OUR LOST LITTLE BOY; Emma Tennant Stumbled on a Long-Buried Family Secret When She Discovered That Her Grandmother Had Lied about an Adopted Child. Her Quest for the Truth Uncovered an Extraordinary Edwardian Scandal
Tennant, Emma, The Mail on Sunday (London, England)
Byline: EMMA TENNANT
Picture the scene: the lawn at Wilsford Manor, at the foot of Salisbury Plain with the River Avon flowing through the garden, on a hot July afternoon in 1915. The house, newly built but looking romantically old, with its ancient stone and a mass of pink roses climbing under mullioned windows.
water's edge, yellow flag irises grow among the reeds.
My grandmother, Pamela (Lady Glenconner),
Glenconner), decides to while away this idyllic afternoon by recording the weights of her family. The big iron scales are brought out on to the lawn, along with a lined pad for her to write on. Nanny Trusler, the nurse whom, my father once told me, he had loved more than his
mother, is there too. The children, for all that they were Pamela's 'jewels', only visited their parents after tea and Nanny was always on hand to whisk them off upstairs. On the pad, my grandmother scribbled the names of the two Tennant children who were present that day next to their weights: David (who founded London's notorious Gargoyle Club) and Christopher (my father, who was sent off to the Navy at Dartmouth at 12 years old). Then Madeleine Wyndham, affectionately known as 'Gan-Gan', who was
my great-grandmother, and Edward, my grandfather who, at 9st 8lb was, surprisingly, the same weight as Gan-Gan; and then Roly the dog.
I visualised this touching scene as I pored over a copy of the chart that my grandmother wrote almost 90 years earlier. Then, near the foot of the list, a name in my grandmother's spidery handwriting stood out.
Why hadn't I noticed it before?
'Oliver 2st 4lb,' it said.
This was Oliver Hope, the baby we had always been told was adopted by my grandmother in 1916 from Salisbury Infirmary after the death of her best-loved eldest son Edward (or Bim, as everyone called him) on the Somme. The story goes that the despairing Pamela, beside herself with grief, walked into the hospital and declared: 'I've lost my baby.
Have you got one for me?' But the weight chart had been written in 1915, well before Bim's death, and she couldn't have adopted a newborn baby in 1916 if the child already weighed more than 2st in 1915.
Something odd was going on here.
A secret had been buried and I wanted to know what it was.
I always knew there had been another child, Oliver, in the family and had believed the story of my grandmother's return from the infirmary with an adopted baby. Why should I have doubted it? 1916 had been a painful year for Pamela. She had given birth to a stillborn daughter, Hester, in March and six months later Edward was felled by a sniper.
I would wonder about Oliver from time to time - but I didn't feel I had to solve the mystery of his origins.
Yet now I know the story cannot be true, the enigma surrounding the 'lost brother' Oliver and where he came from haunts me. This is the story of my search for Oliver. My grandparents, Pamela and Eddy, were Lord and Lady Glenconner at the time of this story. (Eddy, born Edward Tennant, was made a peer by his brother-in-law, Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, in 1911.) They built Wilsford Manor in the early years of the century and Pamela loved the place. Her life should have been happy. She and Eddy were rich (he had Glen, a turreted castle in the Borders of Scotland, as well, and there was a town house in Queen Anne's Gate).
Pamela was also a beauty, selfannounced as 'unworldly' in an age of glitter and greed not so far removed from our own - and she wrote books of poetry and stories for children. The villagers at Wilsford liked the Lady of the Manor; and in London she was widely admired.
Yet there is evidence that my grandmother was far from happy in her life with my grandfather. She developed a close relationship with the politician Edward Grey, the First World War Foreign Minister, and there have been suggestions within the family that the three formed a discreet menage a trois at Wilsford. …