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Winifred Coombe Tennant and Whittinghame

Back in 2016 when I first started researching the life of Welsh suffragist Winifred Coombe Tennant (1874-1956) I visited the West Glamorgan archives in Swansea to look at the Coombe Tennant papers held there. These included a diary, in the form of loose papers, that Winifred had kept during a visit to Whittinghame, Prestonkirk, Scotland in 1923. 

Whittinghame was the family estate of the Balfour family. Winifred was there at the invitation of Gerald William Balfour (1853-1945) and his wife, Lady Betty (1867-1942). Balfour was a Conservative politician, brother to prime minister Arthur Balfour (1848–1930), and a psychic researcher. Lady Betty was a suffragist, sister of the militant Lady Constance Lytton, and was also interested in spiritualism.

I found Winifred’s handwriting quite hard to read, but I did manage to decipher a description of a walk she took on the estate with Gerald Balfour. There she saw yew trees, which she loved. Balfour, she recorded, cut a sprig from one of the yews and gave it to her.

I put the diary back and started going through a pile of correspondence: letters and notes in envelopes, none of it particularly interesting. Then I opened an envelope labelled “The Great Yew Whittinghame February 1923”. Inside was a twig and a heap of brown needles, which, I wrote in my notes, “still smells sweet, lovely”. With it was a slip of paper on which Winifred had written “picked for me by GWB [Gerald Balfour] from the Great Yew on my first visit to Whittinghame February 1923”.

Later, looking in Winifred’s published diary (Between Two Worlds: The Diary of Winifred Coombe Tennant 1909-1924, ed. Peter Lord, Aberystwyth, 2011), I found, under the entry for 9 February 1923, “Walked with Godfather [as Gerald Balfour was known in the Coombe Tennant family]…He took me into the great yew, a most wondrous sight, a place where wailing for a demon lover should be heard. Here Darnley’s murder was plotted.”

I found the discovery of this twig incredibly moving. It was such an insignificant object to have survived for nearly a hundred years (and so far as I know it is still there – I hope so), but it felt like a real connection to Winifred’s life and loves. For a love token it seemed to be. But what was the story behind it?

Winifred Coombe Tennant was a suffrage campaigner in South Wales. She was president of the Neath Branch of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, and served on the NUWSS national executive. She was a patron of Welsh arts, both as an art collector and through her work with the National Eisteddfod. She was a Liberal, and stood unsuccessfully for election in the Forest of Dean in 1922. She was the first woman JP for Glamorgan, and the first woman to be appointed as a delegate to the League of Nations.

In 1895 she married wealthy landowner Charles Coombe Tennant (1852-1928) of Cadoxton Lodge, Neath. They had a daughter, Daphne, who died aged one, and two sons, Christopher and Alexander.

Winifred had a private life, much of which remained private until after her death. Under the name Mrs Willett, she was well known as a medium in spiritualist circles. And in 1913 she had a third son, Henry, whose father was Gerald Balfour.

Winifred Coombe Tennant first met Gerald and Betty Balfour in February 1911 when she went to their home, Fisher’s Hill, Woking, at Betty’s invitation. It was their shared interest in psychic research that drew the Balfours and Winifred together. Winifred had met Gerald Balfour’s sister, Eleanor Sidgwick (1845–1936), the previous year. Eleanor’s husband was Henry Sidgwick (1838-1900) of Trinity College, Cambridge, a founder of the Society for Psychical Research, and she was with him an investigator of the paranormal.

Betty was a suffragist, and they had several discussions about the subject. After her visit, Winifred began to attend suffrage meetings with Betty. Her affair with Betty’s husband started at the end of 1911.

Winifred Coombe Tennant joined the non-militant NUWSS.

It was a complicated situation. Gerald often stayed at Cadoxton Lodge with Winifred and her husband. Gerald and Betty Balfour had a daughter in June 1912, and Betty asked Winfred to be the child’s godmother. In July 1912 Charles Coombe Tennant asked Gerald to be his children’s guardian in the event of this death, and Gerald consented. Then, in November 1912, Gerald told Betty about his affair with Winifred. Betty apparently gave it her blessing, and she and Winifred continued to attend suffrage meetings together.

Publicly, Gerald was Henry’s godfather (hence the name “Godfather”) and, as he had done before his son’s birth, he paid frequent visits to Cadoxton Lodge. The question of who knew what and when, and what they really felt about the situation, is impossible to explore here, perhaps impossible to know.

In August 1917 Winifred and Charles’s eldest son, Christopher, was killed in action.  From this point her relationship with Balfour deteriorated. She felt he failed to understand her grief, and after six passionate years, their relationship ended in bitter recriminations.

However, Gerald Balfour continued to see his son, Henry. He visited Cadoxton Lodge in November 1918, gave him a rocking horse, and was there when the bells rang out the Armistice. During his visit, Winifred and Gerald had a long talk, and seem to have reached an understanding. When he left she wrote “God bless him!” She continued to correspond with him, and with Betty. Clearly there had been a reconciliation, but they did not resume their affair. Gerald paid further visits to Cadoxton Lodge, while Winifred visited him and Betty at Fisher’s Hill in May 1921. And, as we have seen, the Balfours invited her to Whittinghame in 1923.

So what was the treasuring of the yew clipping all about? A token of an affection which had taken the place of passion, perhaps. Or a memento of a visit to a place that, despite – or because of? – being the home of her former lover and his wife, meant so much to Winifred that leaving it at the end of her visit gave her “a strange pain to leave my belov├ęd Whittingham - a sense of leaving home”. She had even dreamed about being there long before she went there, as she recorded in her diary on 17 May 1912. When she first saw it on 7 February 1923 she said she recognised it from her dreams.

Whatever the emotions behind the treasuring of the cutting, it was  a poignant discovery. Perhaps, too, it was a reminder that when you’re trawling through old documents, you are handling the stuff of real lives.

If you would like to know more about Winifred Coombe Tennant, I’ve written an article about her, mainly in connection with her work on suffrage. You can read the article, A fine thing gone wrong: Winifred Coombe Tennant and the Suffragettes, on my website.

Winifred’s activities didn’t end with suffrage, and when I get the chance I plan to do some more research into her fascinating life.

And as a footnote – I recently found out that the yew tree from which Winifred’s cutting came is actually a very famous tree. The c700-year old Great Yew at Whittinghame is a female and houses a central space reached by a 25 metre long tunnel of branches. Whether or not the plot to kill Darnley was hatched there is anybody’s guess! You can find out more about the Great Yew (and see some stunning photographs of it) at https://scotlands-yew-trees.org/yewtree/whittinghame-estate/

 

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