Last of the Mitfords: ‘Debo’, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire dies at 94

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THE last of the famous Mitford sisters, the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, has died peacefully at the age of 94.

Deborah Vivien Cavendish and her husband Duke Andrew are credited with playing a leading role in establishing Chatsworth House as a leading visitor attraction.

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire

The Duchess was born into an aristocratic life of privilege, and she and her siblings once moved in the same circles as Winston Churchill, John F Kennedy, Adolf Hitler and Evelyn Waugh.

A spokeswoman for Chatsworth House, the family seat of the Devonshires, released a statement on behalf of her son, the Duke of Devonshire yesterday which read: “It is with great sadness that I have to inform you that Deborah, Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, has passed away peacefully this morning.”

The Dowager Duchess of Devonshire, the chatelaine of Chatsworth House, was the youngest and the last of the famous Mitford sisters.

Born Deborah Mitford in 1920, she was regarded as a soft-hearted child who was often teased by her five sisters Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity and Jessica. But despite her eccentric aristocratic upbringing, Deborah became highly regarded as a successful, practical and hardworking businesswoman.

Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and her son (now the Duke) dressed for the Coronation in 1953

Dowager Duchess of Devonshire and her son (now the Duke) dressed for the Coronation in 1953

In 1941, she married Andrew Cavendish, who later became the 11th Duke of Devonshire. They settled down at the family’s estate at Chatsworth House, Derbyshire, in 1959, and the couple, who had three children, were deeply involved in the management and planning of the 17th century stately home and its grounds.

The Duchess took on a major role in running the house and its 105-acre garden, while maintaining its extensive art collection. She also oversaw a £14m restoration project at the House which was completed in 2012.

The Duchess set up and ran Chatsworth Farm Shop on the estate where she sold local game, meat, eggs, cheese, fruit and vegetables. She was extremely fond of keeping chickens, a hobby she had maintained since she was a child.

Simon Seligman, a former head of communications at Chatsworth House, said: “They (the Duke and Duchess) saved Chatsworth when it looked like it would be lost because of taxes. As a result of her own family background she didn’t know the meaning of can’t or shouldn’t. She had that absolute belief.”

Mr Seligman, who worked at Chatsworth House between 1991 and 2010 having initially been taken on as a cleaner after writing to the Duchess when he finished university, described her as “one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met”.

Paying tribute, Mr Seligman told The Yorkshire Post: “She was fantastically funny, energetic, passionate about things that really mattered, supportive and curious.

“She gave the same level of attention to everyone whether they were royalty, celebrities, a gamekeeper in the gardens, a visitor or schoolchildren because she was so curious about people, and it was absolutely genuine. She was the real thing.

“She was aware she had a very fortunate life and the spirit which her and Duke Andrew had there was come and share the fun we have here at this wonderful place.

“The inspiring thing about working there was when they said welcome they really meant it. She was incredibly good to me.

“She saw my enthusiasm and she helped me set up an educational service at Chatsworth. She believed in me way more than I believed in myself. We ended up lecturing in America together about Chatsworth, the collections and gardens. She was absolutely adored. She filled auditoriums and she was incredibly funny but really sharp. She did her research and wanted to get things right.

“I learned so much from here about how to conduct myself.

“Seeing her in action and her impact on other people was always very thrilling really because she was very charismatic and people were alighted by her.

“I will remember her with huge affection. I owe so much to her.”

Asked about her life on the estate, the Duchess once said: “Well, it’s not peaceful and it very often isn’t quiet, but it is my life, my home and my work - everything I want is here.”

The Duchess also helped to run the family’s estate at Bolton Abbey. She supervised the development of Devonshire Arms Hotel at the Abbey, as well as the Cavendish Hotel at Baslow near Chatsworth.

She was made Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (DCVO) in 1999 and was presented with a lifetime achievement award by Visit Derbyshire and the Peak District in 2010.

David James, chief executive of Visit Derbyshire and Peak District, said: “She has been a great advocate for the tourism board and tourism in general. “She was absolutely delightful, easy to talk to and very interested in what we were doing and in local businesses. She wanted to support local businesses and was keen to see Derbyshire attract visitors.

“After the Foot and Mouth outbreak (in 2001) they (the Duke and Duchess) were the leaders in making sure the visitors came back. Chatsworth House used to close in October but after Foot and Mouth they kept it open until late December. What that meant was that there was an iconic building open almost all year round and it encouraged people to come and since then we have never looked back.”

The Duchess once confessed she was a “devoted” Elvis fan and would rather do anything than go the opera. She even bought an Elvis phone from the singer’s Memphis home, Graceland.

In 2002, the Duchess and her husband opposed the Government’s proposed ban on fox hunting, saying they would be prepared to break the law to allow the sport to continue on their estate.

The Duchess’s life seemed a world apart from that of her sisters.

Diana Mitford, who died in August 2003, gained notoriety when she married British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley. Unity (1914-48) developed an obsession with Hitler and migrated to Germany. She shot herself in the head when war was declared but survived another nine years.

Another sister, Jessica (1917-96) eloped to the Spanish Civil War with her cousin, Esmond Romilly, while Nancy ((1904-73) became a bestselling novelist. Pamela (1907-94) led the quietest life.

Their brother, Tom, died in Burma at the end of the Second World War.

When her husband died in 2004, her son inherited the Dukedom and she became the Dowager Duchess of Devonshire.