As a young woman on holiday in Brighton, Winifred Dallas-Yorke was told by a fortune-teller that she would ‘carry off the greatest matrimonial prize in all England.
Her first encounter with her future husband was just as romantic, for each saw the other by chance at Carlisle railway station while waiting for a train to Scotland. The young man (who happened to be the 6th Duke of Portland) turned to his companion, and said, ‘That is the girl I must marry!’ They were introduced some weeks later, both recalled seeing each other at Carlisle, and their courtship began.
They were married in London at St. Peter’s, Eaton Square, on 11th June 1889. With Duchess Winifred as its hostess Welbeck Abbey entered one of its greatest periods as a hub for high society. She and her husband entertained generously. Members of the royal family became friends, and from 1913 until 1925, the Duchess served as Queen Alexandra’s Mistress of the Robes.
Among their many guests at Welbeck were Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (who narrowly avoided death during a shooting party), the Sultan of Zanzibar, and even the King of Siam, who shouted at the top of his voice to his social inferiors and worried the Duke by the closeness of his attention to the Duchess.
She was not, however, a mere socialite. As an animal lover, she provided safe havens for old horses, ponies and dogs. In 1891 she became the first president of the RSPB (though this is not without irony, as Welbeck was renowned for its game-bird shoots and size of the ‘bags’), a vice-president of the RSPCA, and a member of the Vegetarian Society. She supported local miners and their families, providing medical treatment for many, decades before the NHS.
One of the facilities in which the Duchess took a particular interest was the Harlow Wood Orthopaedic Hospital near Mansfield, the land donated by the Duke, the Duchess laying the foundation stone in 1928. Portland College nearby was founded in 1949 as an important residential care provider for those with disabilities. On the 40th anniversary of their wedding, the Duke declared, ‘The best thing that ever befell me was when the lady who is not only the queen of my heart, but the queen of all hearts wherever she goes, consented to be my bride’.
Derek Adlam and a colleague were the first craftspeople to take up a Harley Foundation studio at Welbeck in 1982. Trained as a classical pianist, Derek had turned to the restoration, making and playing of clavichords, harpsichords and other early keyboard instruments. Over time he became involved with the administration of the Foundation, the building of the Harley Gallery and new craft studios. Having mounted a number of Gallery displays of the Portland family’s works of art, he was invited to be the curator of that great collection. Now long retired, he continues his research into Welbeck’s rich history.