Margery Barber, my great aunt, died in the early hours of July 4, 1965, in a narrow iron bed in the one room flat she shared on the outskirts of Simferopol in Crimea. She was 77. A distaff member of the Guinness brewing and banking dynasty, she had been living in Russia without break since 1922. We knew her health was failing so my father went out to see if she wanted rescuing. Delayed by Soviet bureaucrats — he was, after all, a Western journalist employed by a thoroughly hostile newspaper, London’s Sunday Telegraph — he finally lucked into an Intourist guide who knew someone who knew her. She had been dead for a couple of days. Grieving friends showed him her flat, shared their memories and took him to the freshly covered grave.
Some years earlier he had taken custody of what was known in the family as the Margery Book, a journal of her adventures which her father kept between her first departure from England in 1913 and his death in 1928. The four volumes contained her letters home with commentary, photos, drawings and a variety of news clippings for context. She had also written a brief memoir of her own in 1919, “An English Nurse in Bolshevik Russia”. Add in testimony from family, friends and former colleagues and there was plenty of material for a biography, but when publishers didn’t bite, it went into a box. The problem, my father thought, was that the story had the wrong ending — what the market wanted at that Cold War moment was an inside account of the horrors of Soviet socialism. Of those Margery seemed to have been adamantly unaware. Had her nephew lived to see retirement, he would have revisited the project, but he didn’t. So I inherited it.
Let’s begin with the union that brought Margery into the world.
The Reverend Robert Barber and Adeline Guinness were wed on July 30, 1884, at St Saviour’s Church, Pimlico, up the street from 87 St. George’s Square, the London address to which Adeline’s father had moved his three daughters and six sons (with a seventh in the offing) from Dublin ten years earlier. The ceremony was performed by Reverend Arthur Guinness Livingstone, son of Adeline’s great aunt Henrietta and vicar of Mildenhall, Essex. Robert was Arthur’s curate, which is how the couple met. She knew she had found her man, she would say, when she saw him volunteer to dig an aged parishioner’s potatoes.
The couple received 154 gifts, the press was told. Adeline’s father, Richard, who was busy growing his late father’s bank, Guinness Mahon, beyond its Irish base, and who at his death in 1915 would leave an estate valued at £454 219 14s. 3d. — $75 million or thereabouts in today’s money — gave the couple a piano. Sir Samuel and Lady Ferguson (he a politician and poet rated by Yeats among Ireland’s literary giants, she a Guinness aunt), contributed a “large salver”. They had presented Adeline to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, Queen Victoria’s proconsul, at Dublin Castle the year before. Lord Ardilaun from the brewing side of the Guinness clan was good for a necklace. Sir Gustavus Hume, who was wounded in the Crimean War and then took part in the siege of Lucknow, gave “an Indian tablecloth”, perhaps a trophy from the latter adventure. Servants at the Mildenhall vicarage chipped in for a silver butter knife. From downstairs at 87 St Georges Square came a lamp.
Reverend Robert was the second child of Reverend Richard, vicar of Riseley, who in turn was the first child of Reverend William, vicar of Duffield and Muggington. And so on, it would seem, back to Adam. Soul-craft was in the blood. Of Robert’s six younger siblings, two of the three boys, Richard and Edward, were also ordained as Anglican priests. The third, Frederick, joined the Oxford Mission to Calcutta as a lay brother. Richard was a prison chaplain. Edward served as Anglican chaplain in Biarritz and Cairo, played soccer for several forbears of today’s professional sides, and was a huge hit at parties for his comic turns, but also, it was said, a kleptomaniac prone to trousering his hosts’ objets. Frederick, a useful shot and welcome weekend guest at country houses, cut a dapper figure at Trinity College, Cambridge, landing a job with Hoare, Miller and Co., consulting engineers, which took him to India where the Barber genes kicked in. In Calcutta he moved between the very high and the very low (as in other settings would his niece Margery). In 1891, the Viceroy invited him to a ball to meet the future Tsar Nicholas II. His work among the poor destroyed his health.
Robert attended Tonbridge, one of those private institutions the English call public, from which he won a scholarship to Magdelene College, Cambridge, where, like his great-grandson at King’s, he proceeded to earn the sort of degree one gets for simply having been there. He was a keen oarsman and perhaps, again like me, he spent too much time on the river. Ordained in 1879, he would be a moveable priest, called to eight livings before his retirement in 1919. All were within 50 miles of Ely whose Norman cathedral looms over the fens north of Cambridge and is visible from the village of Chippenham where he and Adeline stayed longest and where their three children, Arthur, Margery and Clement, born in 1885, 1887 and 1892 respectively, would spend their formative years.
Robert was a keen gardener. His sweet peas, cauliflower, cabbage and rhubarb won prizes at the Chippenham and Snailwell Horticultural Society annual fete. He collected butterflies and moths, liked to sketch and could give a serviceable lecture on astronomy, or wield a cricket bat, when called upon. A niece remembered him as “an austere scholar who used to knock loudly on people’s bedroom doors to get them up for church.” To my father, on the other hand, he was “a very lovable and quite unworldly man”. His published works included a children’s guide to the catechism, a history of Chippenham from pre-Roman times and a life of Abbot Samson of Bury St. Edmunds, a 12th century prelate, composed in the meter of Longfellow’s Hiawatha and based on the chronicle of Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk. In his preface to the 1000-line poem, Robert thanked Lord Iveagh, another Guinness beer baron, for his “generous patronage”.
Adeline left fewer traces than her husband. That seems have been with way with Guinness women of her generation. Their male siblings went into the family racket, acquired titles and stately homes, and worried about their daughters getting hitched to gold-diggers. Adeline’s niece Lucy fell in love with a starving Hungarian artist at finishing school in Munich. They were kept apart for seven years. Only when he began receiving commissions from European royalty was he finally permitted into the family. Men of the cloth, on the other hand, got an automatic pass. If Guinness girls couldn’t land rich boys, reverends were deemed a safe and respectable alternative. And, to be fair, there was more to the clan than the pursuit of wealth and status. It had a missionary wing — the Grattan Guinnesses — along with a tradition of philanthropy and deep ties to the Anglican Church of Ireland. There is no reason to suppose Adeline felt cheated when she married Robert even if her ambitions for him may have been a little more expansive than his own. She might pass through the eye of the needle more easily than her brothers, but she was by no means penniless. The Barber household had a butler, a cook, a lady’s maid, a housemaid and a kitchen maid.
Uncles, aunts and cousins supplied Margery and her siblings with ample pathways to God, the establishment and mammon. “I remember Uncle Bob with delight when we watched the procession from the Ritz when ‘Mr. Guelph’ as he called him was crowned or buried, I forget which,” Margery would write. Uncle Bob was Robert Darley Guinness, Adeline’s eldest brother, High Sheriff of Warwickshire and proprietor of Wootton Hall. Mr. Guelph was Queen Victoria’s eldest son Bertie, Edward VII. The Ritz was, well, the Ritz.
When Victoria died, Clement, a chorister at St. Georges, Windsor, the Chapel Royal, sang at Mr Guelph’s coronation. It earned him a medal for which he would be ragged as a young subaltern in the Royal Fusiliers. “What did you get that medal for, Barber?” “Singing in the choir, sir!” He had come home from Canada in time for the war after experimenting with emigration. Guinness relations had offered him a position in Vancouver. He found playing the piano in mining camp bordellos more congenial. Scarlet fever rescued him from the mud of Flanders and landed him on the banks of the Nile where he would remain for 37 years. There he racked up three marriages (the unhappy first of which produced my father) and a second medal, designating him an officer of the Order of the British Empire for “services to the cotton buying commissions in Egypt”. He played and sang amusingly, by ear. His final wife, a piano teacher, frowned on his improvisations. We called her the human pianola.
Arthur Vavasour, the eldest, made fuller use of his connections and become a banker. His youth had passed before the Somme could claim it. He married and divorced a general’s daughter who gave him Lavender Jane and Jasmine. Their mother was lady-in-waiting to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor when the Nazi-sympathizing couple was tidied away to the Bahamas for the duration of the second war. Jasmine stayed on to midwife the babies of Nassau’s poor. By that time, Artie, as his sister called him, had run off with the daughter of Stalin’s erstwhile family doctor. Ekaterina Georgievna Speransky wrote tolerably received crime novels under the nom de plume Kay Lynn, and absconded with the family silver, or so it was said, when Arthur died in 1957. By then he was an object of pity and reproach with a reputation for having been not entirely trustworthy with other people’s money, including his sister’s.
As for Margery, she had her own quite separate love affair with Russia. Her infatuation would be with Lenin, though they never met, and the blessings she was convinced he had heaped upon mankind.