Sybil Myra Caroline Grant (nee Primrose)

Lady Sybil Primrose by Lord Frederic Leighton painted circa 1890
Lady Sybil Primrose by Lord Frederic Leighton painted circa 1890.

An original magazine page with photo by E O Hoppe titled 'LADY SYBIL GRANT'. SOURCE: The Graphic, DATE: Jan 1914
An original magazine page with photo by E O Hoppe titled
'LADY SYBIL GRANT'. SOURCE: The Graphic, DATE: Jan 1914

Sybil Myra Caroline Primrose was born in 1879 (GRO: Dec 1879 St George Hanover Square 1a 387), the first child of Archibald and Hannah Primrose, nee De Rothschild. Her father, Archibald Philip Primrose (1847-1929), the 5th Earl of Rosebery, not only had the title of Lord Rosebery but was also a member of the Order of the Garter and of the Privy Council of the United Kingdom. He was a Liberal Party statesman and Prime Minister of the United Kingdom between 1894-95. Sybil's mother, who was known as the Countess of Rosebery (1851-1890), was an English social leader and philanthropist and the daughter of Baron Mayer Amschel de Rothschild and his wife Juliana, nee Cohen. When her father died in 1874 she became the richest woman in Britain.

Sybil was baptised on 19 October 1879 in Christ Church in Epsom, Surrey. The family home was recorded as"The Durdans, Epsom", and her father was recorded as "Peer". On the same day, the Reverend George Edward Willes baptised two other girls: Grace Lovell from West Hill whose father was a carpenter and Emily Marshall from Epsom Common whose father was a labourer.

Baptism Entry in Christ Church Register
Sybil's Baptism Entry in Christ Church Parish Registers.

On the night when the 1881 census was taken, one year old Sybil and her 3 month old sister Margaret Etrenne Hannah, were left in the care of the staff of The Durdans while their parents were at their London home, 107 Piccadilly.

After the death of Sybil's mother in 1890, widowed Archibald and his children were staying at their London home, 38 Berkley Square, when the 1891 census was taken. Eleven year old Lady Sybil's siblings were recorded as Lord Dalmeny aka Albert Edward Harry Meyer Archibald, aged 9, Lady Margaret Etrenne Hannah, aged 10 and the Honourable Neil James Primrose, aged 8.

Sybil's paternal aunt, Lady Leconfield, governesses and the staff from her father and aunt's households mainly undertook her upbringing but despite her father's often long absences from her early years, Sybil remained very close to him. It would seem he was fond of her too as he gave her a present of a silver-mounted child's umbrella. This came up later in auction with the silver handle engraved "Given to Sybil Grant as a child from her father and from her to C.R.A.G. Dec 1906".

Accompanied by her father, who had been commanded to dine and stay the night at Windsor Castle, Sybil was privately presented to Queen Victoria. This "Presentation at Court" or "coming out" would have signalled that she was now regarded as an adult who, as part of Society, could be invited to attended the many London Season's court functions, balls and parties in search of a suitable marriage.

Aged 21, Sybil was staying with her cousins Lord Rothschild and his brother Leopold de Rothschild, and his wife Marie, at their home in Ascott House in Wing, Buckinghamshire (Ascott House is a Grade II listed building set in a 3,200-acre estate). Other guests staying there on the night that the 1901 census was taken were the Honourable Henry White who was the Secretary of the American Embassy, the Honourable Seymour Fortescue who was an equerry to His Majesty, the Earl of Hardwick who was the Under Secretary of State for India, merchant banker Arthur Sassoon and Louise Sassoon, nee Rothschild.

On the 28 March 1903, in Christ Church in Epsom, 23 year old Sybil married into the famous Grant whiskey family by marrying 25 year old Charles John Cecil Grant (1877-1950). At the time of their marriage Charles was a serving soldier in the 1st Battalion Cold Stream Guards based in Aldershot and later carried the title General Sir Charles John Cecil Grant, KCB, KCVO, DSO.

Marriage Entry in Christ Church Register
Sybil's Marriage Entry in Christ Church Parish Registers.

As Sybil grew older she became a famous writer, ceramic designer and an artist as well as being a successful breeder of Suffolk Punch horses (a breed of draught horse), Pyrenean mountain dogs and a rare strain of dog called the Shetland Toys, which without her intervention would now be extinct. A report from the 'Collie Folio' in July 1908 on page 206 reads:
Reading. - A pleasant show in a pleasant town on the banks of "Father Thames." Collies were poor in numbers, and Bobtails were cancelled. The most noticeable feature was the benching of a pair of Shetland Toys, incorrectly labelled as "miniature Collies". These are the first we have seen exhibited in England, and it is satisfactory to know they were entered merely in the variety classes. More pronounced mongrels we have never seen, and certainly they possess not a single feature akin to the Collie, owned by no less a personage than The Lady Sybil Grant (daughter of the Earl of Rosebery), who appears to have been informed that they are a pure and distinct breed, though almost extinct. We were told they represent what Collies were 50 years ago, and are very, very rare. Thank goodness they are, as they possess not a single attractive feature. Spaniels strain is evidenced in both, with, may be, a Scottish Terrier and adjacent branch of their "interesting" genealogical tree.
The Great Pyrenees Club of America's website states "It was not until 1909 that the first Pyrenean Mountain Dogs were introduced into England for breeding purposes by Lady Sybil Grant, daughter of Lord Rosebery. It was twenty-six years later (1935) that Pyreneans were again bred in a kennel in England." One of Sybil's Pyrenean mountain dogs that she bred was named 'Milanollo Nethou'.

In 1912 she had success in having three of her fictional books The Kisses That Never Were Given, A Three-Cornered Secret and Travesty published in the London Magazine and in the following year, 1913, had one of her major works, a book of comic poems called Founded on Fiction published by Mills and Boon. Published in the same year was The Chequer-Board followed later by Samphire and The Land of Let's Pretend. (Link to New York Times article )

By 1914 she had become one of the leading literary figures of the day and was invited to contribute to the Princess Mary's Gift Book, a book of collected illustrated stories, in the effort to help raise money for the First World War. Along with her stories were the stories "A Holiday in Bed" by J. M. Barrie, "Bimbashi Joyce" by A. Conan Doyle, and "Big Steamers" by Rudyard Kipling. Publishers Hodder & Stoughton published it in 1915 with "All Profits On Sale Given To The Queen's "Works For Women " Fund." Sybil also became the official photographer to the Royal Naval Air Service. (Link to New York Times article )

Between 1914-1918 Sybil produced a weekly war newspaper the 'Home Letter' for the No. 2 Company , 1st Battalion, Coldstream Guards.

In September 1919 Sybil opened her "Airships in Peace and War" Exhibition at Princes Gallery Piccadilly, which had the support of the Air Ministry. This exhibition of "a collection of very interesting exhibits" was accompanied by music from the Masked Airship Band. All the proceeds went to the airship bed at St Dunstans. (link to the flightglobal archive)

The Times, Tuesday, Sep 26, 1922:

"The End of the Day;" (Hodder and . Stoughton, 2s. 6d. net) is the title of a volume of verses by Lady Sybil Grant. Many of the pieces have some relation to the war. The first, which is entitled "The Unseen Presence" with the sub-heading "Neil," was no doubt inspired by the death at the front of Mr. Neil Primrose, and deals with the question, so generally debated during the war and.since, of. intercourse between the living and the dead. The author of these verses saw much of our airships when they were in commission and much that she writes is concerned with flight.. Her most; successful pieces are her simplest like "The Lass with the Dream in her Face." and "The Topmost Bough," and the compositions on the whole, if they have no deep poetic quality are frequently tuneful and generally eloquent.
Sybil increasing became an eccentric and reputably was heard to be shouting at her butler using a megaphone. Further eccentric behaviour was her habit of spending most of her time living in a caravan or up trees. From the diaries of James Lees-Milne, he says of Lady Sybil Grant. "On her head was an orange bonnet draped with an orange scarf. She had orange hair and her lips are the vividest orange I have ever beheld. She took me to the orangery where she lives all the time." She was known locally as being independent, endearing and, when she thought the occasion warranted it, cantankerous. This was the case in 1948 when she refused to preside at the first Burns Night of the local Epsom Caledonian Association because potatoes, which were on ration for a short time, were on the menu

An other postcard view of The Durdans
A postcard view of The Durdans

On the death of her father in 1929, she inherited his estate, "The Durdans" at Epsom, which became her home. Included in this inheritance was his vast book collection, most of which she in turn left to the National Library of Scotland. Their catalogue entry reads as follows:
A selection of 2,762 volumes of printed books and pamphlets, and 25 manuscript volumes, from what remained of the Earl of Rosebery's library at The Durdans, Epsom, after the 1933 Sotheby's sale. The books were received by the Library in 1956 by the bequest of Lady Sybil Grant (1903-55), eldest daughter of the 5th Earl (1847-1929 - see Rosebery Collection). The collection reflects the general country house character of the library at The Durdans and the Earl's personal interests, its main strengths being historical memoirs and pamphlets on British and European history of the 18th and the 19th century, particularly the lives and times of Pitt (William Pitt was one of the families ancestors) and Napoleon; French and English literature, including an uncensored copy of the first edition of Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal (Paris, 1857) with the six condemned poems later extracted from unsold copies; English topography, in particular Epsom and Surrey; privately printed volumes of memoirs and poetry; dictionaries of slang, cant, and proverbs; religious works including material relating to Cardinal Newman. However, the collection is perhaps richest in works on all aspects of horse-racing and breeding and field sports in general, ranging from early lists of horse-races and manuals of horsemanship and veterinary science, to long runs of sporting journals, including a complete run of The Sporting Magazine (London, 1792-1870). The collection includes a number of fine bindings and contains many books from the Beckford library, some with annotations both by Beckford and the Earl of Rosebery.
Many considered Sybil's friendship with the gypsies that flocked to Epsom Downs for the races odd, as she would often dress herself in "unusual and romantic clothes" and in 1930 allowed them to camp on her land, The Bushes, during Derby week. This however helped the gypsies to be accepted by the locals as they then had a legal place to stay. In 1932 she said, "I am hoping to organize the van dwellers into a humble little guild which will have the advantage of protecting the working gypsies and get rid of those undesirables members who are to be found in every community" Later in 1936 when a local government bill was past making it illegal for the gypsies to camp at all on the Downs Sybil immediately gave them permission to camp in her field called The Sanctuary in Downs Road. (link to Surrey County Council website )

The Times, Thursday, Apr 22, 1937:

Lady Sybil Grant who has for many years taken a keen interest in the welfare of gypsies has sent a letter to the Epsom and Walton Down Conservators appealing for permission to be given to the gypsies to camp on the downs during Derby week. By-laws prohibiting caravans from being placed on the downs came into force recently and this week the Epsom Spring Meeting has, for the first time in living memory, been without its traditional encampments of gypsies.

The absence of the gypsies is regretted by many persons who consider that the Spring Meeting has lost something of its traditional character. Lady Sybil Grant, for instance, considered that the racecourse yesterday looked funereal, or at the best, exceedingly dreary. In her letter, however, she states definitely that she makes no plea for gypsies to be allowed to camp on the downs during the Spring Meeting. What she does suggest is that they should be allowed to camp on the downs from the Thursday before the Derby until the morning of the Monday following.


In her letter, which was written from The Durdans, she points out that she is herself the holder of a hawker's licence and a van dweller "whenever possible," and at the same time "owner and protector of a beloved oasis between Epsom and the downs." The Carolus prize for the best-left camping ground on the downs which she instituted three years ago has, she adds, surpassed all expectations in the results achieved. The damage done by van dwellers in race week, her letter suggests, is negligible. The principal sufferer at other times, Lady Sybil Grant goes on to say, is Mr Stanley Wootton, the chief landowner, who has had his fences broken down. In her proposal regarding Derby week however, Lady Sybil Grant is able to write that she has gained the generous support of Mr. Stanley Wootton.
Sybil, along with the Reverend Edward Dorling, was a great supporter of the Lest We Forget Association and its work for ex-servicemen. Every year, as they still do today, snowdrops were picked from The Durdans. She also regularly helped raise money by holding a fete in her grounds where she sold much of her famous pottery. Sybil also held a Hawker's license so that she could sell door-to-door for the charity.

A covered pot entitled Portrait of a Lady with Plaited Hairs.
This covered pot "Portrait of a Lady with Plaited Hairs"
has a design by Lady Sybil Grant sketched from one
of her own Suffolk Punches.
Image courtesy of Ashtead © 2009

She died a widow in her home on 25 February 1955, her husband Charles having died in on 9 November 1950 at The Durdans, Epsom. Probate records show that Charles' effects had been valued at 183,019 12s 7d (worth around 18,770,000.00 today). After Sybil died her effects were first valued at 117,098 8s 4d. The following year the probate index records that her effects were revalued at 44,850. Their son, Charles Robert Archibald Grant, survived them.

The Times, Saturday, Feb 26, 1955

Lady Sybil Grant, widow of General Sir Charles Grant, K.C.B., K.C.V.O., D.S.O., died yesterday at her home at ; Epsom at the age of 75.

She was Lady Sybil Primrose, elder daughter of the-fifth Earl of Rosebery, and her marriage took place in 1903. Her husband died in 1950. She was a striking figure, very fair, and to a serene and kindly disposition she added 'humour and a bright intelligence. For the ordinary round of social engagements she had little taste. She had begun to write when very young, and she developed also as designer and artist.

Before the 1914-18 War she had published Samphire: Collected Essays, Chequerboard; Collected Short Stories, and Founded on Fiction and of her two volumes of poems, Dream Songs and The End of the Day, the later reached a second edition in 1923. Under the name of Neil Scot (a name no doubt adopted in memory of her brother, Neil Primrose; who fell in the 1914-18 War), she published a novel, Riding Light, in 1926. Her lifelong love of Scotland found its last expression in a song, "Wanting Hame" which Lady Sybil wrote a few months ago as a tribute to the homecoming of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother.

Lady Sybil was the editor (and the staff) of the first weekly war newspaper, the Home Letter, for No. 2 Company. 1st Battaion, Coldstream Guards, from August, 1914 to December, 1918, and she organized and edited a similar publication for Scottish soldiers in, 1940. She was much interested in airships and was appointed official photographer to the R.N.A.S, in 1915 and in 1919 was the special airship correspondent of the Glasgow Herald. She also contributed articles on airships to the Observer and other newspapers, but the disaster to the R.101 put an end to the construction of these vessels.

The unconventional side of Lady Sybil Grant's character was illustrated by her love of caravaning. This hobby brought her into touch with gypsies, with whom she had a strong sympathy, and she was the constant champion of. the gypsies who were accustomed to camp on Epsom Downs during Derby week, as against the conservators of the Downs. As the châtelaine of The Durdans, her father's famous residence, and also as herself the holder of a hawker's licence and a van-dweller "whenever possible," and at the same time "owner and protector of a beloved oasis between Epsom and the Downs' she was able to help her protégés in many ways, and she instituted the Carolus prize for the best-left camping ground on the Downs, which, she said surpassed all expectations in the result achieved.

This article was written by Hazel Ballan, March 2009.
Updated 2017

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