Book Reviews

From Refugees to Royalty

John Hilary

In my mind’s eye I am in a garden in West Sussex, it is a garden I have been to many times as it is one of my favourites. The garden and grounds are beautiful and the medieval house and its ruins make a charming backdrop. The house and garden have stories of their own, neither is quite as old as it would seem; the house is Nymans. But it was the owners of the house, and their ancestors – the Messel family – who have the even more unusual story to tell; a story involving refugees and royalty.

In search of a village called Messel

In 2015 a small group travelled from the UK to a village located in a forest in the German state of Hesse, not far from the bustling city of Darmstadt. The village is called Messel.  The group were on a mission. A mission to find for themselves not only the graves of some of their ancestors, but also to learn more about a family that would in the fullness of time emigrate to England. A family that would create a fine house and a garden which today is one of the gems of The National Trust’s properties – one of its most popular visitor attractions. 

A fascinating and astonishing story

The story of the Messel family and the fine house and gardens – Nymans in West Sussex – is a fascinating and astonishing one, skilfully and eloquently told by John Hilary a descendant on his mother’s side of the German Jews who moved to Messel and who, as was the custom of the day, eventually took the name of the village as their own.

We learn that life for that small early Jewish community in Messel was far from easy, but it prospered and gradually their numbers increased, and in time they were even given permission to build a synagogue.  

However, conflict was never far away and changes were in the air partly because the Electors of Hanover had been given control over that part of Germany. Indeed, there was a drastic change in 1763 when King George III, acting as the then Elector of Hanover, issued an edict commanding the Jews to leave their homes.

A family moves to Messel and later to London

One such family packed their belongings and moved to Messel to start a new life. Many years later, having taken the name Messel as their own, they moved on making names for themselves in the fields of industry and commerce.

In 1865, one of them, 18-year-old Ludwig Messel made his way to England.

Partly to seek refuge from the growing anti-Semitism in their own country, some of his siblings followed him to London. The families prospered moving to more and more fashionable districts of London.

Making their way in fashionable society

Ludwig Messel and his family rapidly became acquainted with leading figures in the world of literature, architecture and art. He joined organisations such as the Arts Club and the Royal Historical Society. His beautiful eldest daughter Ottilie was painted by Royal Academy member Marcus Stone, and later by the society painter Keturah Collings. His sons went to Eton.

Ottolie Loring, née Messel by Keturah Collings

The Messel families progressed, seemingly successful in whatever career path or interest they followed. Their rise and acceptance into English society is a fascinating one and reads like a veritable Who’s Who of the day.

A country estate on the West Sussex High Weald…

In Chapter 9 of ‘From Refugees to Royalty’ John Hilary introduces Nymans, the country estate on the beautiful High Weald of West Sussex, which was to play such a significant role in the family saga.

In 1890 Ludwig Messel bought 400 acres of land on the Weald (not far from Handcross) as the family’s country retreat. Included in the purchase a not very exciting Regency style house.

…and a house

The family swiftly settled into the local community but with its expanding family the original house soon needed to be enlarged and the garden improved.

Under the occupancy of Leonard and Maud Messel a new, romantic Tudor-style house began to emerge, sadly, much of it destroyed in 1947 by a devastating fire.  The charming house we see today, along with some of the grounds, partly the inspiration of the indomitable Maud Messel.

An indomitable family…

Indeed, the word ‘indomitable’ sums up so many of the Messel family – amongst them Maud’s daughter Anne – considered to be the most beautiful woman in London; Oliver Messel – artist and brilliant stage designer; Rudolph Messel – film maker, political activist and author; and more recently the family member who introduced royalty into the Messel family – the talented photographer and designer, Antony Armstrong Jones, who married Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth II, in 1960.

…and an ironic twist

It is rather ironic, bearing in mind that the Messel family became refugees because of an edict issued by George III in 1763, that one of the family 200 years later, would marry his four times great-granddaughter – truly taking the family from refugees to royalty.

An astonishing and inspirational story

John Hilary’s delightfully illustrated book ‘From Refugees to Royalty’ is not just a history of a house and a talented family. It is also inspirational; it is a story of hard work, perseverance, courage and determination.

I haven’t been back to Nymans for some while now. It’s time I paid another visit. And whilst there I shall be thinking of the story of the family who created it.

More Information

From Refugees to Royalty. John Hilary. ISBN: 978-0-7206-2106-8. £25. Hardback. Peter Owen.