From don­keys to ze­bras and from squires to ma­hara­jas

The Oban Times - - News - Iain Thorn­ber iain.thorn­ber@bt­in­ter­

LAST week I wrote about Squire Cheape of Tiro­ran. To­day my sub­ject is Lady Meux ( pro­nounced ‘mews’) from Al­ladale, near Bonar Bridge in Ross-shire, who came from an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent back­ground.

At the same time as Mrs Cheape was in­tro­duc­ing don­keys to Mull, the colour­ful and beau­ti­ful so­cialite, Lady Meux, was driv­ing her­self around in a four-wheeled car­riage drawn by a pair of ze­bras.

Lady Meux was born Va­lerie Lang­don in 1847. She was the daugh­ter of a De­von butcher and worked as an ac­tress and a banjo-play­ing bar­maid be­fore mar­ry­ing Sir Henry Meux, 3rd baronet (1856-1900). Ac­cord­ing to her obit­u­ary in the New York Times, she met Sir Henry while per­form­ing in Brighton.

Some sources give an­other slant to her ca­reer al­though, in her de­fence, Va­lerie main­tained: ‘I can very hon­estly say that my sins were com­mit­ted be­fore and not af­ter mar­riage.’

The colos­sal Meux wealth came from brew­ing. Henry’s fa­ther, the 2nd baronet, mar­ried into the Mar­quess of Ailes­bury’s fam­ily. Need­less to say, they were not en­am­oured by the ar­rival of this flam­boy­ant cuckoo in their midst and, typ­i­cal of the un­pleas­ant snob­bery of the time, shunned Henry, as he was in trade, and Va­lerie be­cause of her back­ground.

Thumb­ing her nose at them all, Va­lerie made her in­dif­fer­ence known by reg­u­larly driv­ing past the Ailes­burys’ fash­ion­able Lon­don house with her ze­bras. She also sat for James Mc­Neil Whistler – an Amer­i­can and one of the most ac­claimed so­ci­ety pain­ters of the day.

Lady Meux and her hus­band im­proved and en­larged Theobalds, their property in Hert­ford­shire, by adding an in­door roller-skat­ing rink and a swim­ming pool. At her re­quest, Henry bought Christo­pher Wren’s Tem­ple Bar (one of the eight gates that sur­rounded the old city of Lon­don) and re­built all 400 tons of it as a new gate­way to Theobalds.

There, in its up­per cham­ber, Va­lerie al­legedly en­ter­tained guests, in­clud­ing the Prince of Wales and Win­ston Churchill.

Bit­ten by the Vic­to­rian bug for High­land life and scenery, Sir Henry and Lady Meux took a lease for Al­ladale, one of the best known deer forests in Scot­land. It be­longed to Sir Charles Ross, in­ven­tor of the fa­mous Ross ri­fle, who lived at nearby Bal­nagowan Cas­tle which, in­ci­den­tally, is now owned by the lo­cally pop­u­lar Mo­hamed Al-Fayed of Har­rods fame.

In 1360, Al­ladale was called ‘Free­vater’ or Wal­ter’s For­est, af­ter one of Sir Charles’s an­ces­tor who was killed at Ban­nock­burn. Here they pro­vided stalk­ing, fish­ing and grouse shoot­ing for their friends on a grand scale.

Af­ter Henry’s death, when he was only 44, Al­ladale was taken by the fab­u­lously wealthy Ma­haraja Holkar of In­dore, who brought such a large en­tourage with him that an ex­ten­sion had to be added to the rear of the lodge to ac­com­mo­date them. Un­de­terred by wid­ow­hood, Lady Meux con­tin­ued to en­joy life to the full, and well she might, in­her­it­ing an in­come of £240,000 a year from her hus­band’s es­tate.

She owned a string of race horses, en­ter­ing them un­der the as­sumed name of ‘Mr Theobalds’, and won the Derby in 1901. She col­lected an­cient Egyp­tian arte­facts; the leg­endary Egyp­tol­o­gist Wal­lis Budge pub­lished a cat­a­logue of more than 1,700 of her items, in­clud­ing 800 scarabs and amulets. She wanted to leave the col­lec­tion to the Bri­tish Mu­seum, but the trustees de­clined the be­quest (be­cause, she said, they were ap­par­ently id­iots) and it was sold.

Va­lerie didn’t al­ways frit­ter away her hus­band’s money. Dur­ing the Boer War she was so im­pressed by the hero­ics of the Bri­tish Army at the Bat­tle of Lady­smith in 1899 she bought six 12-pounder naval can­non and sent them out to South Africa.

When Sir Hed­worth Lambton, the com­man­der of the naval bri­gade at Lady­smith, re­turned to Lon­don, he called on Lady Meux to thank her for her gen­eros­ity. She was so taken with his charm that she made him the chief ben­e­fi­ciary of her es­tate on con­di­tion that he took the sur­name Meux (she and Sir Henry had no chil­dren).

When she died on De­cem­ber 20, 1910, he changed his name and in­her­ited Theobalds and a sub­stan­tial in­ter­est in the Meux Brew­ery.

Al­though the Meuxs, the ma­haraja and the dis­tin­guished guests, dis­ap­peared down the glen decades ago, there is still a quixotic aura about Al­ladale. The es­tate now be­longs to Paul Lis­ter, heir to the MFI fur­ni­ture for­tune, who courted con­tro­versy by turn­ing it into a wilder­ness re­serve in­tended for wolves, bears and other large preda­tors.

Since 2003, a mil­lion trees have re­placed most of the wild red deer and talk of a huge 50,000 acre, Colditzstyle com­pound, has drawn crit­i­cism from neigh­bours, hill­walk­ers and lawyers as it could con­tra­vene prin­ci­ples of open ac­cess en­shrined in the Land Re­form (Scot­land) Act 2003.

From in­side wooden stock­ades, a few moose and an­gry Euro­pean bi­son glare and stamp their feet at passers-by but the howl of the wolf and the growl of the griz­zly bear have yet to be heard on the braes.

Gone, too, from the lodge sta­bles are the ze­bras and Lady Meux’s stylish high phaeton.

Lady Meux in pink by Whistler and, right, Sir Henry and Lady Meux at Al­ladale.

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