LIVES – EILEEN MARY ASCROFT
Researched and written by Jeremy Palmer.
Here we tell the story of the journalist Eileen Ascroft, whose childhood memories of Effingham formed the basis for her earliest articles in The Daily Mirror. We look at her career and life, as well as those of her parents Robert and Winifred Ascroft who had associations with Effingham throughout the 1920s and 1930s.
Their first home in the village, from 1920 to 1923, was a property named The Orchard, now known as Orchard Cottage, on Effingham Common. They then moved to a property named Flower Cottage in East Molesey, before returning to Effingham in 1928 or ’29 and moving into a property which had hitherto been known as Norwood Cottage owing to its proximity to Norwood Farm. After 1929 Norwood Cottage disappears from the Electoral Registers but the Ascrofts remained, in a property called Flower Cottage. Since Flower Cottage is also adjacent to Norwood Farm it is reasonable to assume that the Ascrofts had simply renamed Norwood to Flower Cottage, transplanting the name from their previous residence in East Molesey. Flower Cottage is effectively the first property on the north side of Lower Farm Road, as can be seen on the following map:
Robert William Ascroft
Robert William Ascroft was born on August 7th 1890 in Sedgley Hall, Prestwich, Lancashire, the youngest of seven children produced by Robert and Wilhelmina Ascroft.
Robert senior was a prominent Lancashire solicitor and one of the two Conservative Members of Parliament for Oldham from 1895 until his death in 1899. He was an active Parliamentarian and was known as “The Worker’s Friend” after he supported legislation to reduce the working week and introduced a Bill enabling workers to claim their wages in the event of bankruptcy. However he was struck down with pneumonia at his home in Croydon on Monday June 12th 1899 and died one week later. He was replaced in his constituency by Winston Churchill, who won the seat at the second attempt.
Robert William’s widowed mother Wilhelmina would follow her son to Surrey and live for a number of years in Dorking.
Robert William was educated at University College Reading from 1908 to 1913, probably in the Faculty of Agriculture and Horticulture. He saw service in WW1 initially as a driver, firstly with the Corps formed from the Royal Automobile Club, then with the Royal Army Service Corps and then with the French Red Cross. The Reading Mercury, reporting on casualties amongst ex-students, mentioned on August 26th 1916 that Second Lieutenant R. W. Ascroft of the Army Service Corps (Mechanical Transport) had been reported wounded. Possibly this led eventually to his later war service for the Food Production Department as the Head of the Spraying Organisation. In 1917 and ‘18 as Lieutenant Ascroft he gave a series of lectures around the country, including at RHS Wisley, promoting the spraying of potatoes using a device worn on the back to combat blight and other diseases. He was awarded an MBE, presented through his alma mater University College of Reading, reported on March 23rd 1918 in The Reading Mercury. The following September he was granted the Freedom of the City of London in the Company of Gardeners, in his role as an Officer of the Food Production Dept in charge of spraying. Post-war he was appointed Assistant Secretary to the Royal Horticultural Society from 1922 to 1925. While there he had a daffodil named after him, which was described in The Dundee Evening Telegraph (Thursday April 16th 1925) as “a magnificent bloom, richly coloured in a reddish orange and yellow”. He was also listed as a member of The Iris Society (of England) in 1924. He published a pamphlet entitled “The Conservation of the Nation’s Vegetation : The Effect of Smoke on Plant Life” which laid out his argument on how smoke-filled fog was ruining the nation’s flora. ELHG possesses a copy of this pamphlet which is shown here.
Winifred Muriel Eileen Ascroft (née Day)
Winifred Muriel Eileen Day was born on April 21st 1896 in Henley, Oxfordshire. Her father, Charles Ernest Day (born in 1869, married to Bertha in 1892), was either a boat builder or a clerk to a boat builder, as recorded in both the 1901 and 1911 Censuses. The 1911 Census shows the family living in “Brigadon”, Seymour Road in East Molesey. Robert William and Winifred married in July 1913 and in October 1914 they had a daughter, Eileen Mary, born in Reading.
The Ascrofts worshipped at St. Lawrence Church in Effingham and there are records of them making donations to the Church. However by 1929 Winifred had petitioned for divorce from Robert and from 1930 only Winifred’s name appears on the Electoral Register for Flower Cottage. Robert seems to have been working in the West Midlands from 1927, as the organizing secretary for the Midlands division of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution. He would remain in this post until January 1st 1953. During this period he entered three further marriages, the first to Ellen B. Williams in April 1931 in Birmingham North, ended by her death on February 6th 1934.
Winifred re-married in Marylebone in the first quarter of 1934 to a man called Victor Stebbing Allen whose full name appears in the Electoral Register for Flower Cottage, Effingham in 1937. Their names are associated with a number of properties around Surrey and London into the 1940s. The Allen family already had associations with Bookham and Effingham. Victor’s father George had married in April 1907 to Dorothy Silberberg of Bookham Grove, whose sister Gladys would later marry one of the most prominent of Effingham residents, Anthony Diamantidi. Unusually, the Stebbing Allen and the Silberberg (also known as Hayward) families share a gravestone at Great Bookham Church; its two sides are shown below.
During the 1930s Winifred’s name was still associated with Flower Cottage, either via her first married name Ascroft or – when the “Seven Souls in Search of Sanctuary” experiment (discussed here on this website) took place in 1937 – via her second married name of Allen. Winifred apparently commissioned photographs of Flower Cottage in 1936 as well as photographs of her previous residence in Effingham, Orchard Cottage.
The ownership documents no longer exist but it is possible that she and Robert still owned both houses. It seems likely that Winifred’s marriage to Victor also failed in the late 1930s or early 1940s and that by 1940 she had moved to London. George Stebbing Allen took his own life in 1940, following the destruction of his business by German air raids.
From the Millar and Harris Collection, image used with permission of the Historic England Archive
There are tantalizing indications that Winifred pursued her own career. In September 1930 she was recorded as the architect for a proposed new drainage system at Dingle Dell, a cottage to the south-east of St. Teresa’s Convent owned by Mr Robert Calburn (Surrey Heritage /GG/5069/20). Dingle Dell and a neighbouring property named The Haneys now seem to have become one cottage, using the latter’s name. Winifred also published two articles in The Daily Mirror, one (April 3rd 1935) under the name of Mrs Robert Ascroft describing her as “a member of the Women’s Engineering Society” and the other (July 30th 1936) under the name of Muriel Ascroft. Both were on the subject of modern furnishings.
The second of them can be viewed here (as pdf).
Eileen and Journalism
Eileen was the only child of Robert and Winifred. The only known record of her education indicates that she attended the Cliff School in Eastbourne. Writing in The Daily Mirror in her “Sanctuary” column (October 27th 1938) she said:
“The only times I ever really enjoyed at school were those half-hours before supper when we were free to put on the gramophone and dance. My school days were certainly not the happiest time of my life. I had lots of friends of course and I didn’t mind studying but I always loathed the endless rules and regulations.”
She also mentioned going to a domestic school in Germany to learn to cook and become the “perfect wife”. This led to what may have been her first published article, quoted in The Hawick News and Border Chronicle (Friday April 14th 1933):
“The Spring issue of The Flambeau contains an attractively written article by Eileen Ascroft on ‘A German Kitchen’ …
‘The little German maids are tremendous workers. They run the whole house and do all the laundry work and often the baking and bread-making too. They get up at about 5.30am, work hard all day and enjoy it. They are as spick and span as their kitchens, which are the pride of their existence.’ “
When she returned from Germany at age 17 (thus in 1931) her parents threw a “coming out” dance for her. She had already written about this in her Daily Mirror column of February 4th 1938, mentioning that it was in a ballroom in Kew and printing her dance card on which the initials of her future husband, Alexander Mackendrick, appeared three times. Eileen also recollected bunking off with her friend (and later her secretary) Sylvia Lee to a village hall dance in Bookham:
“I can remember we had a very good time and drank a lot of bright yellow lemonade and had very sore feet next day.”
One friend from around this time was John Dunn whose short life and times are described here on this website. Eileen published an appreciation of him shortly after his death had been reported.
Eileen married Alexander Mackendrick on March 24th 1934 at St. Matthew’s Church in Hatchford. However, the marriage had been made in the face of family disapproval, both sides considering them too young (Mackendrick was 21, Eileen 19) and too poor. Mackendrick did manage to secure a job for Eileen on The Daily Mirror and they had one son together, Kerry born in April 1935. They lived at 112D, Cheyne Walk in Chelsea, a flat which Eileen retained after their divorce. In a letter from Kerry Mackendrick he mentioned to ELHG that from 1940 Winifred also had a flat below 112D.
Eileen’s first published column in The Daily Mirror (Saturday July 17th 1937) described the rollercoaster of the first four years of her marriage, including the third year in which the couple had split up:
“I felt that marriage had made a prisoner of me. We had lost sight of all the lovely things we planned and known, and were surrounded with unhappiness. We quarreled more and more, and then in the eleventh month of the third year – I ran away. I thought it was the end of our marriage.”
She describes moving back to her parents with Kerry (this cannot be strictly accurate since by this time – probably 1936 – Robert had long since left and Winifred had remarried) and resolving to rebuild her life. However, the couple managed to rebuild their relationship in 1937 when Mackendrick had his first success in the movie industry. He had been working as an art director in advertising but it was reported in early 1937 (Dundee Evening Telegraph – Wednesday January 20th 1937) that after years of rejections he had sold his first film script “Midnight Special”, written with his cousin and close friend Roger MacDougall.
Mackendrick would later become one of Britain’s greatest film directors, responsible for films such as “Whisky Galore” (1949), “The Man in the White Suit” (1951) and “The Ladykillers” (1955). Interviewed by Philip French for his biography “Lethal Innocence – the Cinema of Alexander Mackendrick” he acknowledged his and Eileen’s immaturity, but also noted Eileen’s “disrupted family background”. This is interesting, as Eileen always wrote about her Effingham childhood in glowing and sentimental terms. Her sentimental views first appeared in her “Sanctuary” column which started in April 1938, and which gave Eileen her first regular appearance in print. Eileen’s childhood – and by extension Effingham – is depicted as an idyllic retreat from the coming horrors of the Second World War. Not all the “Sanctuary” articles were based on Effingham but even in those where the location is unnamed, it could be a mirror of Eileen’s childhood home. Here are some examples – the full pages can be viewed (as pdf) via the button:
From The Daily Mirror, Thursday April 14th 1938:
“There is a stile down in the country on Effingham Common, near my mother’s cottage. There are green fields behind it, and on each side of it. And before it is the common, rolling out in great green waves as far as you can see. I used to go there when I was younger, when I was unhappy. There was something about the bigness of the common all around me that made me feel my sorrows were so small. Many childish woes have been soothed away on that stile. I still go there sometimes when I go down at weekends. It is the friendliest place I know of.”
From The Daily Mirror, Wednesday October 26th 1938:
“If you could put a circle round any instant of time in your life, which would you choose? And my mind went groping back to a summer many years ago. When I was fourteen and young and carefree, I came home for my school holidays to the little cottage on Effingham Common where my mother and father lived. It was a beautiful hot summer, and I ran absolutely wild. Bathing in the river that ran through the woods at the bottom of the fields with only the wild ducks and the wild flowers for company. Playing in the hay with the crowd of other boys and girls who lived near and were also home on their holidays. Eating apples, playing tennis, sunbathing, parties, picnics, river trips—every day was just one long dream of hot sunshine and warm happiness. Iced lemonade, ice cream, the cool sprinkler of the hosepipe on the lawn, newly-born kittens in the barn, these are some of the things that are all tied up in my memory with that lovely month of September. I can remember the day before I went back to school, lying on a haystack on my back staring up at the sun. In my hand was a book, and beside me a small stock of apples. Later I was joining a blackberrying party, and then my mother was giving a good-bye supper.”
The “Sanctuary” series includes a letter to Eileen from Winifred (printed on August 22nd 1938) in which her mother lists her good and bad points, the worst being a lack of gratitude for other persons’ help. It is an oddly brisk and to-the-point article, somewhat different from the others published in the “Sanctuary series” that had attracted criticism for their thickly ladled sentimentality. Winifred also expresses moments of regret such as her lack of opportunity to do good for others.
Eileen had already included other real-life Effingham inhabitants in her writing. In February 1938 she had written an article entitled “Charm Parade”, as a prelude to her “Charm School” series of articles, which used Effingham residents such as the Waterhouses and the Diamantidis as examples:
From The Daily Mirror, Wednesday February 24th 1938:
“A charming hostess is always popular, and people value invitations to her home. She has the art of making her guests welcome in her thoughts, as well as in her words and actions. I think that Lady Waterhouse has this charming gift of real hospitality. Invitations to her lovely country home on Effingham Common are much prized, and all the young people who flock down on Saturdays and Sundays adore her. She makes everything such fun and so homely.
There’s a little house in Shepherd’s Market which I feel like this about. Its mistress is a very charming lady, Mrs. Diamantidi. She has a way of making you welcome which gives you a feeling of coming home rather than visiting. She loves young people and understands them. She knows that the secret of entertaining young folks is to let them amuse themselves. Each year when Colonel de Basil’s Ballets Russes company comes to England, she keeps open house at the week-ends, and the house is always packed. Some of the loveliest times of my life I’ve spent at her house. And it was at her house that I first met Irina Baronova, one of the ballerinas of the Ballets Russes.”
The Mirror had previously mentioned Baranova, the Ballets Russes and Effingham in a piece by their gossip columnist “The Rambler” dated July 30th 1936. Given her links with Effingham it is possible that the photographs and information had been supplied by Ascroft. These articles have a very focused flattery, so Eileen, still aged only 24 in 1938, may have been angling for an invitation to the parties full of celebrities happening right on her mother’s doorstep – as well as a chance to network, they would have provided Eileen with an unequaled opportunity to obtain material with which to fill gossip columns.
The “Charm School” series of articles that followed was Eileen’s first great success. Hugh Cudlipp, her editor and later her second husband, described its genesis in his book “Publish and be Damned”:
“Eileen Ascroft was sent away with a typewriter to the French Riviera for three weeks with orders to return with a complete course of twenty-four lessons on how to be beautiful, charming and popular, or failing that, how to make the best of what God gave you. This series, presented as The Charm School, caused much excitement among the ladies and inspired 60,000 letters from readers in six weeks.”
Eileen later compiled her “Charm School” articles into a book – “The Magic Key to Charm”, being fourteen lessons on how to …
“… build up a whole way of life for you so that you may become more attractive, more desirable, and at the same time a more complete and contented person.”
It was re-published in 2009 with a new foreword by Joanna Lumley.
Alhough Eileen drew heavily upon idealized memories of English villages for her early journalism, at the same time she was beginning a lifetime of exploration overseas. She and her mother visited Tangiers in May 1936 (this was probably during her split from Mackendrick) whilst her visit with him to New York in June 1938 was trailed with a photograph of Eileen that was widely published in American newspapers such as The Daily Record, Long Branch, N. J., June 15th 1938:
“Eileen Ascroft, pretty reporter for the London Daily Mirror, is pictured as she arrived in New York on her first trip to America. She’s here for a brief look at us Americans and will tell all to her readers when she returns to London.”
In 1954 she reported on a round-the-world trip for the Londonderry Sentinel newspaper. Then, in the March 22nd 1958 edition of the same newspaper, she described a visit to Canada’s North West Territories, venturing almost to the Arctic Circle, her second visit to Canada following an earlier trip to Quebec in 1949.
The marriage to Mackendrick was ended by divorce in 1943. She had begun an affair with Hugh Cudlipp while still married to Mackendrick and they had married in early November 1945 at the Chelsea Register Office. Cudlipp was editor of The Sunday Mirror (1937 to 1949), becoming Editorial Director of The Daily Mirror in 1952, Chairman of the Mirror Group of newspapers from 1963 to 1967 and, from 1968 until his retirement in 1973, Chairman of the International Publishing Corporation. Cudlipp was created Lord Cudlipp, of Aldingbourne in Sussex in 1975.
Eileen is described by Ruth Dudley Edwards in her book “Newspapermen”, as “blonde, talented and ambitious”. Cudlipp in his book “Walking on the Water” says Eileen had been sacked from the Mirror by the Editorial Director, Harry Guy Bartholomew, for using his oak office door as a dartboard during a party. She moved to the Evening Standard, where she started the Woman’s page. Cudlipp described how this came about:
“Eileen, women’s editor at the Standard had been trying for months to persuade her editor, Percy Elland, to introduce a woman’s page. After mentioning the idea to (Lord) Beaverbrook, he instructed her to call on the Editor at 3pm the following day. Unannounced Beaverbrook arrived 5 minutes later, shook hands, sat down and told them to go on with their conference. Miss Ascroft explained that she was just about to raise with Mr. Elland the notion of a daily woman’s page, whereupon Beaverbrook stood up, shook hands with the both of them again, said “Do it” and walked out. “It seems,” said Elland with a smile, “that we’re doing it.”
They lived at 9, Cheyne Walk in Kensington. Kerry Mackendrick confirmed to me that Winifred had the ground floor and first floor levels, and he, Eileen and Hugh the upper three floors. Winifred died in 1950. Hugh was a supportive step-father to Kerry but there would be no further children.
Eileen and Hugh on board their boat
When in late 1958 the Mirror Group acquired Amalgamated Press, which included a host of women’s magazines, Eileen was brought into the renamed Fleetway Publications as a director, with the remit to modernize these magazines. There were doubts, however, as to whether as a newspaper-woman Eileen really understood magazines or their readers, and Cudlipp personally disliked the whiff of nepotism in having Eileen now employed by the Mirror Group as well. Professionally, the Cudlipps were now the most successful and powerful couple in Fleet Street. Eileen inspired different reactions. Writing in the New Statesman in 1961, the ex-Editor of The Daily Express, Arthur Christiansen, said:
“The combined powers of Mr and Mrs Cudlipp over the livelihoods of hundreds, maybe thousands, of newspaper men and woman, even benevolently exercised as they have always been, are going to be immense and terrifying.”
Tony Benn recorded in his diary visiting them at Cheyne Walk in April 1958, saying:
“His wife, Eileen Ascroft, is the fashion editor of one of the evening papers. She’s a rather catlike creature, an impression strengthened by tight black slacks, and a leopardskin blouse.”
Ruth Dudley Edwards records other, less favourable responses. Richard Crossman – the author, editor of the New Statesman and Cabinet Minister under Harold Wilson – hated Eileen. Professionally, though, she was well-liked, perceived as highly ambitious for both herself and her husband. The Cudlipps’ marriage is described as “high octane”, whilst extra-marital affairs on both sides were tolerated. Jodi Hyland, who appeared on the scene in 1959 and who would become Hugh Cudlipp’s third wife, perceived the marriage as fundamentally close. Ruth Dudley Edwards also mentions that Eileen had been left a considerable sum from a trust fund, presumably money bequeathed from her paternal grandfather. This respectable family line also contributed to a feeling that Eileen had married beneath her, and had needed to socially educate the working-class Hugh Cudlipp.
Jodi Hyland, who through her editorship of Woman’s Illustrated and then Woman’s Mirror, became a confidante of her boss Eileen, spent a great deal of time with both of them on Cudlipp’s boat. This would ultimately lead to Jodi beginning an affair with Cudlipp after Eileen had stormed off after a marital row. Since Eileen had already confided in Jodi that she was intending to leave Cudlipp, Jodi suspected that Eileen was manoeuvering to bring her and Hugh Cudlipp together anyway.
All this intensity and strategizing came to a crashing halt with Eileen’s untimely death on April 29th 1962. After an alcohol-fuelled party, an exhausted Eileen had driven back alone to their Chiswick home. She then unintentionally over-dosed on a sleeping drug, Carbitral.
From The Illustrated London News, May 5th 1962
under Licence from the Mary Evans Picture Library
© Illustrated London News Ltd. / Mary Evans
The Coroner’s verdict was of an accidental death. Her obituary was published in The Times a day later. Besides describing her marriages and career it mentioned her skills at navigating Hugh’s motor cruiser and how she had learnt to pilot an aircraft during a sojourn in Australia.
There was a strong sense that Eileen had died at the height of her powers. Her obituary in The Guardian said:
“Eileen Ascroft’s death was the more tragic because it happened just as she was thought to be getting into the stride of a potentially most influential job.”
Godfrey Winn, who – as an attendee at the Waterhouses’ parties in Norwood Farm may have known Eileen in Effingham – wrote in The Daily Express on April 30th:
“Other women worked with her and for her. Men respected her for her impersonal, clear-cut attitude but equally admired her for her melting qualities as a woman. Like many very fair women she gave the impression at first sight of being an ice-cold blonde but underneath there was tremendous warmth covered up by layers of shyness. She groomed herself into a first class reporter on fashion. She had learned one lesson of vital importance that so many never learn. She was a real professional. When she became editor-in-chief of all the Fleetway magazines I wondered would the giddy elevations go to her head? I need not have had any doubts. So far from throwing her weight about she behaved with exemplary courtesy, kindness and the understanding of a fellow professional.”