Lady Iveagh: celebrating International Women’s Day at Clandon Park

A portrait of Lady Gwendolen Onslow

Wednesday 8 March is International Women’s Day and this year’s theme is ‘be bold for change’. To mark this, we’re celebrating the life and achievements of Lady Iveagh who followed a pioneering political path through the 20th century and played a vital role in safeguarding the future of her family home, Clandon Park.

Lady Iveagh was born Lady Gwendolen Onslow in 1881 at the Onslow’s London house in Richmond Terrace, Whitehall and was baptised at the nearby Banqueting House when it was used as a Chapel Royal. Daughter of Florence Gardner and William, 4th Earl of Onslow, Gwendolen, or ‘Gwenny’ as she was known to her family, was brought up with her older brother Richard and younger sister Dorothy. Although their principal home was Clandon Park, they were often at the family’s London house and in 1888 the family moved to New Zealand when their father took up the role of Governor. It was here that her youngest brother Huia was born in 1890.

Gwendolen inherited a strong social conscience from her father and had a real desire to help those less fortunate than herself. It is said that she grew her knowledge of politics and government as a little girl in New Zealand when she began to assist her father with his parliamentary work.

She had a conventional aristocratic upbringing and as a debutante was presented to Queen Victoria at one of the monarch’s last ‘drawing-rooms’. Marriage soon followed to Rupert Guinness, from the famous and wealthy family of brewers, who joined the family firm and also in time became a politician. Rupert shared Gwendolen’s awareness of social deprivation and the couple were involved in providing social housing in impoverished areas of London through the ‘Guinness Trust’. The couple had five children; three girls and two boys, one of whom died in infancy. After the First World War, Gwendolen was awarded the CBE for her philanthropic work organising relief efforts for prisoners of war.

A political pioneer

From 1908 Rupert became a Member of Parliament, first in London’s Shoreditch, and after defeat, for Southend-on-Sea in Essex; a seat which he held until he became Earl of Iveagh on the death of his father in 1927. Gwendolen supported her husband in his parliamentary work, and became Chairman of the Conservative Party Women’s Advisory Committee from 1925 – 1937 at a time when membership soared to the million mark.

As a woman over 30 years of age with property, Gwendolen, now Lady Iveagh, had the right to vote in parliamentary elections after 1918 and successfully won the Southend-on-Sea constituency herself at the 1927 by-election. She was one of the first female MPs in the UK and joined only a handful of other others in the House of Commons, for her part in support of Conservative Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. Despite opposition from those to the right of his party, Baldwin proposed equal parliamentary voting rights for women and Gwendolen was an ardent supporter of this bill, which became law in 1928, ready for the 1929 election.

Although coming from a family with a long tradition of parliamentary service and an MP in her own right, it is said that when Gwendolen attended the House of Commons, fellow male MPs would crowd in, mostly to see her fashionable clothes.

Securing Clandon’s legacy

Soon after their marriage, Gwendolen and Rupert bought land close to Clandon Park at Pyrford, which had once been the home of her ancestors Denzil and Sarah Onslow. They commissioned architect Clyde Young to design them a house which had views over Clandon Park, her childhood home. Gwendolen was, like her father, a knowledgeable horticulturist and she laid out a large garden around the new house which included an ornamental wood and golf course. We know from the 4th Earl’s garden notebooks that they shared knowledge and swapped plants; she may also have sought advice from garden designer Gertrude Jekyll. 

Lady Iveagh retained a great love for her childhood home and visits between the two houses were common. After the death of her mother in 1934, things at Clandon began to decline, hastened by the Second World War. It is said that in 1956, Gwendolen saw in an antique shop in Guildford, a table for sale that she recognised as coming from the Marble Hall at Clandon Park. This galvanised her to save her family home, which she did by purchasing it from her nephew, 6th Earl of Onslow, and presenting it, along with an endowment of Guinness Company shares, to the National Trust.

She died in 1966 at the age of 85, at the home her husband had built at Pyrford Court, and from where she could see Clandon Park.

International Women’s Day has its roots in those civil actions led by women during the early 20th century. Throughout this period Lady Iveagh’s own political awareness and aspirations were beginning to crystalize as her husband was elected to office for the first time in 1908. As this movement grew alongside women’s burgeoning political freedoms, so did Lady Iveagh’s own public profile. In the world into which Gwendolen was born, a female MP was unthinkable. By the time she passed away we were just 13 years away from our first female Prime Minister.