The Dowager Duchess of Bedford: ‘I feel much more at home in New Zealand’

by Clare de Lore / 14 May, 2017

Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, then Miss Tiarks, pictured outside her London home on her way to Buckingham Palace for Presentation at Court, marking the beginning of the Debutante Season. Photo/Getty Images

The Dowager Duchess of Bedford, the grande dame of one of Britain’s oldest aristocratic families, has found happiness – in Matamata.

It’s 1957. Russia starts the space race with the launch of Sputnik 1, the Common Market is born, Elvis Presley stars in Jailhouse Rock and a brunette beauty with a sharp brain and an independent streak becomes the toast of London society. The adored only child of wealthy banker Henry Tiarks and actress Joan Barry, Henrietta Tiarks is named debutante of the year. Her picture appears in the social pages of newspapers and magazines, and she’s compared with America’s glamorous Jackie Kennedy.

Henrietta moves to America to further her education but is quickly snapped up by a model agency. Photographed by the likes of Richard Avedon, she is, albeit for a short time, a professional woman, earning a fortune – when love and marriage change the course of her life.

In 1961, Henrietta marries childhood friend Robin Russell, who is the Marquess of Tavistock and in line to become the 14th Duke of Bedford (they were teenagers when he first told her he wanted to marry her).

His bloodline is impeccable and his life appears charmed. Russell, who was born at the Ritz in London, was educated in South Africa, Switzerland and at Harvard in the United States, and is enjoying a successful career as a stockbroker.

Henrietta’s parents, Joan Barry and Henry Tiarks. Photo/Getty Images

The merger of wealth, beauty, tradition and status is sealed with the birth of a son, Andrew, the first of three boys, ensuring the Woburn estate will remain with their direct descendants.

In 1974, Robin’s father, the Duke, unexpectedly decides to leave Woburn and live in France. As Marquess and Marchioness of Tavistock, Robin and Henrietta take over running the vast estate, which comprises the stately home, two golf courses, a deer park, landscape gardens and a safari park.

They are early pioneers of reality television, starring in two series of Country House. They host outdoor rock concerts featuring names including Tina Turner, Dire Straits, Elton John and Neil Diamond. The latter becomes a lifelong friend. In the 1980s, the family tours Canada and the United States with Diamond.

Robin nearly dies after a severe stroke in 1988, but with Henrietta’s care, learns to speak and walk again. She writes A Chance to Live, with Angela Levin, in which she talks about how his near death changes both of them. They spend more time in New Zealand, thanks to their involvement in horse breeding, and increasingly think of it as home. In 2003, after barely six months as the Duke of Bedford, Robin dies after another stroke and Henrietta becomes the Dowager Duchess. Her oldest son, Andrew, is now the 15th Duke.

Sixty years on from her debutante days, the Dowager Duchess lives most of the year in New Zealand. She is well known in horse breeding circles, where she’s described as a “good sort”, but otherwise keeps a low profile. She has homes in Matamata, Central Otago and Auckland. She has been lucky in love again, but prefers her private life to remain so.

She went to two of Adele’s three concerts in Auckland, and is a huge fan of the woman as much as her music. Henrietta describes Adele as “real”, a word she uses often as she explains her life and loves.

Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, in Central Otago, where she also has a home. Photo/Robert Hanson

Henrietta, Dowager Duchess of Bedford, in Central Otago, where she also has a home. Photo/Robert Hanson

So, how was Adele?

By a factor of two, they were the best concerts I have ever been to. They made me think about all sorts of things. As concerts, they were seamless. You know how you sometimes walk into a room and notice a colour – well, you shouldn’t, it should be a harmonious thing. With Adele, everything was done so subtly. There were 50,000 people, but you really felt like she was just talking to you; there might as well have been only 20 people there. She is 100% real; there is no game being played. That is so compelling. While I am sure she has complicated reactions and insecurities, she also has a “give it a go” approach and a confidence that is amazing. There were children there, and people up to 80: everybody feels uplifted by her.

Even the concert with her singing in the rain?

She was soaked. When she said, “I might as well be singing to you from the f---ing shower,” she was just so funny.

Adele must be refreshing considering the class of British society you’re so familiar with?

England still suffers hugely from class [consciousness]. Even more so now, because the older aristocracy have got this fear of adapting to modern life. They feel that if they let their fronts down, no one will respect them. They’ve confused respect and formality for a very long time. It would do them all so much good to come out to New Zealand to learn how to live, and realise people can like you and respect you without having to go, “Yes, Your Grace” and, “No, Your Grace”. I hated that. I was always looking around to see if there was a bishop behind me. Right from the beginning, I found even “Your Ladyship” difficult, so I said, “Please just call me Lady T,” and that stuck. But there is a part of England that is still very different from all of that: Adele is a cockney sparrow, and you find it in Northumberland or Yorkshire or the West Country as well – it’s real, much more like New Zealand. That is what I loved when I came here.

Was your own upbringing mired in class and class distinctions?

Not really. I used to spend my holidays with my grandfather in Somerset. He’d get outside, he would be vaccinating his own cattle and be one of the people. But he could be grand when he needed to be. That still exists in England, but less and less. I am not class conscious and I am not a racist, but in a way, new wealth in England has disturbed everything. New wealth assumes you are in a different position and you have to pretend to be better than other people. If you look back in history, the peasant and the aristocrat always got on very well. It was always the middle class that caused the problems. It hasn’t changed.


You spent decades at the top of the class structure, just a short peg below royalty – so what is it about New Zealand that attracts you?

This is a magical place. If I had no children living in England, I wouldn’t go back very often. As a child, I travelled extensively with my parents, because Mummy wouldn’t go without me and Daddy had to travel a lot. I never ever went anywhere and felt, “I would like to live here.” Within 36 or 48 hours of first coming to New Zealand, 26 years ago, Robin and I were walking down Queen St and he said, “This is quite strange, but if I was told I could never go home, I really wouldn’t mind.” It hit us at once, it is a very, very special country.

Did Robin’s love of New Zealand continue?

When we first went to Matamata, the house we lived in started as a kitset house and we added bits on to it. The children called it our trailer home. The railway was very close to the house. After his stroke, Robin really loved the simple things he had enjoyed as a child. He wanted the house by the railway line so he could watch the trains. When they went by, the house would shake and by the time they stopped one night, he was giggling. I asked him what for and he said, “I’m laughing at how incredibly lucky we are,” and I said, “I know, but what aspect of lucky?” He said, “Just think of the abbey now – where are we happier? It’s here with the railway line just outside our window. You think how complicated the lives of the privileged become as they get older, but ours hasn’t.” He was absolutely right.

You use the word ‘real’ a lot – in what way is New Zealand more real than England?

There are always exceptions, of course, but on the whole, people here talk: they talk about children and what they do. You don’t have dinner-party conversation – well, maybe a bit in Auckland – you talk to each other about things that are really happening in your lives.

What do you mean, dinner-party conversation?

Most of the conversation in England is, “Have you seen any good exhibitions lately?”, “Have you seen any good plays lately?” – although you can’t say that now, because they are all musicals. Every time I go back to England, it takes me, depending on how antisocial I am being, two to three weeks to be “safe” to take out, as my children say. On the other hand, when I get back here, I am fine from the moment I get off the plane. I don’t have to adapt. I feel much more at home in New Zealand than I do in England.


So, have you figured out New Zealand’s own class structure?

I have to be careful because I am a foreigner, but I am amused that most people who live in Auckland feel vastly superior to the rural community. Well, Auckland wouldn’t exist without the rural community. I love it when somebody quite grand says to me, “Where in New Zealand do you live?” and I say, “Matamata,” and they go, “Matamata?” If I said Auckland, that would be fine, but Matamata? I learnt very early that if someone tells you they come from the Wairarapa or Hawke’s Bay, it is to put themselves in a box, slightly apart from others.

What led you into that short but incredibly successful period as a model?

After I came out, there was that Deb of the Year business, which I hated because it was so unreal, so fake. Until you come out, you’re not allowed to go out with anyone. And then you come out, you’re given lots of beautiful dresses and you can stay out till four in the morning – it is potty, barmy. I passed the entrance for Harvard, or Radcliffe [College] as it then was, but Mummy wouldn’t let me go in the end. She had asked the president of Radcliffe how long I could be missing for before anyone would notice. The president said about two weeks and for my mother that was not on, so I went to a junior college, which is a glorified boarding school. I went into a bit of a rebellion.

But modelling saved the day after that short stint at boarding school?

I was 18 and earning $100 an hour in 1959. It was huge. I had my own money. It was fun. My parents had a flat in New York and I stayed there.

This was on the cusp of the sex, drugs and rock’n’roll 1960s – were you part of that scene?

Funnily enough, I have always had quite a strong instinct of self-preservation. I was never very wild. I never wanted to regret anything I had done. I had a very sensible grandfather whom I adored. He died when I was 12, but I wouldn’t think there is ever more than three or four days go by without my thinking, “What would he tell me to do?” It is extraordinary. I have always had great influences and friends – some of them have sadly died, including my parents, and my friends Mary Braga and Ruby Holland-Martin.

Robin and Henrietta, with children Andrew (left) and Robin, at Woburn Abbey. Photo/Getty Images

Robin and Henrietta, with children Andrew (left) and Robin, at Woburn Abbey. Photo/Getty Images

Why did you so strongly resist going to live at Woburn Abbey, despite its beautiful grounds and stately home and wonderful works of art?

We were 34 when we moved into Woburn; it was very young to take on a job like that. While it was an adventure, every night I would leave a note by Robin’s bed about why this was not a way of life. You couldn’t live in a house like this. It wasn’t home. The children were only 11 and 12 when we moved in.

How did you make the transition to the new life easier for yourself and the children?

When we were in Suffolk, we had a lovely duck pond with every type of duck. So I caught the ducks the night before [we moved to Woburn]. I had a horse trailer and into it went all the ducks, and we also had our ponies. We arrived at Woburn like the Beverly Hillbillies. Robin was at work in the City, so it was just the children, the nanny and me. There is a great big lake by the drive, so we stopped the trailer and released the ducks onto what must have seemed to them like the Atlantic Ocean after their little pond. Then we dropped off the ponies. There was a very formal staff, and this very informal woman and her children and a nanny. The staff took the luggage and went into a house that carried on running as it always had. But the children said they could stand in the hall and yell for me and I couldn’t hear them: how could they live like that?

Despite those reservations, you expanded the family once you moved to Woburn.

I had nagged Robin about having another child because I wanted a daughter – he said if we moved to Woburn when I was of childbearing age, I could have one. We were 34 when we moved in and nine months later, we had another baby – another boy. The older boys wrote us a joint letter when James was born, thanking us for having him; they said it was going to make it so much easier for them when they had children of their own. They loved him; James was like their toy.

Neil Diamond with Robin and Henrietta. Photo/Supplied

Did Woburn grow on you or did you look forward to leaving?

As a woman, you have to realise it is never going to be your home. If your husband dies or you are divorced, it is not yours. You are merely looking after it. But I didn’t mind that; I didn’t want it to be my home. I knew it would end at some point. We did that job for 30 years and it was a huge privilege. I learnt a lot: one moment I would be dealing with a Rembrandt self-portrait about to go on display, and the next moment the infertility of a hippo.

Were you able to escape or was it 24/7?

We had a tiny, tiny cottage we used to escape to – it took us an hour to get there and it was in the middle of a beautiful estate. We were not responsible for anything we looked at. When you are dealing with wild animals and incredible works of art and the 500 people looking after all of this, there are times when you just want to get away. Within 24 hours, we were able to cope again.

What inspired the TV series that featured Woburn’s daily comings and goings?

Country House was really Coronation Street set in the country. I remember the first time the people who wanted to make it came to see us, and I thought, “Absolutely not.” Then I told Robin and he said he would like to meet them. We discussed it with our son Andrew and he said, “I can see why you don’t want to do this, but people in this country have no idea about how a big estate is managed. They just think of it as a playground for rich people. If we are serious about what we are doing, you have to do it.” And you know, it was really fun.

You’ve built up a rather special collection of books. What are you doing with them?

Quite a long time ago, I decided that every book I really loved I would have beautifully leather-bound and I would leave these books to whichever grandchild I thought was the closest to me mentally. They are beautifully bound by George Bayntun of Bath and they have my initials on them. They are quite ordinary books, but it is a lovely little library.

Breeding horses in New Zealand. Photo/Robert Hanson

And what are those books?

They include A Walk in Wolf Wood by Mary Stewart, which is one of the best children’s books you’ll ever, ever read. Christopher Trent’s The Russells is the best book about Robin’s family. If you ever want to understand people, read The Territorial Imperative and African Genesis, both by Robert Ardrey – about animals and animal reactions to each other. Henrietta’s House by Elizabeth Goudge was my favourite children’s book and was obviously given to me because of its name – magic. Mao’s Last Dancer by Li Cunxin: I’m not a balletomane at all, but somebody said, “You have to read this,” and I think the most amazing thing is you read about extraordinary deprivation and there is not a moan or a groan; nothing is “Poor, poor me”. It’s more like, “Isn’t it amazing where I’ve got to?”

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, you need to read again now; to think she wrote it in 1962 as a warning to us. The other must-reads on rather an extensive list include Mauve by Simon Garfield, West with the Night by Beryl Markham, Green Darkness by Anya Seton, Frederick Forsyth’s The Shepherd and The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett.

Is there another book in you, given everything that has happened since A Chance To Live?

You know how you sometimes spot a book at the airport and you’re attracted just by the cover or the title? I’m not sure I’d write a full autobiography – perhaps a memoir – but if I do, the title will be The Life and Times of a Violet Cream. They’re my absolutely favourite chocolate.

You’ve lived the society high life in the UK and elsewhere – what makes for a good night out these days?

Arrowtown has the best cinema in the world. There are two cinemas, one with 40 seats and one with only 14 seats, so it is even nicer. You can take your wine in with you. When I am on my own, it’s my favourite thing. I order my pizza before and then pick it up after the movie, and rush back up the hill to eat. I feel very, very, very lucky.

This article was first published in the May 6, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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