Lady of the MANOR

Daphne Mont­gomery of Grey Abbey House in Co Down on her ex­traor­di­nary life


Tucked away on the eastern shores of Strang­ford Lough, the tiny vil­lage of Greyabbey is steeped in his­tory. In fact, with 17 an­tique shops clus­tered around the main street, ev­ery few steps can send you tum­bling into the past. But the big­gest slice of his­tory sits clois­tered be­hind the stone walls of Grey Abbey House. Sur­rounded by an­cient wood­lands, beau­ti­ful gar­dens that boast rare and ex­otic plants, a walled veg­etable gar­den and two or­chards con­tain­ing a col­lec­tion of Vic­to­rian and, more re­cently, Ir­ish fruit trees sits Grey Abbey House, home to William and Daphne Mont­gomery.

Con­sid­ered among the finest of its kind in Ire­land, the prop­erty was built in 1762, al­though the site has been in the Mont­gomery fam­ily from as far back as 1606. Ad­ja­cent to the house, the ru­ins of Grey Abbey Cis­ter­cian Pri­ory, founded in 1193 by John de Courcy’s wife, Af­freca, com­plete the set­ting as an his­to­rian’s par­adise.

My in­ter­est lies in the cur­rent lady of the manor, Mrs Daphne Mont­gomery (neé Bridge­man), who came to live at Grey Abbey House in 1965 fol­low­ing her mar­riage to William Mont­gomery. After driv­ing up to the house, my wel­come couldn’t have been warmer as my charm­ing host­ess ush­ered me into a sit­ting room that wouldn’t look out of place in one of TV’s pe­riod dra­mas. Crammed with fam­ily me­men­toes, por­traits and pho­to­graphs, the at­mos­phere echoed with voices from the past. En­sconced in front of a roar­ing fire, sip­ping Lap­sang tea and munch­ing a slice of de­li­cious short­bread, I asked my host­ess about her life and the events that led her to North­ern Ire­land. I’m not sure what I had ex­pected but it cer­tainly wasn’t an ad­ven­ture story.

For the next cou­ple of hours, I lis­tened spell­bound as Daphne re­galed me with tales of drama on the high seas, mur­der in Manila, sheep chauf­feur­ing in the out­back and even a stint as a log­ging clerk in Bor­neo.

The youngest daugh­ter of Bri­gadier The Hon­ourable Ge­of­frey John Or­lando Bridge­man MC and his wife Mary, Daphne was born in 1940. Her ear­li­est mem­o­ries are of the times she spent in Shrop­shire dur­ing the war.

“At the time, my mother and aunt were shar­ing a farm­house in Shrop­shire,” she be­gins.

“It was very com­mon dur­ing the war years for women to live in the same prop­erty. With their hus­bands away, it made sense to share house­hold chores and child­care.

“My older brother and sis­ter along with my­self and our three cousins used to travel to school in a pony and trap, al­though the ‘school’ was ac­tu­ally held in a house be­cause our head­mas­ter was away serv­ing in the war. The thing I re­mem­ber most about that time was the freez­ing cold. The win­ters in that part of the world were wild. In fact, it was so cold one year that our poor guinea pigs died. That was aw­ful.

“There were a lot of short­ages and with no elec­tric­ity, we had to rely mostly on oil lamps. Food was pretty dire and con­sisted mostly of rab­bits. My mother and aunt used a ‘wa­ter-glass’, a piece of equip­ment that used a so­lu­tion of sodium sil­i­cate to pre­serve eggs for up to six months at a time. The eggs came out of this ‘wa­ter-glass’ cov­ered in a hor­ri­ble clay mix­ture. You re­ally couldn’t have a boiled egg, they were used solely for cook­ing or bak­ing. Look­ing back, I sup­pose it was fine for us chil­dren but the poor adults must have had a ter­ri­ble time.” What kind of games did she play? “Well, we had a lot of board games but, in­ter­est­ingly, my favourite was called ‘Planted’ which I sup­pose was a bit like Ludo. You had to roll a die and the ob­ject was to ‘plant your gar­den’ on the board. But my favourite out­door pas­time was us­ing the roots of a beech tree to make a lit­tle fairy house. My grand­chil­dren still do it to­day. We’d spend hours fur­nish­ing them, plant­ing bits of twigs and flow­ers in the ‘gar­den’ and mak­ing them lovely. I also re­mem­ber us play­ing an enor­mous amount of ‘kick the tin’ and, of course, end­less games of hide and seek. Like the rest of my gen­er­a­tion, we re­lied a lot on imag­i­na­tion.”

At 12 she was sent to board­ing school in Berk­shire.

“Oh, I loved it there, it was such fun! Maybe a bit too much fun and not enough study­ing for me,” she laughs. “I made some great friends at board­ing school and we were al­lowed to ride our bikes three in a row so we en­joyed quite a bit of free­dom. But the stan­dard of ed­u­ca­tion was ex­cel­lent. Of the 15 girls in my class, eight went on to study at Ox­ford and Cam­bridge. Un­for­tu­nately, I didn’t get a high enough mark in Latin so I didn’t get to go to univer­sity.” Was she dis­ap­pointed? “Yes, I think so. As soon as I’d left school, I wished I’d worked a bit harder.”

Back home in Lon­don, her par­ents de­cided that, as she was good at lan­guages, they would send her to Italy to study Ital­ian.

“I ab­so­lutely loved Italy!” she tells me. “It is a beau­ti­ful place and while I was there I de­vel­oped a pas­sion for art. I also stud­ied mu­sic but, phys­i­cally, I wasn’t the right build to be a proper singer. So when I re­turned home my par­ents sug­gested I study short­hand and typ­ing. My fa­ther told me that if I had those skills, I could go any­where.”

It’s ob­vi­ous that Daphne is im­mensely proud of her fa­ther and, in the sea­son of Re­mem­brance, she has a favourite story about him.

“My fa­ther went to study clas­sics at Cam­bridge but, within a year of ar­riv­ing, he was

As we were eat­ing din­ner a man shot the cus­tomer at a nearby ta­ble — dead!

sent to serve in the First World War. When he re­turned at the end of 1918 to con­tinue his stud­ies he dis­cov­ered that of all the young med­i­cal stu­dents who had been sent to the bat­tle­field, not one had re­turned to univer­sity. They had all been killed.

“My fa­ther, along with the other un­der­grad­u­ates in his field, re­alised that war had torn a gap­ing hole in the fab­ric of so­ci­ety. They knew that if this sit­u­a­tion was hap­pen­ing in Cam­bridge, it would be go­ing on in uni­ver­si­ties all over the coun­try. So, they de­cided to do some­thing about it. All 12 friends agreed to change their sub­ject and ev­ery one of them went on to study medicine. You know, none of them had a ‘call­ing’ of vo­ca­tion to the field of medicine. But they knew that, for fu­ture gen­er­a­tions, they had to be­come doc­tors or sur­geons. It was such a won­der­ful and ex­traor­di­nary thing to do. My fa­ther went on to be­come an oph­thalmic sur­geon at St Ge­orge’s Hos­pi­tal in Lon­don.”

After a mo­ment of re­flec­tion, Daphne takes up the thread of her own in­cred­i­ble early years which saw her in­volved in a se­ries of ad­ven­tures in the Ori­ent, Philip­pines and Aus­tralia, in­clud­ing sur­viv­ing a ty­phoon, wit­ness­ing a mur­der and driv­ing drunken sheep farm­ers along un­marked roads in the Aus­tralian out­back.

“I was around 21, re­ally en­joy­ing life in Lon­don when I heard that my brother, who was in Sin­ga­pore, had con­tracted paraty­phoid so I de­cided I’d go and visit him. From there, I trav­elled on to Hong Kong where I found a job work­ing with Long­mans Green, a well­known pub­lish­ing com­pany. At the time, I had a great friend whose fa­ther was head of Jar­dine Math­e­son, a Bri­tish con­glom­er­ate with ma­jor busi­ness in­ter­ests in Asia. We both had an­other friend in what was then called the Bri­tish Le­ga­tion in Pek­ing (the Bri­tish Em­bassy) so she and I trav­elled to Pek­ing (now called Bei­jing).

“Of course, back then, Euro­pean vis­i­tors weren’t al­lowed any­where in China, ex­cept for those in the em­bassy, so we had to have an es­cort for the en­tire trip. But we saw some won­der­ful stuff, in­clud­ing the For­bid­den City and the Great Wall. But what re­ally in­trigued me were the build­ings. There wasn’t a sin­gle high-rise any­where. In­stead they had what they called ‘footons’. These were long walls where, ev­ery now and then, a door would ap­pear and, I re­mem­ber, there was a big step which you had to step over to go through into a lovely lit­tle court­yard which housed a mag­no­lia and or­ange trees. Ap­par­ently, the ‘step’ was meant to stop the Devil get­ting over into the court­yard!

“This was in the days of Mao Ze­dong so ev­ery­one wore a Mao jacket and the chil­dren were dressed in blue with a red scarf. They had never seen a Euro­pean be­fore and couldn’t un­der­stand what we were do­ing. To give you an idea of the timescale, at the time, Sir John Keswick, who was head of Jar­dines, was sell­ing on be­half of the Bri­tish Gov­ern­ment six Vick­ers Vis­count planes. That was in­cred­i­ble be­cause it was the first real trade break­through in the Six­ties.” After Hong Kong, Daphne de­cided to take a slow boat to Aus­tralia and it turned out to be a per­ilous voy­age.

She re­calls: “I booked a pas­sage on what was known then as a tim­ber boat. There were 11 other pas­sen­gers; I was the only fe­male. Oh, what an ad­ven­ture that turned out to be!” she laughs. “We were sched­uled to stop at the Philip­pines and Bor­neo but some­where be­tween Hong Kong and our first stop, we hit the edge of a ty­phoon. Oh my, that was some­thing. We all had to strap our­selves into our bunks. If the boat had gone down, it would have been the end for us. But any­way, that was fine, we made it okay.”

She dis­misses the dan­ger with a wave of her hand, as though a ty­phoon is no big deal. Still, what fol­lowed next did make the ty­phoon seem like a sum­mer breeze.

“We ar­rived at Manila, the cap­i­tal of the Philip­pines, and the cap­tain asked if I’d like to go ashore for din­ner.”

I in­ter­rupt, just to clar­ify whether ro­mance was on the menu. Her re­ply is in­stan­ta­neous: “No! He did not make my heart beat fast at all.” She adds: “The restau­rant was re­ally quite nice, lovely white ta­ble linen and every­thing. But as we were sit­ting eat­ing din­ner, a man came in, pulled out a gun and shot the cus­tomer at a nearby ta­ble — dead! I couldn’t be­lieve it but the cap­tain sim­ply leaned across to me and whis­pered, ‘You didn’t see that, ig­nore it’, so I did. The wait­ers came, took the body and rolled it un­der a side­board. I pre­sume they were go­ing to deal with it later. I found it quite dif­fi­cult to eat my meal, I can tell you. But when you’re young and away from home, you don’t un­der­stand what’s hap­pen­ing in the world, so you tend to ac­cept things. I know I did.”

The next day, it was Daphne who ended up un­der the ship’s ta­ble. “We were eat­ing lunch when the cap­tain came in and told us he had some bad news and went on to an­nounce that Pres­i­dent Kennedy had been as­sas­si­nated.

“Well, there were two Amer­i­cans on board, one was a Demo­crat and the other a Repub­li­can. As soon as they heard the news, one said, ‘That’s the best thing I ever heard’. The other one coun­tered with ‘Oh no, it’s a dis­as­ter for the world’. Next thing I know, the pair are fight­ing, throw­ing chairs, a real set-to.

“The cap­tain had to sep­a­rate them and for the rest of the jour­ney they were con­fined to hav­ing lunch in their quar­ters. I can tell you this, I never for­got the date of Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion after that.”

The pas­sen­gers alighted in Bor­neo where Daphne met up with the brother of an old school friend who in­vited her to lunch.

“We went to this lit­tle club house, it was on the edge of a town but com­pletely sur­rounded by jun­gle. Dur­ing our meal, I was in­tro­duced to a man called Tommy Thom­son, a dar­ling man who was in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing. He knew every­thing about the flora and fauna in the area and taught me quite a lot.

“Tommy was an ac­coun­tant and hap­pened to be look­ing for a book­keeper to help him ar­range pay­ment for the log­gers along the river. He of­fered me the job and de­spite me ex­plain­ing that I had no skills, he was in­sis­tent. Ap­par­ently, he was short staffed and re­ally quite des­per­ate so, even­tu­ally, I agreed to go along and help.

“As it turned out, my job was quite sim­ple re­ally. All I had to do was travel up­river, ac­com­pa­nied by an in­ter­preter, and give the log­gers their pay. They were great lads, very charm­ing. I stayed in a log­ging house with a Bor­neo tribe who were lovely to me. But, I didn’t like how the beau­ti­ful for­est was be­ing ru­ined. Walk­ing through those ma­jes­tic trees was like be­ing in a huge cathe­dral, it truly was an amaz­ing sight. Yet, the huge tim­ber com­pa­nies and, there were a lot of tim­ber com­pa­nies, didn’t care about this beau­ti­ful rain for­est. At the time, the Ja­panese, who used maple wood as a ve­neer, pro­vided a huge mar­ket.

“I re­ally couldn’t agree with what they were do­ing. I hated it. The poor an­i­mals, the baby ele­phants, orang­utans, all left with­out a home. Even to­day, that part of the world is still be­ing de­stroyed and used for palm oil.”

Re­sum­ing her jour­ney, Daphne fi­nally reached Aus­tralia where she found a job work­ing for the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral, William Sid­ney, 1st Vis­count De L’Isle.

“From liv­ing in a log­ging house with a Bor­neo tribe, I went to the grandeur of life at the home of the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral and his daugh­ters. It was sheer el­e­gance and lux­ury. In those days, the women wore long, lilac coloured gloves and hats. We had to curt­sey all the time, com­ing in and go­ing out. It was ex­traor­di­nary. But I ab­so­lutely loved it.

“There was so much go­ing on and we had in­cred­i­bly in­ter­est­ing guests. Sir Robert Men­zies, the Prime Min­is­ter at the time, came ev­ery Sun­day for din­ner. Then there was a whole host of fa­mous mu­si­cians and artists like Syd­ney Boyd. I had a fab­u­lous time.”

Once again, wan­der­lust raised its head and Daphne de­cided it was time for an­other ad­ven­ture. This time she ended up on a sheep sta­tion in the Aus­tralian out­back.

“Yes, I took a job as a cook even though my cook­ing was des­per­ate,” she chuck­les. “Still, it was great fun. Al­though, mus­ter­ing the sheep could be a bit rough. On the sta­tion we had these lovely Me­rion sheep, their wool is very much sought after and they’re very valu­able. Any­way I de­cided to en­ter them in a com­pe­ti­tion so I rounded up seven of the work­ers and we loaded the sheep onto a lorry and drove to the com­pe­ti­tion in Cun­na­mulla. We won and were ab­so­lutely de­lighted.

“Of course, the men drank them­selves stupid and I had to drive them home. I still don’t know how I made it back. It was pitch black, there were so many dif­fer­ent tracks, it was easy to get lost. I felt like Snow White, and the men were like the seven dwarves, one was Mr Grumpy, an­other Mr Sleepy or Mr Happy. It was chaos and then, when I de­liv­ered them home, their wives were livid ask­ing what I’d done to their hus­bands. I told them, all I’d done was chauf­feur them home!”

After an­other spell back at the Gov­er­nor Gen­eral’s place, Daphne re­turned home to Lon­don. “I had a great friend called Ru­pert — I seem to have had a lot of gay men friends!” she says. “Any­way Ru­pert was a dar­ling man and he was ab­so­lutely fas­ci­nated with church memo­ri­als. He was an ex­pert on them. He’d heard about a Ge­or­gian Gothic fam­ily memo­rial in a Church of Ire­land in Gal­way and asked me to go along and help him take pho­tos. Now, I have to point out that my friend was a large man, enor­mous ac­tu­ally, and couldn’t climb the lad­der to pho­to­graph the memo­rial. My job was to climb up to a very con­sid­er­able height and shine this huge torch on the thing while he stood be­low with his old-fash­ioned cam­era and took pic­tures. It ac­tu­ally tuned out fine. Later, I went to visit friends in Kerry while Ru­pert trav­elled to Dublin but we planned to meet again at an­other friend’s house, Lough Cu­tra in Gal­way, at the week­end.”

When she re­turned, she found Ru­pert wait­ing, burst­ing to tell her about his lat­est find.

“Ru­pert came rush­ing to meet me, barely able to con­tain his ex­cite­ment he told me, ‘Daphne I’ve found the per­fect man for you!’ I was a bit shocked but I told him, ‘as much as I love you Ru­pert, I don’t need you to tell me who to marry’.

“Of course, when we re­turned to the house where we were stay­ing, I saw Bill Mont­gomery among the guests, I did think him rather lovely! But it wasn’t un­til I re­turned to Lon­don that he rang and in­vited me to din­ner.”

Un­like the cap­tain of the tim­ber boat, the North­ern Ire­land man did make her heart go giddy-up. What at­tracted her to him?

She pauses to re­flect. “At the time, he was still on crutches. His wife and three oth­ers had been killed in a car crash here at Strang­ford so he was still re­cov­er­ing, poor man. But, after go­ing out to din­ner I did think him very lovely in­deed. He has this won­der­ful sense of hu­mour.

“In fact, we were laugh­ing about some­thing the other night and I think it’s mar­vel­lous to still share these things. Six months after we met, we were in a night­club when he pro­posed. Of course I said yes and we were mar­ried in Kent in De­cem­ber 1965. It was a very quiet wed­ding.”

Fol­low­ing her ar­rival at Grey Abbey House, Daphne got stuck into her new life, be­gin­ning with knock­ing the gar­dens into shape. The gar­dens had been al­lowed to go over the years. The kitchen gar­den had be­come a pad­dock and the flower gar­dens had been al­lowed to grow over.

Daphne, with her usual vigour, set about restor­ing them and also cre­ated a South­ern Hemi­sphere gar­den with plants brought in from Chile after a visit there to see their son Hugh, who now works in fi­nance and lives in the US.

Her hus­band also cred­its Daphne with bring­ing a new eye to the stately home and see­ing how it could be­come the im­pres­sive set­ting for en­ter­tain­ing that it is to­day. She trans­formed the Gothic room into a mag­nif­i­cent din­ing room.

To­day much of the es­tate is rented out to lo­cal farm­ers as are some of the build­ings, and it is a venue for au­to­mo­bile clubs such as the MG Own­ers’ Club North­ern Ire­land and the County Down Trac­tor En­gine Club..

It is also a much sought after film lo­ca­tion al­though Daphne re­mains coy — thanks to a con­fi­den­tial­ity clause — about a planned movie to be shot there.

The move into the world of films is hardly sur­pris­ing given that their youngest daugh­ter Flora is an ac­claimed ac­tress with a long list of cred­its in­clud­ing Mid­somer Mur­ders and En­deav­our. She mar­ried her hus­band Soren Jessen at the fam­ily es­tate in Au­gust 2014 and among the 300 guests were ac­tor Or­lando Bloom and two mem­bers of the Dan­ish Royal Fam­ily — Prince Fred­erik and Princess Mary — who are friends of the spouse.

Flora’s older sis­ter, Frances, was also mar­ried in the ru­ins of an abbey which sits across the park from the main house. It was the first wed­ding in the abbey since the roof was taken off the chapel in the 18th cen­tury. The sun cer­tainly did not shine on the oc­ca­sion and her fa­ther was later to chuckle that one could have floated ducks on the pud­dles of the bride’s train.

The fi­nal mem­ber of the fam­ily is Rose but in keep­ing with fam­ily tra­di­tion she keeps a low pro­file and Daphne pro­tects her chil­dren’s pri­vacy.

As she looks back over her ad­ven­tur­ous life what was Daphne’s first im­pres­sion of North­ern Ire­land?

“I liked it very much in­deed,” she re­calls. “The peo­ple here are so warm, kind and car­ing. The vil­lage were and are in­cred­i­bly sup­port­ive and they just ac­cept me for who I am. I think that’s the lovely thing about peo­ple here, they em­brace you for who you are. I’ve had a mar­vel­lous time liv­ing here.

“I helped run a cross-com­mu­nity Girl Guides for 16 years, we went camp­ing on the Mournes and even the rain couldn’t dampen our spir­its!

“Un­til re­cently, when I de­cided to re­tire, I was very in­volved with the or­gan­i­sa­tion ‘Hope for Youth’. I be­lieve it’s very im­por­tant to in­vest in our young peo­ple. Here on the es­tate, I love the gar­dens and we en­joy hav­ing so many in­ter­est­ing vis­i­tors.”

With a range of book­ings from his­tor­i­cal, ar­chi­tec­tural and hor­ti­cul­tural groups, not to men­tion film crews, Grey Abbey House is a hive of in­dus­try. Now with Christ­mas just around the cor­ner, Daphne and Bill are look­ing for­ward to hav­ing their fam­ily home for the hol­i­days.

Al­though, be­fore that, De­cem­ber 4 will bring the cou­ple an­other rea­son to cel­e­brate — a 53rd wed­ding an­niver­sary. I ask Daphne how she’d like to spend the day.

“I don’t mind re­ally,” she smiles. “As long as I spend it with Bill, it’ll be the per­fect day.”

For in­for­ma­tion about Grey Abbey House visit www.greyabbey­

‘The peo­ple here are so warm and car­ing, they ac­cept me for who I am’

PROUD DAY: Daphne’s daugh­ter Flora mar­ries Soren Jessen at the Mon­tog­mery an­ces­tral home in Greyabbey

GRAND DE­SIGN: Daphne Mont­gomery re­laxes at her Greyabbey home. Above, the mag­nif­i­cent manor and (right ) with her hus­band William and grand­son Arthur

COLOUR­FUL LIFE: Daphne Mont­gomery at her home in Greyabbey and with her dog Waggy (be­low)

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