Houston, Lucy (1858–1936)
Houston, Lucy (1858–1936)
English philanthropist whose concerns included the defense of London. Name variations: Lady Houston; Dame Fanny Houston. Born Fanny Lucy Radmall in 1858 (some sources cite 1857) in Camberwell, southeast of London (at the time of her death, the Times placed her birth in St. Margarets, Twickenham); died on December 29, 1936; married Theodore Brinckman (a future baronet), in 1883 (divorced 1895); married George Gordon, 9th Lord Byron, in 1901 (died 1917); married Sir Robert Paterson Houston, in 1924 (died 1926).
Dame Lucy Houston was born in 1858 and grew up on the fringe of Victorian England; her father was a maker of boxes. Houston always maintained that she began her career at age 11 as an "actress and ballet dancer"; others thought not. By age 16, she was in Paris, being tutored by Madame de Polès , a hostess skilled in the art of money—investing, divesting, and acquiring. Back in London in 1883, Houston dabbled with
the women's suffrage movement, and, at age 25, married Theodore Brinckman. The union lasted 12 years until their divorce in 1895. In 1901, she married and settled in Hampstead with George, the 9th Lord Byron, also known as "Red-Nose George." Unfortunately, George was not the most disciplined of men.
Lucy was becoming increasingly involved in the suffrage movement. It has been written that she bought 615 parrots and taught them all to shriek "Votes for Women!" An eccentric, she also took to carrying a handbag stuffed with £5 notes, reports Alen Jenkins, "because she liked talking to tramps, whom she would reward with money and a little screech of laughter—'Mind you don't spend it all on drink.'" Lucy Houston was made a Dame of the British Empire (DBE) in 1917 for founding a rest home for nurses during World War I.
Following Lord Byron's death that same year, 60-year-old Houston turned her attention to 65-year-old Sir Robert Paterson Houston, a Liverpool shipowner and robber baron. They were eventually married in 1924. Two years later, Sir Robert died, and Lucy Houston was bequeathed four-fifths of his fortune (between £6 and £7 million); she promptly moved to the island of Jersey to avoid income tax. When a few socialist MP's complained that she owed death duties on her husband's estate, she invoked her Jersey location. But she did hand the chancellor of the exchequer a personal gift of £11/2 million because she admired him. The chancellor, Winston Churchill, was more than happy to receive the check to be used for the defense of England.
By then Houston's politics had veered to the extreme right: one of her friends was editor of an anti-Semitic review and Benito Mussolini was a personal hero. She set up an information bureau about Socialists and some Labour MPs to show that they were unpatriotic and published the results as Potted Biographies: A Dictionary of Anti-National Biography.
Houston offered then Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald £200,000 to defend London against enemy attacks. When he turned her down because of the strings she had attached, Lucy installed a six-foot high electric sign on her yacht, Liberty, which read "TO HELL WITH RAMSAY MACDONALD" as it cruised along the Thames. She bought the weekly Saturday Review and made a dramatic changeover. "There was perhaps a hard core of fascist-minded readers who took it seriously," writes Jenkins; "but the great majority of its 60,000 purchasers … bought it for uproarious amusement."
After the 1935 election Stanley Baldwin was prime minister and there were long missives to Downing Street from Lucy Houston. She had written Hitler saying, "Join Britain in an alliance and we will crush Russia," and wanted Baldwin's approval for her effort. She demanded he fight socialism, rearm against Germany, and pull out of the League of Nations; she also took on the new head of the Foreign Office, Anthony Eden, who championed the League.
With the threat of war, Houston sent another check for £200,000 to the chancellor of the exchequer, now Neville Chamberlain, to buy fighter planes to defend London. But Britain still believed that bombers would save the nation, not fighter planes. When it came to aviation, however, Lucy Houston was ahead of her time. In 1931, she had financed the struggling Schneider Trophy wherein seaplanes competed over water. It was an important competition which spurred development of new high-speed aircraft. She also financed Lord Clydesdale's flight over Mt. Everest in 1933 to great fanfare. Without Houston's involvement, there might never have been a fighter plane dubbed a Spitfire, and Spitfires would win the Battle of Britain, earning Houston the titles "Fairy Godmother of the RAF" and "The Woman who Won the War." But Lucy Houston did not live to see this. She died on December 29, 1936, leaving all her money to her friend Juliana Hoare , aunt of one of Lucy's political targets, Sir Samuel Hoare, first lord of the admiralty; Juliana, however, had predeceased Lucy by ten months. In 1958, on the centenerary of Houston's birth, Lord Tedder, marshal of the RAF, publicly regretted that the white cliffs of Dover lacked a monument to Lucy Houston.
Jenkins, Alan. The Rich Rich: The Story of the Big Spenders. NY: Putnam, 1978.