In August 2014 a new exhibition will be opening at Tatton about the roles of the family and servants in World War One. I volunteered to contribute a bit about what Maurice was up to during that time and have spent the last few days going back over my notes.
War was declared on Maurice’s 40th birthday. We always say at Tatton that Maurice was away in Russia at the time and travelled home through Germany, a very dangerous move. A permit issued by the British Ambassador to the German Emperor and King of Russia was signed in Berlin on June 2nd 1914 to allow him to pass safely through Germany and Russia as a British subject. His passport then shows various Russian stamps dating from October and November 1914. I can’t see that passport proves conclusively when he returned to Britain or that it supports our assumption that he returned through Germany. There is a marking “Newcastle 30/11/14” so this could be his return date. A colleague has been working hard with his Russian dictionary to try and come up with something more definite.
There seems to be very little evidence of what Maurice was up to in the early years of the war. We have a few letters from 1917 from an address in central New York, so he must have spent a few months based there.
In 1918 he begins a diary. Yet even his work in the last year of the war is not well documented- the diary mainly covers his leisure time (of which there was lots!) sailing and fishing. He splits his time between Buffalo and Toronto, and later Detroit. Buffalo was the headquarters for the Curtiss Company, begun in 1916 by Glenn Hammond Curtiss to manufacture aircraft for the war. Maurice was the company’s overseer for the H-16 flying boat contract. His knowledge of flight must have been a great advantage to the company. In his book “Airmen or Noahs”, Rear Admiral Murray F Sueter CBRN wrote:
“At Messrs. Curtis’s works we placed a very able inspector and one of the first to gain his pilot’s certificate in this country, Lieutenant-Commander Maurice Egerton. All the date we gained in actual flying experience in the North Sea we passed through Lieutenant-Commander Egerton to the Curtis Co. Consequently, that firm were well up to date when America came into the War, and they built the N.C.4 that the gallant American naval pilots flew so successfully across the Atlantic from Newfoundland to Plymouth. Lieutenant-Commander Egerton must have watched this flight with much interest, as it showed what a firm could accomplish from small beginnings”.
Yet developing the H-16 was a long, slow process, and some men clearly suspected Maurice’s honesty, work ethic and commitment. On May 17th he wrote in his diary:
“Kenyon apparently accused me of having no contracts except the H-16 to look after; and Tucker of getting his car mended free of charge by the Curtiss Co”.
His war work involved lots of time spent visiting factories and “interviewing” various players in the war effort. There was a great social aspect to his work, and he regularly lunched or was entertained by his acquaintances and officers. Maurice considered himself to be “one of the boys” but could be disparaging of those that he felt didn’t fit in as easily. He wrote of Kerstin of the Willys-Overland factory in June 1918:
“Kerston appears to have been a good ink-slinger, but did not mix in with the boys enough and was high handed one day, and the opposite the next”.
Sir Samuel Hardman Lever (1869–1947) was appointed assistant financial secretary to the Ministry of Munitions (Lloyd George) in 1915 and was sent to New York in 1917. Maurice’s opinion of him was clear:
“as hopeless and useless as usual”
On July 11th Maurice went to Rochester, New York, to see a Dope Solvent Recovery process used by the Eastman-Kodak company. After discussing the proposed model for planes, Mr George Eastman, the founder of the firm, personally gave Maurice a tour of the film and camera factories of the Kodak company. We know Maurice was interested in film and photography so this must have been very interesting to him. Afterwards he went for dinner at Eastman’s mansion at 900 East Avenue. Maurice described his extensive grounds as: “quite civilised and homelike” but was most impressed by his beautiful Aeolian organ. Perhaps this inspired him to install one later on at Tatton?
Maurice mixes with the greats but he also has time for the “little people”. On August 30th 1918 Maurice sails to Buffalo on a boat with 994 passengers, 200 of which have no berths. He takes pity on a boy called Freemont Allen and gives him his berth. This sparks a friendship between the pair, and Maurice frequently picks up Freemont on the weekends and takes him fishing. Another favourite boy is Eddie Gillam who he had previously met on a Buffalo-Detroit boat. These friendships were repeated throughout his life with various boys, and probably show that he was most comfortable around children who gave him little trouble and who he could teach and mould.
The accusations of Maurice having little responsibility do have some credibility. Maurice often describes wasted days spent avoiding his duties. On June 4th 1918 he records:
“No particular news. Skrimshanking as usual”.
He spent most weekends fishing or tinkering with Leo, his yacht. He certainly indulged his hobbies, and his life was not completely dedicated to, or overshadowed by the war. Even on working days he often converses about local geography and fauna and flora, suggesting that his mind was always enquiring after possible hunting and farming opportunities. Maurice undertook one long fishing trip, almost like a Summer holiday, to Rice Lake in Ontario, Canada between June 28th -July 7th. As he canoed on the lake war must have seemed very far away. A second trip saw him sailing to Gloucester and sightseeing with a family group (Mummy, Val, Pete and Rusty), which lasted from August 17th-24th 1918.
His fishing trips prove how adapted Maurice was to a rugged outdoor lifestyle that might have been viewed as surprising for someone of his class. On one trip to Lake Keuka, New York, with a friend he boasted:
“Will complained bitterly of the cold, altho (sic) he had on a thick sweater, a thick manckinaw, and a heavy blanket, and I had only a Burberry”.
Maurice also had the time to pursue other pleasures. On July 14th he went to a lecture at Forest Temple, Lily Dale, New York, which was a famous meeting place for spiritualists established in 1894. Afterwards he went to a trance medium:
“also went to a trance medium, who however found that she was unable to get into a trance with me. A humbug probably.”
I’ve seen a few examples of superstitions in his diaries, mainly an interest in different native customs, but as he was on the whole a very practical and non-religious man, this is quite interesting.
On July 20th Maurice found time to compete in a yacht race in his yacht “banshee” in the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club Star Race. He won by 1 minute out of 10 starters. Maurice had been sailing in the “banshee” since at least 1916, and on December 24th 1916 the New York times published that Maurice was so pleased with it that he intended to take it to England after the war to establish a class of them for weekend racing:
“Maurice Egerton, a son of Lord Egerton, who sailed the Banshee of this class all last Summer, is so pleased with the design that he is to take his craft to England at the end of the war and establish a class of them in Great Britain for weekend racing”.
The next day on July 21st he was racing again in the Captain’s Island Race and came in 4th. He also races on September 1st and 2nd. The New York Times also reported the results of the Manhasset Bay Yacht Club Championship Race on September 15th 1918, in which Maurice came fifth in Banshee out of 10 starters. Again, the war must have seemed very far away.
From August 25th 1918 Maurice moves permanently from Buffalo to Detroit to take over the office of a man being returned to England. He calls it “motor work” but is very vague on what he is actually doing.
Maurice makes no mention that the end of the war is near. On November 11th he is on his way back to Detroit after a few days away on fishing trip with Freemont Allen at Orchard Lake, Michigan. He says:
“Got to Freemont’s at 9.30, a little delayed by the Armistice”.
There is no other mention of the end of the war. On January 30th 1919 he writes:
“Closed down my Detroit office”.
He then spends some time in New York visiting friends and shopping before sailing on the Cedric on February 15th 1919. He arrived in Liverpool on February 24th and went to Tatton via Manchester on the train. He only spends two days there, and goes to London on February 26th.
The exhibition at Tatton is due to open on August 4th, the anniversary of the start of the war and Maurice’s birthday. Do come along and see how Maurice’s story is very different to the others!