Letter from Piers Dowding

3rd Baron Dowding.

March 2020

“Although he was my grandfather, he has become something more than that, as if the nation has taken him and now he is everyone’s grandfather. For most people their first impression on seeing a photograph or a statue of him is yes, he does look rather austere. In fact, when we were very young my brothers and I were rather afraid of him. He once exploded at my younger brother for coming into his house wearing muddy boots after playing in a nearby building site, leaving a trail of lumpy earth going up the staircarpet.

 My grandmother (we called her ‘Auntie Muriel’) once said to me in retrospect, when I mentioned this episode, “Oh, what nonsense! He was the sweetest person you could imagine!”

We used to go and visit them where they lived in Tunbridge Wells, in an ordinary suburban mock-Tudor house called ‘Oakgates’. For some reason we all referred to it as ‘Oatcakes‘. I rather liked Auntie Muriel’s genius son David who lived there. He had a bicycle equipped with a huge battery from which he ran flickers (indicators) and a walkie-talkie. He would zoom off and follow the Fire Brigade and help them out in some mysterious way.

Grandpa as we called him, (as opposed to my mother’s father who was Granddad), had a red-leather interior MG Magnette which smelt of leaking petrol. He was already pretty elderly by the time I formed my first memories of him in the early 1950s, perhaps just over 70, in life about where I am now. I remember the Southern Railway Battle-of-Britain class steam engine model ‘Lord Dowding’ he had in a glass case, his WWI biplane joystick with that bullet-hole through it, and a blue-and-white ginger jar from his time in Hong Kong. The first avocado I ever tried was there in ‘Oatcakes’, a very odd and rather tasteless thing. They were both early vegetarians, so naturally we were too, during the times we spent with them. I remember everyone discussing his work in the House of Lords, how he had stopped bullfighting from being introduced into Britain, for example. They supported anti-vivisection and fake-fur fashion shows with Michaela Denis, and Muriel founded Beauty Without Cruelty, a sort of forerunner of the Body Shop.

His father was a schoolmaster, AJC Dowding, who first taught at Fettes in Edinburgh and then came to Moffat to found St Ninian’s Prep School, now Dowding House, the RAF retirement home just up the hill. If you look at the fireplaces in the living room there, you will notice the carved legends under the mantelpieces. One says Manners Makyth Man which is the motto of Winchester and New College Oxford where his father went, and must have meant something important to the family. The other says Laborare est Orare which translates to, ‘To Work is to Pray‘. Don’t ask me what that means. It is our family motto even today, and I have thought about it on and off for nigh on seventy years. What I sense, though, is that he lived by those words, as many great Victorians did, his work being a kind of inner prayer, and after his young wife died in a kind of impossible choice scenario, so soon and so sadly in 1919, he dedicated his life to the job at hand, and to the nation. 

The spiritualism that was in fashion in those days would have attracted him to the idea that maybe he could contact his wife. He must have really loved her and missed her. Only two years of marriage had produced a baby son (my father). There is a simple gravestone in the churchyard in Wimbledon which says “Clarice Maud, died aged 27 1919”. Perhaps all of his pain was buried deep inside by the time people began to call him ‘Stuffy’ Dowding.

I like to think that his meeting Muriel in the post-war years allowed him to come out of his shell and relax a little at last.

Many thanks to the people of beautiful Moffat, both young and old, for cherishing his memory like this.”

Piers Dowding, 3rd Baron, Bentley Priory

March 2020