Northern Ireland. I won the Ascot Gold Cup twice and Northern Gleam won the Irish Thousand Guineas, she was a classic winner. My father when he died left me three horses which I cherished. There were also tennis courts on the grounds and all the others played tennis, I didn’t because I was the youngest.’
As a young woman, Lady Mairi broke many female moulds. She was an avid flyer and car driver and admits her life wasn’t stereotypical of a 1940s woman. ‘My mother started the Woman’s Legion in the first war, and I served in that in the second world war. I worked down at the docks in London driving pick ups. I wouldn’t have gone to fight or anything like that, but I was all for women’s rights.
‘My mother was wonderful and had a very strong character. She made these gardens - there was nothing out there other than grass before she started designing the whole thing herself. There were trees that used to grow up to these windows. The trees were all cut down and she made this marvellous garden.
‘My father was a wonderful character as well. He was in the first government here, the Minister for Education for five years, which enabled my mother to make the garden. After the war you were supposed to take on some of the ex service people and my mother took on a whole lot and that is how the garden was made.
‘I adored my parents, we had a wonderful time together, and I am so grateful for all the wonderful things they allowed me to do.’
Mount Stewart is notorious for the visitors Lady Mairi’s father attracted over the years and the visitor’s book reads like a who’s who of the last eight decades: ‘This book began a year after I was born. Von Ribbentrop – yes he was the most arrogant creature, nobody liked him. I can remember people such as Carson, Craigavon, Prime Ministers Ramsey MacDonald and Baldwin, they were all tremendous friends of my parents.
‘I sat on WB Yeats’ knee when I was about aged four. Also Princess Helen of Victoria – one of Queen Victoria’s grand-daughters visited. And of course George the VI and Queen Elizabeth came here when they were Duke and Duchess of York.
‘Carson was here several times. He had a son who was the same age as me, by his second wife. I remember not liking him very much though. In those days visitors used to stay here for about a week or ten days. We sailed, they played tennis, and they rode, also my father used to play a lot of golf. He used to take them to Scrabo and Donaghadee golf courses.’
For information about visiting Mount Stewart visit the National Trust website.
Catherine Lynagh