James Lees-Milne

(George) James Henry Lees-Milne (6 August 1908 – 28 December 1997) was an English writer and expert on country houses, who worked for the National Trust from 1936 to 1973. He was an architectural historian, novelist and biographer. His extensive diaries remain in print.

James Lees-Milne
James Lees-Milne.jpg
Born(1908-08-06)6 August 1908
Died28 December 1997(1997-12-28) (aged 89)
EducationLockers Park School
Eton College
Alma materMagdalen College, Oxford
OccupationArchitectural historian, novelist, biographer
m. 1951; her death 1994)
Parent(s)George Crompton Lees-Milne
Helen Christina Bailey

Early lifeEdit

Lees-Milne was born on 6 August 1908 at Wickhamford Manor, Worcestershire. His biographer Michael Bloch observed that in Another Self, Lees-Milne "conveys the impression that he hailed from an old county family and that Wickhamford was their native seat. This was not quite the case. ... His father ... had bought Wickhamford, and moved from Lancashire to Worcestershire, only two years before Jim's birth."[1] He was the second of three children and elder son of prosperous cotton manufacturer and farmer George Crompton Lees-Milne (1880–1949) and his wife Helen Christina (1884–1962), a daughter of Henry Bailey, J.P., D.L., of Coates, Gloucestershire. Lees-Milne's maternal grandfather was Sir Joseph Bailey, 1st Baronet, and his uncle, Joseph Bailey, the second baronet, was later created Baron Glanusk.

George Lees-Milne, formerly a lieutenant in the Cheshire Yeomanry, was chairman of the family business A. and A. Crompton & Co. Ltd, deriving his fortune mainly from a Lancashire cotton mill[2][3] Lees-Milne's parents were a "curiously contrasting couple"; his father, "shy but steady", was "conventional in outlook" with a "predilection for gambling and philandering", "obsessively punctual and constantly making plans", in contrast to his wife, "uninhibited with a streak of mental instability ... which ran in the Bailey family and which [Lees-Milne] always feared might lurk in himself" – she was "unconventional", "whimsical and impulsive"; where "she had a sense of humour, he had none". An exaggerated portrait of his parents, presenting them as "a pair of ludicrous eccentrics", appears in Another Life.[4] Lees-Milne's sister Audrey, who was born in 1905, later married Matthew Arthur, 3rd Baron Glenarthur. His younger brother Richard was born 1910.[5]

The Lees-Milne family were a branch of the Lees family that later came to own Thurland Castle, Lancashire, having owned an estate called Clarksfield near Oldham since the reign of James I. They were "a rough lot" (Lees-Milne suggested their motto ought to have been "Sport and Booze"), and although the discovery of coal on their land increased their wealth, this "did not civilise them" – Lees-Milne's great-grandfather, Joseph Lees, was "one of three barely-literate brothers ... known, after their respective obsessions, as Nimrod, Ramrod and Fishing Rod". They were connected by marriage to two "slightly grander" families – the Cromptons of Crompton Hall, and the Milnes of Park House.[6][7] The name Milne was added by royal licence in 1890 by Lees-Milne's grandfather James (the first of the family to attend Eton) in order to inherit the estate of a maternal relative. A pillar of the Conservative party in Oldham, supporting Winston Churchill's candidacy, this James Lees-Milne was said to have refused a baronetcy (which would have come to his grandson, James) on the grounds that it might oblige him to make public speeches.[8] The estate thus acquired included Crompton Hall, Lancashire, which alongside Wickhamford Manor was owned by George Crompton Lees-Milne. (He eventually sold both properties, but the former remained in the family).[9][10][11][12]

Lees-Milne attended Lockers Park School in Hertfordshire, Eton, and Magdalen College, Oxford,[13] from which he graduated with a third-class degree in history in 1931.[14]


From 1931 to 1935, he was private secretary to the 1st Baron Lloyd.[10][15] In 1936 Lees-Milne was appointed secretary of the Country Houses Committee of the National Trust.[10] He held the position until 1950, apart from a period of military service from 1939 to 1941. During his tenure he was a regular contributor to the Trust's members' newsletter. He was instrumental in the first large-scale transfer of country houses from private ownership to the Trust. He resigned his full-time position in 1950, but continued his connection with the National Trust as a part-time architectural consultant and member of committees.


From 1947 Lees-Milne published several architectural works aimed primarily at the general reader. He was also a diarist – his witty, waspish and extensive diaries appeared in twelve volumes and were well received. Larry McMurtry commented that Lees-Milne, like Pepys and Boswell, was disarmingly open about his failings – indeed, would not have known how to go about concealing them.[16] Nicholas Birns notes that Lees-Milne spoke "so candidly about himself, his life, and his love of art and architecture that his authorial relationship with the reader becomes a privileged one, not to be readily or casually communicated, not to be flaunted or brandished."[17]

Lees-Milne also wrote other works, including several biographies – for instance of Harold Nicolson, The Bachelor Duke of Devonshire, and Lord Esher — and an autobiographical novel.

In 1993 Lees-Milne declined a CBE in the New Year's Honours list, considering it inadequate recognition compared with the knighthood he felt was his due.[18]

Personal lifeEdit

Lees-Milne was visiting Diana Mitford in December 1936 when King Edward VIII abdicated. The purpose of his visit there was to examine the 17th-century house that she and her husband Sir Oswald Mosley were then renting. He recorded later how he and Diana (her husband was in London) had listened to the King's broadcast abdication speech with tears running down their faces. He was the lover of her brother Tom Mitford when they were at Eton College together, and was devastated when Tom was killed in action in Burma in 1945. Lees-Milne was friends with many of the prominent British intellectual and social figures of his day, including Nancy Mitford, Harold Nicolson, Diana Mitford (a former lover about whom he wrote a two-volume biography), Clementine Hudson (the Banbury aristocrat), Levi Schmeevi and Cyril Connolly.

In 1951, he married Alvilde, Viscountess Chaplin, née Bridges, a prominent gardening and landscape expert.[10] Both Lees-Milne and Alvilde were bisexual, and Alvilde is reputed to have had lesbian affairs with Vita Sackville-West, Winnaretta Singer and others.[19]

Alvilde Lees-Milne died in 1994. Lees-Milne died in hospital at Tetbury on 28 December 1997.[10] His ashes and those of his wife, Alvilde, were scattered in the grounds of Essex House.


After 13 years at Alderley Grange, Wotton-under-Edge, Gloucestershire,[20] and a brief period in Bath, he and Alvilde lived after 1974 at Essex House on the Badminton estate, also in Gloucestershire, while he worked most days in William Thomas Beckford's library at Lansdown Crescent. While living in Badminton he entered into a feud with his landlord, the 10th Duke of Beaufort, whose foxhunting passion and autocratic manner appalled him. After Alvilde Lees-Milne's death, however, the Beauforts offered to allow him to live at Essex House rent free. Although touched, Lees-Milne valued his independence and possessed the income to pay rent and did not accept this offer, nor that of his friends, the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire, to live as a permanent guest at Chatsworth.[21] As a Trustee of the Bath Preservation Trust, he became a Founding Trustee of its Beckford's Tower Trust, established in 1977 to preserve and maintain the building and its collection for public benefit.

In popular cultureEdit

A series of three plays inspired by Lees-Milne's diaries – Sometimes into the Arms of God, The Unending Battle and What England Owes – were broadcast by the BBC in July 2013.[22]

Selected bibliographyEdit

  • The Age of Adam (1947)
  • The Tudor Renaissance (1951)
  • The Age of Inigo Jones (1953)
  • Roman Mornings (1956)
  • Earls of Creation: Five Great Patrons of Eighteenth-Century Art (1962)
  • St Peter's: The Story of Saint Peter's Basilica in Rome (1967)
  • English Country Houses: Baroque, 1685–1715 (1970)
  • Another Self (1970), an autobiographical novel
  • William Beckford (1976)
  • Round the Clock (1978)
  • Harold Nicolson: A Biography, 2 vols. (1980–1981)
  • Images of Bath illus by David Ford (1982)
  • The Last Stuarts: British Royalty in Exile (1984)
  • The Enigmatic Edwardian: The Life of Reginald, 2nd Viscount Esher (1986)
  • Some Cotswold Country Houses: A Personal Selection (1987)
  • Venetian Evenings (1988)
  • The Bachelor Duke: A Life of William Spencer Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire, 1790–1858 (1991)
  • People and Places: Country House Donors and the National Trust (1993)
  • Ruthenshaw (1994), fiction, a ghost story
  • Fourteen Friends (1996)
  • Diaries:
    • Ancestral Voices (1975)
    • Prophesying Peace (1977)
    • Caves of Ice (1983)
    • Midway on the Waves (1985)
    • A Mingled Measure (1994)
    • Ancient as the Hills (1997)
    • Through Wood and Dale (1998)
    • Deep Romantic Chasm (2000)
    • Holy Dread (2001)
    • Beneath a Waning Moon (2003)
    • Ceaseless Turmoil (2004)
    • The Milk of Paradise (2005)


  1. ^ James Lees-Milne – The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, p. 1.
  2. ^ James Lees-Milne, The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, p. 1.
  3. ^ Capitalism, Culture and Decline in Britain: 1750–1990, W. D. Rubinstein, Routledge, 1993, p. 127.
  4. ^ James Lees-Milne – The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, p. 8.
  5. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, ed. Peter Townend, 1965, "Lees-Milne formerly of Wickhamford Manor" pedigree.
  6. ^ James Lees-Milne – The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, pp. 1–2.
  7. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 3, ed. Hugh Montgomery-Massingberd, 1972, "Lees formerly of Thurland Castle" pedigree.
  8. ^ James Lees-Milne – The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, p. 2.
  9. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, ed. Peter Townend, 1965, 'Lees-Milne formerly of Wickhamford Manor' pedigree.
  10. ^ a b c d e Fergusson, James (29 December 1997). "Obituary: James Lees-Milne". The Independent. Retrieved 10 July 2013.
  11. ^ Fergusson, James (2004). "Milne, (George) James Henry Lees (1908–1997), architectural historian and conservationist. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography". doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/68798.
  12. ^ "LEES-MILNE Family – Pictorial record of the Lees-Milne Family and Staff at Wickhamford Manor | the Badsey Society".
  13. ^ Burke's Landed Gentry, 18th edition, vol. 1, ed. Peter Townend, 1965, "Lees-Milne formerly of Wickhamford Manor" pedigree.
  14. ^ Oxford University Calendar 1932, Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1932, p. 299.
  15. ^ James Lees-Milne, Ancestral Voices (London: Chatto & Windus, 1975), p. 6 n1.
  16. ^ Larry McMurtry, Out of the Mists The New York Review of Books
  17. ^ The Worcestershire grumbler: the writings of James Lees-Milne, diarist and man of letters
  18. ^ "Cabinet Office list of honours declined by since deceased persons, 1951–1999" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2 February 2012. Retrieved 24 January 2012.
  19. ^ Review of Diaries, 1971–1983 by James Lees-Milne, Sunday Express Retrieved 18 November 2007.
  20. ^ Michael Bloch: "James Lees-Milne – The Life".
  21. ^ James Lees-Milne– The Life, Michael Bloch, John Murray, 2009, p. 343.
  22. ^ "Afternoon Drama, James Lees-Milne". BBC. Retrieved 10 July 2013.


External linksEdit