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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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 belovéd 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.
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/