Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire In Memoriam
Deborah Mitford was not only born into nobility, but into one of the most famous and eccentric sets of sisters of all time. Her eldest sister, Nancy, would become a celebrated novelist. Her sister Diana married Bryan Guinness and later British Fascist Sir Oswald Mosley. Her sister Jessica left Britain for America where she became a political activist and a celebrated muckraking journalist. Her sister Unity became enthralled by Adolph Hitler and later attempted suicide. Her sister Pamela married an eccentric scientist. Deborah Mitford would lead a quieter than most of her sisters and one that was certainly less controversial than some of them, but it was a life that was no less filled with accomplishments. Upon the death of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire, she became the Duchess of Devonshire. It was largely due to the efforts of Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire that Chatsworth House, the ancestral home of the Cavendish family, was rebuilt. Sadly, Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, died today at the age of 94.
Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was born Deborah Freeman-Mitford on 31 March 1920 at Asthall Manor, Oxfordshire, England. Her parents were David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale and Sydney Bowles, the daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles (the founder of the magazines Vanity Fair and The Lady). As a child Deborah did not attend school and, in fact, was deathly afraid of school. Instead she spent her time hunting and caring for her chickens. She was remarkably good at ice skating, so much so that she attracted the attention of professional coaches. Unfortunately her parents would not allow her to pursue skating as a profession.
At age 21 Deborah married Lord Andrew Cavendish, the youngest son of Edward Cavendish, 10th Duke of Devonshire. Lord Andrew Cavendish became heir to the dukedom when his older brother, William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington was killed in combat during WWII. It was in 1950, upon the death of his father, that Lord Andrew Cavendish became the 11th Duke of Devonshire and hence Deborah became the Duchess of Devonshire. Andrew Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire died on 3 May 2004 at the age of 84.
Deborah would be responsible for the day to day running of Chatsworth House. Indeed, she oversaw the restoration of Chatsworth House, which had been in decline for many years, as well as its gardens. The house was thoroughly modernised, with new wiring and plumbing installed, as well as central heating, telephones, and 17 new bathrooms. It was a process that took literally years. She was also responsible for developing Chatsworth commercially. She sat up Chatsworth Farm Shop, where locally grown produce and meat is sold. She opened gift shops at Chatsworth and even played pivotal roles in the development of the Cavendish Hotel at Baslow and the Devonshire Arms Hotel at Bolton Abbey, both relatively near Chatsworth. Throughout it all Deborah took an active role at Chatsworth, greeting tourists, conducting lectures on farming, and acting as the public spokesman for Chatsworth House.
Over the years Deborah wrote many books on Chatsworth, including Chatsworth: The House, The Estate: A View from Chatsworth, and Treasures of Chatsworth: A Private View. She even wrote a children's book about the estate, The Farmyard at Chatsworth. She also wrote a book in tribute to her late husband, Memories of Andrew Devonshire, published in 2007. In 2010 her memoirs of her life as the youngest Mitford Sister, Wait for Me!, were published. In 2012 her book All in One Basket, a collection of memories of everything from Chatsworth to such friends as John F. Kennedy to Evelyn Waugh was published.
In 1991 Deborah was named a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order by Her Royal Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for her work in preserving British residential heritage.
Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire was not the most famous Mitford sister, but she leaves behind works that will be no less lasting than anything her sisters did. During the 20th Century many of the great houses were sold, converted to other uses such as schools, or even demolished. Chatsworth House not only still stands, but even prospers, because of Deborah's ingenuity and determination. She was also instrumental in preserving and disseminating the history of Chatsworth, writing volumes upon the subject. As the last of the Mitford sisters she also played a role in preserving and helping define the legacy of her famous family, not only writing the book Wait for Me!, but appearing in many documentaries on the sisters.
Despite belonging to possibly the most famous set of sisters of the 20th Century and being a Duchess, Deborah Mitford was often described as "down to earth". In fact, in 2003 she told The New York Times, "I'm just a housewife." In interviews she always seemed warm and approachable, as eager to discuss her chickens, Chatworth House, gardening, or Elvis Presley (of whom she was a big fan) as anything else. She was apparently much the same way in person. To the many visitors to Chatsworth she was always a gracious hostess.
Deborah Cavendish, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire is survived by her son, Peregrine Cavendish, 12th Duke of Devonshire. and her daughters Lady Emma Tennant and Lady Sophia Topley.