If you should venture to Stowe, to ponder and wander past the grottos and temples, the statues and vistas, pause if you will at the church. For if you should tiptoe in, imagine the sadness of Christmas 1914, the loss of the last heir of Stowe and the loss of the estate community. Look up and you may glimpse the memorial of a mother to a son lost to the war – the stained glass window. Unveiled in 1917 in an old family estate now lingering slowly in the midst of modernity.
The Great War was in many ways the beginning of the end for Stowe; or rather the beginning of the end for this titled hereditary estate. It is of course the beautiful estate of Stowe in Buckinghamshire that I speak of, and the family that ended with the Morgan-Grenvilles.
History shows that life for the nobility, gentry and aristocracy was hard particularly after World War One. Enormous death duties, increasing social movement and change meant that time was beginning to catch up with the grand old families of Britain.
If you visit Stowe now, it is run in part by the National Trust that butts up against Stowe School. The architectural gems, the parkland, the outdoor embellishments and vistas still give a sparkle to the eye. But at the end of the 19th century, the expense to keep up such an impressive and expansive house and parkland was becoming more difficult.
Under the ownership of the Baroness Kinloss, Lady Mary Morgan-Grenville, it was passed down to her eldest son when he turned twenty-one years of age. That man was called Richard George Grenville Morgan-Grenville.
Occasionally historians postulate and ask ‘what might have been?’ But the eldest son and heir to Stowe when war broke out in 1914 was a serving officer in the British Army. What other events might have been?
Born on September 25th 1887, Richard George Grenville Morgan-Grenville had four younger brothers and one sister. His father had died in 1896 and as many of his class did, he attended Eton and went to the Royal Military College. He joined the Rifle Brigade in 1906 and in 1910 he was promoted Lieutenant. At the beginning of the war before his battalion made for France, he was made Captain.
He was injured twice, once in September and again in November 1914 but made good recoveries and returned back to his regiment. He was also commended for bravery and Mentioned in Despatches by Sir John French twice.
It was close to Christmas 1914 when Lady Kinross received word from a brother officer that her son Richard had been mortally wounded and killed on the battlefield in France. He was 28 years of age.
On Christmas Eve 1914, a memorial service was held in Stowe parish church for the fallen man, heir and eldest son. By all accounts, it was a packed tight with family, friends, employees and parishioners. The local paper described the service saying:
There were few unmoistened eyes as, with subdued voices, the congregation joined with the choir in the singing. Indeed, it was all too apparent that the removal, and that with such sudden tragedy, of the heir to the world renowned estate of Stowe had caused a bereavement in which the whole of the parish and district were linked.
The vicar wrote a notice for the local newsletter at Stowe in which he said:
Words fail me to adequately express our deep grief and sympathy in the great loss the parish has sustained in what a soldier terms the glorious death of Capt. The Hon. Richard Morgan-Grenville, Master of Kinloss, upon the field of battle. He has laid down a life full of health, promise and usefulness for the honour and defence of his country against a common foe, leading the charge well ahead of his men with that courage and devotion to duty that we all know him to be capable of. The terrible blow to us is all the harder to hear when we think that he might have been at the parish church on Christmas morning had not his short leave of absence been cancelled at the very last moment. The army and the regiment are all the poorer for the loss of a gallant officer and we, his fellow parishioners, mourn the loss of a devoted son, brother, friend and master.
Private Butler in his platoon who had been sent home wounded revealed the last moments of Captain Morgan-Grenville:
For days and nights on stretch he was with us in the trenches, up to our knees in mud and water. We knew him as Captain Morgan Grenville. We all shared alike. I have seen him scraping the mud off some of the chaps, after they had done the same for him. And he did everything in such a clear business-like matter-of-fact style. He was always cautioning us to be careful when the shells and bullets were about. On the morning that he met his death he came to us who formed his platoon, and said that he had received an order that we were going to carry the trenches of the Germans in order to relieve the men in another part. He was, as usual, full of life and determination, as were all of us. Captain Daniell had charge of the other platoon. Captain Morgan Grenville led us. We leapt over the first trench, which was filled with dead and wounded Germans, and it was when we were going into the second trench that both officers were killed. Captain Morgan Grenville was hit in the head by a bullet and died immediately. I cannot tell you how we felt seeing him lying dead there. There was not a man in the platoon who would not have given his own life for their beloved captain. But we gave him a beautiful funeral. A deep grave was dug in the wood nearby, and his body was reverently placed in it. We also placed a mound over it and round it for protection and erected a wooden cross at its head, with the name Captain Morgan Grenville and the date of his death.
Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Laird Jackson later described the attack on the 19th December 1914 with the 1st Rifle Brigade. The biggest problem was mud. They lost a lot of men including three officers (Captain Morgan-Grenville, Second Lieutenant Daniell and Captain Prittie) due to exceptionally heavy shelling and gunfire and as a result were unable to advance further. Many, many more men would be needed, he said, to push the Germans back. Captain Jackson, as he would become, would die in April 1917 with the 1st Rifles. How right he was – the British Army would need millions more men to get through this war.
Three years almost to the day after his death, Baroness Kinloss attended the dedication of a memorial window in St Mary’s parish church on Stowe estate for her son and first born. It was December 1917. Decorated with white flowers, the window was unveiled:
To the glory of God and in loving memory of Richard George Grenville Morgan Grenville Master of Kinloss, Captain Rifle Brigade Killed in action in Ploegstreet Wood Armentieres 19th December 1914 Aged 27 This window is erected by his sorrowful mother.
The war had another year to run. Another of her son’s was still fighting with the Rifle Brigade but the heir of Stowe had changed and the estate was faced with further financial problems. In 1921, Stowe was sold by the Morgan-Grenville family – the mansion and over 1400 acres, heirlooms, temples, tapestries were all put up for auction. The world had changed and so had Stowe.
In 1921, the new heir and second son Rev. Luis Chandos Francis Temple Morgan-Grenville fell in love and got married. His wife, the youngest daughter of the blacksmith at Stowe who lived at the smithy with her father outside the gates of the grand estate. His chauffeur would become his brother-in-law. The world had changed indeed!
But if you should venture to Stowe, to ponder and wander past the grottos and temples, the statues and vistas, pause if you will at the church. For if you should tiptoe in, imagine the sadness of Christmas 1914, the loss of the last heir of Stowe and the loss of the estate community. Look up and you may glimpse the memorial of a mother to a son lost to the war – the stained glass window. Unveiled in 1917 in an old family estate now lingering slowly in the midst of modernity.
Captain RICHARD GEORGE GRENVILLE Morgan-Grenville
DoB 1887 DoD 19th December 1914 age 27
1st Battalion Rifle Brigade
Buried: Rifle House Cemetery, Hainault, Belgium