Memories of loyal service in a local royal household

Although many of us have become familiar with the inner workings of an aristocratic lifestyle after watching programmes such as Downton Abbey and The Crown, few can say that they have actually lived and worked in a royal household. For many years, there was one such household at nearby Barnwell Manor, the home of HRH Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester.

Born Lady Alice Christabel Montagu Douglas Scott in 1901, Princess Alice was married to Prince Henry, Duke of Gloucester, who was the third son of King George V. As the daughter of the Duke of Buccleuch, she was born to immense privilege; one of her four family homes included nearby Boughton House. Throughout her twenties she lived an adventurous life, travelling in Kenya and Australia before finally settling in the UK with her husband in Northamptonshire.

Among the household staff whose work helped to maintain their lifestyle was Margaret Ledner, now 87, retired and living in Oundle.

Margaret Ledner was born in Hanover, northern Germany. She had eleven siblings, and when her parents could not take care of her, the children were separated and Ledner was sent to live with a foster mother.

Mrs Ledner spent the war years with her foster mother on a remote farm. Her foster mother, however, was unkind to her. “She treated me like you wouldn’t treat animals,” Mrs Ledner said. Despite later living in both France and England – where anti-German sentiment was not uncommon – she said that she never experienced any anti-German sentiment.

After the war ended, Mrs Ledner, found work with the occupying British army near the Black Forest. It was here that she met her husband, Sergeant Frank Ledner, who was her boss. Her job was making various items out of parachute silk. The problem was, as Mrs Ledner said, “He spoke not one word of German and I spoke no English – we had to learn quickly!” They were married in 1952 when she was 21.

After Mr Ledner left the army, they went to France where he worked for five years for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Aras, scrubbing and cleaning the graves. “It was a beautiful but sad place to work.”

In the 1960s, when they returned to England, Mr Ledner found a job at Barnwell Manor, where Princess Alice was seeking a head gardener. A few years later, Princess Alice asked if his wife would work as the Head Housemaid. Mrs Ledner accepted, but only after some negotiating:
“I told my husband to tell the Princess that I would be very happy to take that job but not for less than half a crown an hour. Her Royal Highness told my husband “Mr Ledner, you have a very expensive wife”. The Princess then had to pay all of the staff at Barnwell Manor the same rate.”

Mrs Ledner had a daily routine in the house, and covered personal duties when the Lady’s Maid was away. She would wake up the Princess, open the curtains, run a bath and make her bed. In the evenings she would prepare Princess Alice’s bed, filling her hot water bottle and turning down her bedcovers.

“Before she came down in the morning everybody had to do the work downstairs. Naturally, she expected everything should be perfect and she would make sure there was no dust or anything and the furniture was polished.”

The Princess was a keen gardener, and was very proud of the garden her husband had created for their silver anniversary. In the summer, the Princess hosted her friends and family, and many famous guests came to stay. This included Setsuko, Princess Chichibu, a member of the Japanese Imperial Family. When the Queen Mother came in an “enormous big limousine”, all the staff members would stand outside and welcome her. Every year, the staff would be taken to the Queen’s garden party at Buckingham Palace on a private coach.

Tragically, her eldest son Prince William of Gloucester died aged 30 in a light aircraft competition crash in 1972. At the time of his birth, he was fourth in line to the throne, and the heir to his father’s peerages.

Two years later, the Duke of Gloucester died of cancer in 1974. Before his death, each of the staff went into his room and said a prayer for him. This, coupled with the death of her son, resulted in some very difficult times for the Princess and the staff at the manor.

Mrs Ledner recalls, “It was very sad, losing her husband and Prince William. She kept herself busy in her garden every morning.”

In the early 1990s, Mrs Ledner and her husband retired, and in 1995 the Princess, aged 93, moved from the Manor to Kensington Palace when the upkeep of the household became too expensive. It was reported at the time that seven staff, including the butler, were let go.

Mrs Ledner continued to receive cards with photographs from the Gloucester family, and invitations to garden parties at Kensington Palace. She also received a small annual allowance until the Princess’ death in 2004, aged 102.

Mr Ledner, the man who had swept her up to a new life in a new country, died in 2012. She says, “I still miss my husband very, very much, you know.”

Mrs Ledner remains very fond of the Royal Family and her display cabinets feature many mementoes of her connections, along with family photographs, royal memorabilia and the medal presented to her by the Duke of Gloucester to commemorate the Queen’s silver jubilee.

Robert Brettle
1 December 2020