David Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale

David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman-Mitford, 2nd Baron Redesdale (13 March 1878 – 17 March 1958), was an English landowner and was the father of the Mitford sisters, in whose various novels and memoirs he is depicted.[1]

The Lord Redesdale
The Mitford family in 1928.jpg
The Mitford family in 1928
Personal details
Born(1878-03-13)13 March 1878
Died17 March 1958(1958-03-17) (aged 80)
Sydney Bowles (m. 1904)
ChildrenNancy, Pamela, Thomas, Diana, Unity, Jessica, and Deborah
ParentsAlgernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale
Lady Clementine Gertrude Helen Ogilvy
EducationRadley College
Military service
Allegiance United Kingdom
Branch/serviceNorthumberland Fusiliers
Royal Air Force
Battles/warsSecond Boer War
World War I
 • Second Battle of Ypres

Early lifeEdit

Mitford's legendary eccentricity was evident from an early age. As a child he was prone to sudden fits of rage. He was totally uninterested in reading or education, wishing only to spend his time riding. He later liked to boast that he had read only one book in his life, Jack London's novel White Fang, on the grounds that he had enjoyed it so much he had vowed never to read another,[2] although in fact he read most of his daughters' books.

His lack of academic aptitude meant that he was not sent to Eton with his older brother, but rather to Radley, with the intention that he should enter the army. But he failed the entrance examination to Sandhurst, and was instead sent to Ceylon to work for a tea planter.


Redesdale was the second son of Algernon Bertram Freeman-Mitford, 1st Baron Redesdale and Lady Clementine Gertrude Helen Ogilvy. The Mitfords are a family of landed gentry from Northumberland, dating back to the 14th century; Redesdale's great-great-grandfather was the historian William Mitford. His father, Bertram, called Bertie, was a diplomat, politician and author, with large inherited estates in Gloucestershire and Oxfordshire as well as Northumberland. He was raised to the peerage in 1902, and thus his son then became known as The Hon David Freeman-Mitford, although the surname Mitford was more commonly used.[3]

Work and warEdit

In early 1900 he returned to England from Ceylon, and on 23 May 1900 he joined the Northumberland Fusiliers as a second lieutenant.[4] His battalion served in the Second Boer War in South Africa, where Mitford soon joined in the fighting, in which he served with distinction and was wounded three times, losing one lung. He was briefly taken prisoner by the Boers in June 1900 but escaped. In May 1901 he was appointed an Aide-de-camp to Lord Methuen, a senior commander during the war, and on 10 August 1901 he was promoted to lieutenant.[4] He was seconded to serve with the 40th (Oxfordshire) Company of the Imperial Yeomanry,[5] and returned to the United Kingdom in April 1902.[6] After his return, he was back as a regular lieutenant in his regiment in July 1902,[7] but resigned from the army three months later, in October 1902.[8]

For a time his father-in-law employed him as manager of The Lady, but he showed no interest in, or talent for, this. The Mitfords travelled regularly to Canada, where Mitford owned a gold claim near Swastika, Ontario: no gold was ever found there, but he enjoyed the outdoor life. His neighbour Harry Oakes did strike gold nearby in 1912.

On the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, he immediately rejoined the Northumberland Fusiliers. He was commissioned a lieutenant and served as a logistics officer in Flanders, gaining a mention in despatches for his bravery at the Second Battle of Ypres (although there is no available record of this},[9] where his elder brother Clement was killed. With only one lung and by now a captain he was invalided out of active service in 1916. After his father's death in 1916, being now Lord Redesdale, he was briefly appointed Provost Marshal for Oxfordshire, with responsibility for ensuring the enlistment of new recruits. In 1918–19 he served as a ground officer with the Royal Air Force.[10]

Lord RedesdaleEdit

As Lord Redesdale he was often silent in the House of Lords, but joined the House of Lords Select Committee on Peerages in Abeyance in 1925.

Although Redesdale was now a large landowner, he was not a wealthy man: the estates were poorly developed and rents were low. With seven children to feed and five servants to pay, he could not maintain the expense of his large home at Batsford in the Cotswolds. He bought and extended Asthall Manor and then moved to nearby Swinbrook. Here he indulged his passion for building by building a new large house, named after the village, which appears as the family home in the books of his daughters Nancy and Jessica. The expense of these moves nearly ruined Redesdale, who was a poor manager of money. This, plus his increasing disappointment that all his later children were girls, led to the deterioration of his temperament which became legendary through his daughters' portrayals of his frequent and terrible rages.

Political views and family splitsEdit

As a peer, Redesdale was a member of the House of Lords, then a hereditary chamber, apart from the bishops and law lords. He attended the House conscientiously, although he was not really interested in party politics or in legislation, except for being opposed to nearly all change. In the 1930s, however, both he and his wife developed a strong sympathy for fascism, and Redesdale became known for his extreme right-wing views, particularly anti-Semitism.[clarification needed] His daughter Diana, herself a keen fascist and from 1936 the wife of British fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley, described him as "one of nature's fascists", but it seems he never joined any fascist party. As a result, he was permanently estranged from his daughter Jessica, who was a communist from her teenage years, and partly estranged from his eldest daughter Nancy, who was a strong anti-fascist though not as left-wing as Jessica.

Notice of a demonstration organised by the British Brothers League

His wife Sydney's father Thomas Gibson Bowles had been one of the strongest parliamentary supporters of the Royal Navy while he was an MP; and her maternal uncle William Evans-Gordon MP was a retired British Indian Army officer who was opposed to uncontrolled immigration into Britain, was allied to the British Brothers League, and helped to enact the Aliens Act 1905.

Redesdale was an instinctive xenophobe; he came back from the First World War with a dislike of the French and a deep hatred of the Germans. He was widely quoted as saying that: "Abroad is bloody". As Uncle Matthew, who was modelled on Redesdale,[11] put it in his daughter Nancy's novel The Pursuit of Love: "Frogs are slightly better than Huns or Wops, but abroad is unutterably bloody and foreigners are fiends."[12] He was initially scornful of the enthusiasm shown by his daughters Diana and Unity for Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler: Hitler was, after all, a Hun. In November 1938, however, the Redesdales accompanied their daughters to Germany, where they attended the Nuremberg Rally and met Hitler, with whom Unity and Diana were already acquainted. Both the Redesdales were immediately won over by Hitler's superficial charm and his declarations of Anglophilia. Redesdale later spoke in the House of Lords in favour of the Anschluss[13] and of returning Germany's colonies, and became a strong supporter of Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement towards Germany. Lady Redesdale went further, writing articles in praise of Hitler and in support of National Socialism.[14]

The outbreak of the Second World War in 1939 precipitated a series of crises in the Mitford family. Redesdale was above all a patriot, and as soon as war was declared he recanted his support for Hitler and once again became violently anti-German. Lady Redesdale stuck to her Nazi sympathies, and as a result the pair became estranged, and separated in 1943. Unity, who was in love with Hitler, attempted suicide in Munich on the day war was declared and suffered severe brain damage. She was brought home an invalid and Lady Redesdale cared for her until her death in 1948. Diana and Oswald Mosley were interned in 1940 as security risks and spent three years in prison. Jessica's husband, Esmond Romilly, was killed in action in 1941, deepening her bitterness towards the "fascist branch" of the family – she never spoke to her father again, nor to Diana until 1973, although she was reconciled with her mother in the 1950s.

Personal lifeEdit

In February 1904, he married Sydney Bowles (1880–1963), whom he had first met ten years previously, when he was 16 and she was 14. She was the daughter of Thomas Gibson Bowles, a journalist and Conservative MP, who in 1863 had founded the magazine Vanity Fair, and some years later the women's magazine The Lady.

The couple had one son and six daughters, who all used the surname Mitford rather than Freeman-Mitford. On Nancy's birth certificate David listed his occupation as: "Honourable";[15] the girls were known collectively as the Mitford sisters:

Later lifeEdit

In 1945, Tom Mitford was killed in action in Burma, a blow from which Redesdale, already depressed by the break-up of his marriage, never recovered. According to Nancy Mitford's biographer: "Although she [Nancy] was deeply grieved by his death, it did not mean for her, as it did for her parents, that all pleasure in life was over." Redesdale retreated to Inchkenneth, an island In the Inner Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, which he had purchased in 1938. Later he moved to Redesdale in Northumberland, his family's ancestral property. He lived there as a virtual recluse. By 1950, when Nancy visited him, he was "frail and old." He died there in 1958 and was buried at Swinbrook, where three of his daughters (Nancy, Diana and Unity) are also buried. His title passed to his brother Bertram.

In fiction as "Uncle Matthew"Edit

Redesdale is the model for Uncle Matthew, Lord Alconleigh of Alconleigh, in Nancy's novels The Pursuit of Love (1945) and Love in a Cold Climate (1949).[11] In a typical passage from the former: "As soon as breakfast was over, he would begin striding about the hall, bellowing at the dogs 'Come here, blast you! Get off that coat!' Kick. 'Stop that noise, blast you!' – shouting for his loader [gun], damning and blasting anyone rash enough to cross his path."[16] He would keep his bloodhounds in practice by having them track his children. Uncle Matthew also kept a wartime entrenching tool on a chimneypiece that still had an enemy's hair and brain parts on it.[17] Nevertheless, both daughters' accounts make it clear that between rages Redesdale was an indulgent father who loved riding and hunting with his children.

Uncle Matthew was played by Michael Aldridge in the 1980 Thames Television series Love in a Cold Climate.[18] In a 2001 BBC production he was played by Alan Bates (see Love in a Cold Climate (TV serial)).[19]


  1. ^ Jonathan Guinness and Catherine Guinness: The House of Mitford: Portrait of a Family; Viking (1984).
  2. ^ Mitford, Deborah (2010). Wait for Me!. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. pp. 4–5. ISBN 978-0-374-20768-7.
  3. ^ Biographical information from Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford (Hamish Hamilton 1985), chapter 1.
  4. ^ a b Hart′s Army list, 1902
  5. ^ "40th Company, 10th Battalion". Angloboerwar.com. Retrieved 6 March 2014.
  6. ^ "The War – Invalids and others returning home". The Times (36755). London. 30 April 1902. p. 10.
  7. ^ "No. 27475". The London Gazette. 19 September 1902. p. 6022.
  8. ^ "No. 27480". The London Gazette. 7 October 1902. p. 6346.
  9. ^ PRO Kew; file WO 372/14/42889 (Does not exist)
  10. ^ National Archives, Kew, file AIR 76/419; name misspelt as "Redesdale, David Bertram Ogilvy Freeman Wilfred".
  11. ^ a b "A touch of class, by Maggie Brown". The Guardian Friday 26 January2001. Retrieved 11 November 2017.
  12. ^ Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, 113
  13. ^ "British Foreign Policy. (Hansard, 29 March 1938)". Hansard.millbanksystems.com. 29 March 1938. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  14. ^ Selina Hastings, Nancy Mitford, 119
  15. ^ Independent article by Calkin J, 2010; accessed on 25 September 2014
  16. ^ Nancy Mitford, The Pursuit of Love, 28
  17. ^ "'The Pursuit of Love' – Nancy Mitford – Fun Facts, Questions, Answers, Information". Funtrivia.com. Archived from the original on 12 January 2015. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  18. ^ "Photographic press agency and picture library". Rex Features. Retrieved 20 December 2011.
  19. ^ https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0278548/fullcredits#cast
Peerage of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Algernon Freeman-Mitford
Baron Redesdale
Succeeded by
Bertram Freeman-Mitford