When Elizabeth II (born 1926) was a young princess, she was close to her mother’s family, Bowes Lyon. Her maternal grandfather, Claude, was 14th Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne, from ancient Scottish nobility. This adapted extract from my book Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II tells the sad story I discovered from court documents and newspapers of a child born into the Bowes Lyon family in the early 20th century, a second cousin to Elizabeth II, who had to fight to be legitimised.
In July 1924 the extraordinary story of Connie Bowes Lyon, second cousin to Britain’s future queen, Elizabeth II, was picked up by the American press. Gleefully it seized the chance to merge two of its favourite topics, the British aristocracy and Hollywood. ‘REAL ROMANCE OF SCOTCH GIRL BEATS MOVIES’ shouted the Syracuse Herald, sub-texting, ‘Miss Constance Mary Lyon, Tobacconist Clerk, Is Heiress to Ancient Estate of Strathmore’. The New York Times got straight to the point by mentioning her close relation: ‘Shop girl Cousin of the Duchess of York Wins Legitimacy Suit in a Scottish Court’. Britain’s press was more restrained in its headlines but voluble in its column inches announcing the judgement, which restored 19-year-old Connie, as she was known to the people who raised her, to her rightful position in one of Scotland’s oldest and most noble families.
Not aware of her parentage until she was in her teens, it was important to Connie that it be formally recognised and her birth legitimised, at a time when the alternative was still undesirable. In April 1923, as Britain celebrated the wedding of Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon and the Duke of York (the future George VI), Connie was preparing her court case against her father, Hubert Bowes Lyon, Lady Elizabeth’s first cousin, against whom she had been forced to take legal action because of his deliberate and sustained silence.
Below: On 26 April 1923, the day of her wedding to ‘Bertie’, Duke of York, Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon leaves 17 Bruton Street, London, the house of her parents Claude and Cecilia Bowes Lyon, 14th Earl and Countess of Strathmore & Kinghorne. In 1926 the Yorks’ first child, Princess Elizabeth, now Her Majesty the Queen, was born at the same house.
A Christmas Birth
Constance Mary Bowes Lyon was born on Christmas Eve 1904 in an apartment in Bloomsbury, London. Her parents, Hubert, aged 21, and his girlfriend, Mary Agnes Smeaton, contemplated the gift their passion had brought them: a child was not on their Christmas list. Like his younger cousin Elizabeth, whose father became Earl of Strathmore earlier that year, Hubert had also benefited from the death of their grandfather, the 13th Earl. His will included provision for Hubert and his three younger sisters, who were the surviving children of the 13th Earl’s third son, Ernest Bowes Lyon. Ernest was in the Diplomatic Service and in 1891, aged 33, he was killed by a fall from a horse; Hubert was eight, his youngest sister a few days old. Hubert’s share of their grandfather’s inheritance was £8,000, a great deal of money for a young man.
Below: the 13th Earl of Strathmore & Kinghorne, grandfather to Hubert Ernest Bowes Lyon and his first cousin Lady Elizabeth Bowes Lyon (by marriage Duchess of York; from 1936 Queen Elizabeth, Consort of George VI; later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother). Both Elizabeth and Hubert benefited from the 13th Earl’s death: Elizabeth’s father took the title of (14th) Earl and her title became Lady; Hubert was left a handsome sum of money.
Hubert was following a promising career as an officer in the Royal Highlanders (Black Watch), the regiment favoured by the Bowes Lyons, and, although fatherless, enjoyed other advantages of an illustrious family background on both sides: his mother Isobel was from a well-known banking family, the Drummonds. Yet although Hubert married Mary just three weeks after Constance’s birth, his apparent connivance in the treatment of his daughter deprived her not only of family life with her own relations, but of all the advantages she should have enjoyed as part of Scotland’s nobility. In consequence, unlike the two sons Hubert subsequently fathered with Mary, Connie Bowes Lyon’s prospects were reduced to the limited horizons of an ordinary working-class girl raised in humble circumstances.
Hubert met Mary in March 1904, while he was stationed in Edinburgh. Looking for entertainment, he found himself at the annual dance for the staff of the Kardomah Cafe. He was instantly smitten by the nineteen-year-old young woman. Clearly she was impressed too, for they immediately started a sexual relationship. Within weeks, Hubert had rented and furnished a house for them in Edinburgh, although he was required to live at his regiment’s barracks in Edinburgh Castle. For Mary, one of six children of a rubber warehouseman, who had worked as a servant before becoming a shop girl, her change of circumstances must have been thrilling.
After a few months Hubert resigned his commission and moved to London, sending money to Mary so she could join him. After Constance was born, Mary wrote to her friend Elizabeth Mackie in Edinburgh, telling her in some distress about the birth and asking how the child might be disposed of: she said she did not want her parents or the Bowes Lyons to know about her. Mackie told her of a Mrs Collie in Aberdeen, and at Mary’s request Mackie wrote to her to ask if she would take the child. Mackie told Mrs Collie that she would receive six shillings a week, and that the intention was to remove the child when she was five years old, as the parents wanted her to have a better education than Mrs Collie could give her. An agreement was reached.
On 14 January 1905, three weeks after Constance’s birth, Hubert and Mary married in London. Despite this, shortly afterwards, Mary and Mackie went to Aberdeen to give the child to Mrs Collie. Mackie noticed that the baby’s left leg was set, having been broken. Mary told Mrs Collie that she was intending to call the child Constance and that their surname was Lyon. Nothing else was mentioned about parentage. In February 1905 Mary registered Constance’s birth, naming Hubert as the father and giving their surname as Lyon.
When Connie, as she was called, was six months old, Mary asked that she be taken to a house in Edinburgh for a week while she and Hubert stayed nearby. Mrs Collie’s daughter and future son- in-law, Harry Bain (whom Connie would come to regard as her parents, and Mrs Collie as her grandmother), duly took the child there, and Mary and Hubert both visited her. In 1907 Hubert and Mary moved to Dorney in Buckinghamshire, a couple of miles from where his mother’s family came from; Connie was again taken to stay nearby and visited by both parents. The house in which they lived must have belonged to the Bowes Lyons, for it was called Villa Etelinda, the same as one in Bordighera, owned by Hubert’s uncle Claude, 14th Earl of Strathmore.
That same year, 1907, they had a son and in December Hubert was declared bankrupt. He told the court he had spent his inheritance in two years and had no assets with which to repay his debts. Although his bankruptcy was discharged in 1909, the year Connie turned five, Mrs Collie was not asked, after all, to return her to her parents for schooling. Instead, Harry Bain dutifully got on with the school entry process, ordering the requisite copy of her birth certificate.
There is no reason to suppose that Mrs Collie and the Bains were not kind to Connie. Mrs Collie lived in a pleasant, albeit modest, house close to Aberdeen University, but she could not offer Connie the advantages the Bowes Lyons could have done. Her livelihood seems to have been looking after bastard children; even the woman referred to in court as her daughter, married to Harry Bain, appears not to have been her real daughter but an illegitimate child she had taken in. In 1911 Mrs Collie received a letter signed MBL, at the top of which was written ‘Please burn this letter’. Apart from sending a gift for Connie and expressing hope that she was well, Mary said it had come to her attention that someone may call upon Mrs Collie to make enquiries about Connie, with a view to taking her away. She said that if it happened, Mrs Collie should deny she knew Mary’s name and say that Connie was her daughter’s daughter. She also asked that she bring Connie up as her own and not to let her know that she had any other mother; neither should she call her Lyon (although Mrs Collie already had). Finally she asked Mrs Collie to send Connie’s birth certificate and any other papers to her, in case Mrs Collie should be required to give them up. This was done. It seems that Mrs Collie was so worried by the possibility of someone removing Connie that she sent her to stay in a house further along the road with an elderly widow.
In 1912 Mrs Collie died and Mary asked Mrs Bain if she would look after Connie on the same terms. Mary said that she hoped one day to be able to send the child to a convent school, but she was afraid it would not be for some time. It never happened. Mary died in Edinburgh in 1914, aged 28, leaving Hubert – by then working in the motor industry – living in Wembley with their two sons; a second boy was born in 1912.
Despite the death of her mother, Connie did not see her father again; she later said that she had no recollection of her parents. The payments to Mrs Bain ceased. The court considered that perhaps Mary had concealed from Hubert the fact that she had been paying for the child for years and that he thought she had been adopted and that was that. Yet he had visited Connie, at least in the early years, and clearly knew about Mrs Bain. Had Hubert been in any doubt, he could have made enquires after Mary died. Their families may have disapproved of the illegitimacy but they had married soon after the birth. Certainly by 1909 at the latest, Hubert’s family were aware of his marriage, and it was not as though illegitimate births and related scandals were unknown to the Bowes Lyons.
After Mary died, Hubert could have made his peace with his daughter, but he did not. He served in the Great War and, after relinquishing his commission in 1919 because of ill health due to war wounds, he remarried that year. He and his wife Margaret, an actress whose stage name was Madge May, lived in a flat in Vauxhall Bridge Rd. London with their daughter Sonia, Connie’s half-sister, born in 1922. Had it not been for the canniness of Mrs Collie and Harry Bain, Connie may have lived and died in ignorance of her birthright.
Court action begins
Mrs Collie did not burn Mary’s letter of 1911 but kept it for future reference; when no-one tried to remove Connie, Mrs Collie could see no reason for Mary having written the letter, except a desire to conceal the child’s identity. Before returning Connie’s birth certificate to Mary, Harry Bain had taken a note of its details, so that he could later apply for his own copy. He did so in May 1915, and it led him to carry out an investigation. While Harry gathered evidence, Connie left school and started work in a local newsagent’s.
Following Harry’s enquiries, when she was 18, Connie contacted Hubert through his solicitors. However, he never responded, even when legal papers were served upon him. Rather than acknowledge the young woman as his, thus saving her from the embarrassment of what turned into a public case, he ignored her. While her grandmother Isobel and other relations attended Elizabeth Bowes Lyon’s grand wedding in Westminster Abbey in 1923, Connie applied to Scotland’s Court of Session for a declaration that she was the lawful and legitimate child of Hubert and Mary Bowes Lyon; and that, as such, she was entitled to all the rights of children born in lawful wedlock as regards inheritance or succession. Ironically Connie’s aunt, also Constance Bowes Lyon, was married to one of the judges of the Court of Session, Lord Blackburn. By then at the latest, the Bowes Lyon family must have known of the situation.
Apart from the wedding, it was not a good summer for the Bowes Lyon family. In July another cousin of the Duchess of York, Angus Patrick Bowes Lyon, 24, was found dead in his car. He had shot himself through the head after his fiancée broke off their engagement.
The first of several hearings for Connie’s case was held in March 1924. Witnesses included Connie, Harry Bain and Elizabeth Mackie, who had to be brought to court forcibly when she failed to obey a summons. She gave evidence in support of Connie’s identity and said Mary had told her that Connie’s thigh was injured at birth; Connie herself gave evidence of suffering a pain in her leg when she walked. The court noted the attempt that had been made to conceal Connie’s identity. After satisfying itself that she was actually the Bowes Lyons’ daughter, in June 1924 the court gave the declaration that she sought. It noted not only that her parents had married shortly after her birth, but that there may also have been an exchange of matrimonial consent during the previous year when they lived together, thus legitimising her birth. Connie was back working in the newsagent after the judgement. ‘Of course I shall use the name Bowes Lyon,’ she told reporters. ‘It was my name I fought for in the first place.’ Not yet twenty-one, she would be relying on a legal guardian to advise her and manage her interests but for now, she said, she would continue in her job, which she enjoyed immensely.
Below: Connie after the judgement
That year, Hubert’s mother’s family bank, Drummonds, was acquired by the Royal Bank of Scotland, although it still operated independently in London. The Deputy Governor of the RBS was the 14th Earl of Strathmore. Hubert gave a brief interview to a reporter in which he gave nothing away, merely telling of his parentage and birthplace in the Hague, and saying that he was a nephew of the 14th Earl of Strathmore and a cousin of the Duchess of York.
Recognition at last
Not only did the judgement settle Connie’s birthright, the removal of the stain of illegitimacy meant she could be considered for work of a more personal nature, where parentage was still a consideration. Legitimacy also opened the marriage door wider. Connie made progress on both grounds. After the judgement, she obtained the post of companion-help to a Mrs Lawrence in Glasgow, an author of short stories married to a banker, whose son had recently been killed in an accident. In 1933, aged 29, Connie met their friend George Dow, from a Kilmarnock family. George was ten years older than Connie and home on holiday from his work as a tobacco planter in Nyasaland (now Malawi). Within a few weeks they were engaged, and on 30 July they were married at Blantyre.
At some point before World War II, Hubert Bowes Lyon moved with Margaret and their daughter Sonia to Jersey. He remained there under German occupation, while Margaret and Sonia were evacuated to England, rejoining him after Liberation. His two sons, Connie’s brothers, joined the RAF.
Connie and George had no children. They visited Britain from Africa over the years until George’s death in 1967, eight years after Hubert’s in Jersey. Connie died in 1980. She never did meet her second cousin, Queen Elizabeth II.
Copyright Jane Dismore, December 2019. Adapted from her book Princess: The Early Life of Queen Elizabeth II pub. 2018 by Lyons Press USA & Thistle UK.