The Mitford sisters have been a source of constant drama, wit and political intrigue since their youth in the early 1900s, most recently shown in the BBC adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s The Pursuit of Love, which draws heavily on their family life. The inspiration behind Linda Radlett’s elopement to Spain was presumably Nancy’s younger sister Jessica – or Decca, as she was known – who came to live in Rotherhithe from 1937 to 1939, writes ALEXANDRA WARREN.
The circumstances for Jessica Mitford, who was the sixth daughter of Lord Redesdale, coming to live in what was then London’s industrial heartland, were certainly unusual.
After years of feeling her politics diverge profoundly from her family’s – most notably her sister Unity, who was a fan of Hitler – Jessica seized the opportunity to escape after meeting her second cousin and fellow communist Esmond Romilly at a distant cousin’s house.
When Jessica was only 19, the pair ran away to Spain, where the civil war was raging, and after some legal difficulties were eventually married.
Financially cut off from their families, they travelled around France until they ran out of money, then returned to London.
The couple moved into a four-storey house at 41 Rotherhithe Street, now 1 Fulford Street, which was owned by a friend of Esmond’s called Roger Roughton.
They settled in quickly, with Esmond getting a job as a copywriter and Jessica helping out by working as a market researcher – a concept newly imported from America.
For the job she would be taken around the country with a group of other women to knock on doors to fill out questionnaires, under the eye of a supervisor who assured them he would know if they filled in the answers themselves at a local tearoom.
Most of the questionnaires were benign enough, but Jessica found it necessary to employ a certain amount of tact to avoid being thrown out after asking housewives questions such as “How often do you find it necessary to wash under the armpits?”
Housework proved difficult for Jessica, who had grown up in a large country house with maids and butlers.
Her only experience of cooking at that time was a single lesson at the Cordon Bleu while she was studying in Paris and the only cookbook she owned was by French chef Boulestein, which required items such as lobster tails and brandy.
This meant cooking at home was prohibitively expensive.
She also lacked a head for housework and was chided by Roger for sweeping the stairs from the bottom up, and soaping, rinsing and drying each dish individually before starting on the next.
The housework quickly fell to Roger. The trio hosted a number of so-called ‘bottle parties’ at the house, where the host provided the food, and guests would bring the alcohol – the hope being that the hosts would end up with enough leftover drinks to last them for the next week.
Guests at these parties included Esmond’s brother Giles, the writer Philip Toynbee, the eventual father of Polly, and Jessica’s brother Thomas.
Esmond came up with an additional way to turn the house to their advantage – by hosting a gambling den.
This turned out to be a great failure, and they lost most of the £10 they had put up by the second session, despite being ‘the house’, and the gambling nights were abandoned.
They also became involved in local politics. Esmond objected to joining the Communist Party, which he felt was full of petty squabbles.
They joined the Bermondsey Labour Party instead, which was enthusiastic in their campaigning, organising fundraisers for Spanish orphans or Jewish victims of Hitler, even against the will of the party.
On May Day in 1937, Jessica and Esmond joined members of the Bermondsey Labour Party, the Communist Party and the Independent Labour Party in a march to Hyde Park.
The march was ambushed at intervals throughout the day by Blackshirts – or fascists – wielding rubber truncheons and knuckle dusters.
During one such ambush Jessica spotted two of her sisters, Unity and Diana, on the opposite side waving swastika flags, and had to be dissuaded from joining the fistfight by Esmond and Roger.
Life at Rotherhithe Street was not always happy, though. Jessica gave birth to a baby daughter called Julia, in December 1937, who was adored and doted on by her and Esmond.
But just four months later there was an outbreak of measles in the area. Jessica, who had led a sheltered life in the countryside, had never had measles before and therefore neither her nor the baby were immune.
Both caught the measles and as Jessica recovered, the baby caught pneumonia and died.
The bereaved couple fled to Corsica, where they stayed for three months, grieving, before returning to London.
As well as housework, the couple had another blind spot – bills.
Being unaware that they had to pay for electricity, they were hit with an unexpectedly large bill.
After employing disguises including a false moustache and worker’s cap to avoid the man sent to retrieve the money, they decided to move to escape him.
The pair took a furnished room in Marble Arch on their return from Corisca.
But somehow the debt collector found their new address.
The couple resorted to staying in bed for days on end to avoid him – much to the annoyance of Esmond’s boss.
The electricity debt, coupled with the threat of war and a hundred pound trust fund that Jessica received on her 21st birthday tipped the scales, and they left for America in 1939.
Esmond returned to fight in the war and was killed in action in 1941.
Jessica remained in the US, going on to become a civil rights activist and investigative journalist.
She was even questioned by the House Committee on Un-American Activities in the post-war McCarthyite witchhunts for Communist Party members.
She married lawyer Bob Treuhaft, and wrote a number of books including Hons and Rebels, about her family life and marriage to Esmond, and The American Way of Death.
She died in 1996 in Oakland, California.
As for the house in Rotherhithe, home of bottle parties, gambling and poor house management, it is still there.
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