Of Dukes, Soviets and Suffragists: the unexpected life of Ruth Cavendish-Bentinck

Ruth Cavendish Bentinck

Ruth Cavendish-Bentinck was a most unlikely socialist and suffragist whose life reads like a Who’s Who of the late 19th/early 20th century.  Her close friends were diverse, from George Bernard Shaw and Keir Hardy, to the Duke of Argyll and Edward VII’s mistress, Alice Keppel. Her extensive collection of books, about and for women, formed the basis of the culturally-important Women’s Library, now part of the LSE. Ruth’s unusual parentage is also thought to have been an inspiration for Pygmalion.

Ruth was the notably beautiful great-great-granddaughter of the playwright Richard Brinsley Sheridan.  By marriage to Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck, from a family of dukes and other notables, she was related to Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother), and today to Timothy Bentinck, 12thEarl of Portland, better known as David Archer in The Archers. Ruth was also the mother of both the 8th and 9th (the last) Dukes of Portland.

Most importantly – because it was of great significance to her life – she was one of two  illegitimate grandchildren of the 12th Duke of Somerset, Edward Adolphus St Maur (an affectation of the family name, Seymour), Lord of the Admiralty.   Ruth was born in Tangiers in October 1867 to the Duke’s eldest son and heir, Ferdinand, Earl St Maur, a foolhardy but brave mercenary, and a serving girl, Rosina Swan, daughter of a gipsy and an illiterate bricklayer. Ferdinand had met Rosina in a park and rescued her from a state of despair. Given her background she could not hope to become his duchess, so marriage was not an option.  However, she was very intelligent and Ferdy helped her improve her literacy and taught her French. He died young, his body racked by adventuring, followed by Rosina.

Ruth and her younger brother, Harold, were raised by their grandparents, the  Duke of Somerset and his wife Georgiana (known as ‘the Sheridan Duchess’), who were unfailingly kind to them. But despite an ancestry that included Jane Seymour, wife of Henry VIII and mother of the boy king, Edward VI, it could not rid Ruth and her brother of the stain of illegitimacy: she never forgot the reaction of many of the aristocracy.

She was educated at home by the Duke and conversed with notables like Disraeli.  Clever and rebellious, she was influenced by her great aunt, Caroline Norton, who had successfully campaigned for law reforms benefitting women. Ruth became an early member of the Fabian Society, writing an important pamphlet on aristocracy and socialism.  The Webbs were close friends, as were other members of Britain’s socialist intelligentsia; among the papers she left to the Women’s Library are letters between her and Shaw. It was he and her other socialist friends, to whom her illegitimacy was unimportant, whom Ruth regaled with stories of her unconventional parents, which echoed in Pygmalion.

Ruth became a member of the newly-formed Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU). However, alarmed at its increasingly violent tactics under Emmeline Pankhurst, she left the group in 1912 and joined the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS).  Another disaffected member was Emmeline’s estranged daughter, Sylvia, a pacifist like Ruth, with whom she worked in the NUWSS.

Formidable and sometimes aggressive, Ruth could be considered a contradiction.  Her pacifism struggled with her concern for her eldest son who fought in the war.  She was an active socialist who risked arrest and visited the poor in the roughest areas, yet at the same time (unlike Sylvia Pankhurst, who was embarrassed about her privileged upbringing) she never relinquished the advantages of upbringing and wealth: she enjoyed the fortune left to her (and Harold) by the Duke of Somerset when he died without male heirs.  She became pro-Communist, yet she and Frederick always kept servants and she was happy to stay with aristocratic friends like the Bowes Lyons. However, she was not averse to using her connections to achieve her goals for the improvement of women’s lives.

As well as the future Dukes of Portland, she and Frederick had two daughters. Despite a long and happy marriage until Frederick’s death in 1948, none of their children had successful personal lives. Ruth died in 1953, aged 86.  Her brother Harold married and had a successful army career but spent much time and money trying to prove (unsuccessfully) that his parents had actually married, an idea about which Ruth was scornful.

Ruth’s unorthodox life meant she was far from a dull worthy, while the physical legacy she left forms an important part of Britain’s social history.  She deserves recognition.

© Jane Dismore, December 2017