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June Sampson: Coombe's connections with Downton Abbey's latest character
News that Dame Kiri Te Kanawa, one of the world’s greatest opera singers at present, will play the part of Dame Nellie Melba, one of the world’s greatest opera singers in the past, in ITV’s next series of Downton Abbey, has not only thrilled the show’s millions of fans.
It is also an interesting reminder that Kingston was once home to a social scene as sumptuously extravagant as that of Downton Abbey – and Dame Nellie was a major player.
In the three decades before World War I, the Coombe area of Kingston became a seductive playground for royals, aristocrats and the leading celebrities of the time, from prime ministers to stage superstars.
Coombe had previously been a rural place, with acres of farmland, and panoramic views across Surrey. Then Gladys de Grey arrived and made it a byword in 19th and early 20th century society. She was also key in transforming Nellie Melba from a little-known singer from Australia to the greatest opera diva of her day.
Gladys, described by a contemporary as “tall and dark, a proud black swan who made any woman near her look pale”, had married the 4th Earl of Lonsdale in 1878. He died in 1882, and three years later she married Earl de Grey, who became 2nd Marquess of Ripon in 1909.
She was noted for her beauty, wit and love affairs. He was noted as the worst bore, but the finest shot, in England. So his appeal for his wife seems to have been that he enabled her to live a life devoted to pleasure, the arts, and the spending of limitless wealth.
The newly-weds settled in Coombe Warren, a mansion near the symmit of Kingston Hill, set in 22 acres. Gladys re-named it Coombe Court and extended it on a massive scale, virtually doubling the accommodation and adding a concert hall and ballroom.
Nellie Melba, left
She was a close friend of the future Edward VII and Queen Alexandra, and the chief patron of the London opera and ballet seasons. Thus her parties at Coombe Court were among the most brilliant in Britain. On one occasion, for example, the Russian Ballet was taking London by storm, so Gladys brought the most famous dancers in the world, Nijinsky and Karsavina, to dine at Coombe Court and meet Queen Alexandra and her sister the Dowager Empress Marie.
Gladys also had a passion for opera, and in the late 19th century was virtually running the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden. Its policy was ostensibly decided by a committee of male aristocrats, whose decision on what operas were to be staged, and which singers engaged, were implemented by the theatre manager Augustus Harris.
In reality it was the committee members’ wives who called the tune, and by far the most influential of them were Gladys and her Kingston neighbour, Lady Charles Beresford, who lived close by in Coombe Cottage.
In 1887 Gladys went to Brussels to hear a new singer who had recently caused a sensation there. Her name was Nellie Melba, and Gladys was so impressed she let it be known that Augustus Harris was to engage her for performances during the current season.
Harris was angry to be told who he should, or should not, hire, but had to comply because Gladys’s influence was absolute.
So it was that Melba got an unexpected offer to sing in London. She had no idea who Gladys de Grey was, or that she had been “secretly” discovered.
Harris treated her poorly. His retaliation against Gladys was to give Melba’s opening performance in Lucia di Lammermoor no publicity, with the result that the house was half empty and the audience and critics lukewarm. Melba sang a further two performances, then was offered the subsidiary role of Oscar in Un Ballo in Maschera. Her answer was to throw the first of the tantrums that later become legendary before she packed her bags and returned to Brussels.
Gladys was equally furious and wrote to Melba – the first direct contact she made with her. Then came another invitation to London couched in terms Melba could hardly refuse.
“I know that things were badly arranged for you before,” wrote Gladys. “But if you come back I promise you it will be different. You will be under my care and I shall see that you do not lack for either friends of hospitality.”
It was a remarkable declaration for one of England’s leading society hostesses to make to a virtually unknown singer from Australia. Melba came back, and for her opening night in June 1889, Gladys dragooned all her friends into taking seats. Dutifully they gave Melba a standing ovation and next morning, when the reviews appeared, she was a star.
Melba wrote years later: “No woman has ever had a truer friend than she who induced me to return, who stood at my side from first to last – Lady de Grey.”
Not only was London’s opera world at Melba’s feet, but its society too, For Lady de Grey virtually adopted her, and she became a permanent fixture at the parties always taking place at Coombe Court and other aristocratic homes close by.
Melba’s social life was so centred on Kingston that she later rented Coombe Cottage from Lord Charles Bereford – a close friend of Edward VII and, like him, with an insatiable appetite for beautiful woman.
She travelled from there daily to the Royal Opera House, and at weekends gave splendid parties, when she would stand on the lawn and regale her guests with her favourite arias.
She loved it more than any house she had ever known, and after her return to Australia she named her new house Coombe Cottage in happy memory.
Coombe Cottage, now bounded by Coombe Lane West and Kingston bypass, has long been shorn of its original 20 acres. But, re-named Coombe House, it is now a listed building, converted into luxury apartments.
Another of Coombe’s society hostesses was Mrs Hwfa Williams, a lively personality who drew everybody who was anybody, plus many who were not, to the house she called “my own poor little Coombe Springs”. And it was modest compared with its neighbours, having only 13 bed and dressing rooms, and a six-acre garden.
Nellie Melba became a regular visitor and Mrs Williams noted some of her eccentricities in her memoirs: “She had all sorts of fancies that had to be taken into account. One of them was never to sing when there were lilies in the room. I remember the despair of one of my friends who had asked her to sing, and at the last moment had to sweep every lily out of the room and send frantically for flowers to replace. That was one of the occasions when Melba received £500 for each song.”
Mrs Williams recalled another occasion when she was ill.
“Nellie came dashing down to Coombe with a present of a gramophone and a dozen records. ‘Nothing like good music to make one well darling’, she said.
“The records were all Melba.”
Kingston has another link, albeit a tenuous one, with the forthcoming series of Downton. For Dame Kiri lived lived in Malden Rushett for many years before her marriage ended.
Note: Coombe Court was demolished in 1931, but much of its boundary wall survives in George Road, along with its original entrance and lodge. The carriage drive, which once curved round to the stables now leads to a modern house, but surrounding it is much of the original landscaping.
Coombe Springs was replaced by Lord Chancellor Walk, off Coombe Lane West. The Tudor conduit house that stood in its garden is still there, and is opened regularly to the public.