June 18, 2014

The Real Life Downton Abbey Marriage Scandal

  • -Marriage of officer and stage girl caused scandal during First World War
  • -Roland Winn had to leave Coldstream Guards after marrying 'a commoner'
  • -His bride, Evie Carew, was not recognised at court for years after marriage
  • -Now new details of the union have emerged ahead of radio show on couple
  • -Historians uncover records showing Miss Carew was sister of a miner
  • -Letters Lt Winn sent to his father show him pleading for approval

  • The marriage of aristocratic army officer Rowland George Winn (pictured) and stage-girl Evie Carew sent tremors through British high society

    Britain was the in the depths of war, and in the fields of Flanders, his Army comrades were fighting and all too often dying.
    But for Second Lt the Hon Rowland George Winn it was an affair of the heart which threatened to end his war: the Coldstream Guards officer was forced out of his regiment for marrying a 'chorus girl'.
    The love affair between the future Lord St Oswald and Evie Carew scandalised high society and seemed a timely distraction from the increasing sense of despair in 1915 for a nation which had thought the war would be 'over by Christmas'.
    Now fresh details of the 'scandal' - although Lt Winn would not have seen it that way - have emerged after the full background of Miss Carew were studied for an exhibition on the affair.

    The affair between Lt Winn and Miss Carew was certainly unlikely. 
    Lt Winn had been educated at Eton and Sandhurst before the war was sent into battle in August 1914 aged just 21. 
    The marriage of aristocratic army officer Rowland George Winn and stage-girl Evie Carew (pictured) sent tremors through British high societyHe was given a three-day 'coming of age' party at his family's huge estate before his departure for the front, at which 500 people were entertained for three days.
    He was one of the British Expeditionary Force sent to stop the German invasion of France against overwhelming odds - the British Army in total was a tenth the size of the German one, and was involved in a bloody rearguard action in which eventually it stopped the advance at Mons.
    In November 1914, his family wrongly received the tragic news that he had been killed in action after his name was listed among those of the dead. In fact he was wounded.
    But their grief was caused by a mistake by the War Department, which had wrongly categorised their son's injuries as a death.

  • What exactly happened next is unclear. What is known is that Evie was working as a chorus girl at a theatre, taking part in productions such as Gypsy Love and the Marriage Market.

    She had to work long hours, six days a week for low wages, although there was a glamorous side to the profession - meeting wealthy audience members. 
    It must have been there that they met - and in October 1915 they secretly married at St Saviour's Church in Paddington, west London.
    Shortly before the couple's wedding, members of his regiment had been involved in the Battle of Festubert, in which the British lost more than 16,000 men in an attack on German lines.
    Two months later the union ceased to be a secret, and was front-page news in a series of newspapers. It became known as the affair of the peer and the showgirl.
    Despite reports describing Miss Carew as 'one of the most beautiful and charming chorus girls on the London stage', the union was not received well by Winn's family or his regiment.
    The union caused a scandal in the newspapers of the time, as this cutting from the Daily Mirror shows

    Despite being embroiled in war, the perceived affront to the regiment's association with the royal household was said to make his position untenable.
    As part of the Guards Division, Coldstream Guards officers were felt to be obliged to follow the conventions of the royal household at the time. 
    An aristocrat could not marry a commoner and remain part of the royal social circle; by extension an officer could not serve his Guards commission fully if he had married beneath himself. 
    Amid the growing scandal, the soldier quickly transferred to the 13th Squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, which did not have such strict codes of conduct.
    But he appeared to enjoy his change of path in the military and described his new role in the war effort to his father after he was made Captain in 1916.

    He wrote: 'The Bosch has been dropping bombs round about us, in retaliation for our nightly (and daily) excursions behind his lines with the same purpose – but [we] have dropped considerably more than he (and these much larger than his) and have done him a great deal of damage, I’m pleased to say.'  In fact the change may well have saved his life. He served as a staff officer in the RFC, the predecessor of the RAF, rather than fighting in the trenches as the Guards did. He survived the war - one of a small number who had served continuously from 1914 to 1918.

    It did not, however, end the chill which had affected his social status.

    Because of his new wife's status, the future third Baron St Oswald was not allowed to take her to any official family functions - and for years her name was kept out of all records.

    The affair - which came twenty years before King Edward VIII abdicated so he could marry a commoner - was echoed in a Downton Abbey plot when Lady Sybil married Tom Branson, a 'lowly' driver.

    Little had been known about Evie's life before she met and fell in love with the Lord, with experts speculating that they may have met while she was working at Daly's Theatre in London.

    But research for a new exhibition has unveiled fresh details of the relationship, including that Evie Carew was actually her stage name, and her real name was Nellie Greene.  Researchers studying her family tree have also found she was the daughter of a restaurant manager - making her marriage to a blue-blooded aristocrat all the more remarkable.  The new details have been included in a show about the scandalous marriage at the Winn family's stately home - Nostell Priory in Wakefield, West Yorkshire, run by the National Trust.

    Dr Sarah Burnage, who is leading the project, says as son and heir there was a lot of pressure on Rowland, whose controversial marriage rocked a family already facing mounting debts.
    She said: 'There was a lot of expectation on Rowland George Winn which makes his marriage to a chorus girl seem all the more dramatic and sensational and problematic for the family.
    'We have done some digging here and her real name was not Evie Carew, it was Nellie Greene.

    'We found out that her father was a restaurant manager, her sister married a miner and her brother worked on the stage.
    'We think is her route into acting and working on the stage she was from a very different social class to Rowland Winn.'
    Historians uncovered new information about about the scandalous marriage ahead of a show at the Winn family's stately home, Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire
    Historians uncovered new information about about the scandalous marriage ahead of a show at the Winn family's stately home, Nostell Priory in West Yorkshire
    Commenting on the union, Dr Burnage added: 'It must have been devastating news and such a scandal. His marriage had quite significant consequences.
    For many years Evie, pictured with one of her children, was kept away from official functions
    For many years Evie, pictured with one of her children,
    was kept away from official functions

    'The Coldstream Guards is associated with the Royal household and a rule had been brought in that actresses could not be presented at court.
    'So when he married Evie he was not able to present his wife at official functions. And he was an officer in the Guards so he actually had to resign his commission and instead join the Royal Flying Corps.'
    Letters from Rowland to his father reveal the older man's original doubts at the marriage, causing his son to write letters attempting to persuade him of Evie's 'better qualities'.
    The son describes her as 'anything but the average chorus girl' and says she is 'incredibly charming'.
    Despite that, it appears that Evie was not wholly accepted as her name is not listed among the guests at family functions.  But, despite the shock to his parents, it is believed that they were eventually won over by Evie, who became Lady Winn when her husband inherited his father's title after the war.
    A generation later, the archives reveal that the actress-turned-Lady was immersed in the life of Nostell Priory and the community.

    The couple went on to have two children and archives reveal that the Dowager Lady Oswald - their grandmother - was happy to buy expensive coats for their children, suggesting that the ice had,at least to some degree, melted.

    Lord St Oswald died in 1957 and was succeeded by his son, also Rowland, the fourth Lord St Oswald, while his wife died in 1976.


    1. "Marries an Actress" ?? Scandalous!

    2. I just returned from 8 amazing days in England. Sadly, Highclere was closed to the visiting public during this time. The closest I got was a seeing a sign on the highway, showing the direction to Highclere, as we made our way from London to Oxford.

    3. AnonymousJuly 13, 2014

      My husband, who is now deceased, was English. He was born in East Sussex County, England. One of his ancestors, a great grandmother, married a stone mason, which was below her class as a royal. Because she married a commoner, she was scratched off of the family bible and disowned by the family. The children from the marriage were disowned as well. This took place in the early 1900's. In later years, the granddaughter of the disowned grandmother was orphaned when her parents were killed in a car accident in London. Even thought the grandmother had been disowned, the family rallied to support the orphan, showering her in gifts, money, an excellent education, and restoring her title. She now lives in a flat in Hampton Court. Maggie