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.greyabbeyhouse.com
‘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)