Wednesday 25 October 2017

129 Lady Houston

129 Lady Houston
A recent article concerned the inventor Harry Grindell Matthews, known as “Death Ray Matthews”, who lived in Tor Clawdd on Mynydd y Gwair in upland Gower from 1934 until his death in 1941.  One interesting response provoked speculation about a possible connection to the name of an avenue in Newton. 
At Tor Clawdd, where there was a private airstrip, a frequent visitor to Grindell Matthews was aviator Lieut. Col. P.T. Etherton, who organised the first aeroplane flight in April 1933 over Everest, whose summit was unconquered until 1953 (assuming Mallory and Irvine were unsuccessful).  That enterprise was sponsored by a good friend of Grindell Matthews, Lady Houston, a political activist and philanthropist whose patriotism played a crucial part in Britain’s success in the Second World War.
Born Lucy Radmall in Lambeth in 1857, she became a professional dancer who was left a handsome annuity by a married member of the family who owned the Bass brewery.  Her first marriage, to a baronet, ended in divorce, and in 1901 she married George Byron, 9th Baron Byron.  He died in 1917, the same year that she was appointed a DBE (Dame Commander, Order of the British Empire) for her support for a home for nurses who had served in the First World War.  In 1924 she married the shipping magnate and MP Sir Robert Houston, who died fifteen months later, leaving her an extremely wealthy widow.  She had no children.
Thereafter she gave generously to British aviation, in particular, after Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour government had withdrawn their support, donating £100,000 (over three million pounds in today’s money) to Supermarine, declaring “Every true Briton would rather sell his last shirt than admit that England could not afford to defend herself”.  This financial support enabled them, with an RAF crew, to win the 1931 race off Cowes to retain the Schneider Trophy, which was significant in advancing aeroplane design, especially in engine design and aerodynamics.  The first Supermarine landplane design to go into production was the Spitfire - so Lady Houston’s support had far-reaching consequences. Her gift provided a valuable impetus to the development of the engine technology that would ultimately be vital in the Second World War, and in particular in the Battle of Britain.  Air Chief Marshal Sir Michael Graydon, president of the Battle of Britain Memorial Trust, commented: “The donation was the incentive to develop a high-speed aeroplane.  We were just about able to prepare in time for Hitler’s air armada.”
Lady Houston went on to fund that first aeroplane flight over Everest, before she died of a heart attack in December 1936, aged 79, at her home in Hampstead Heath.  Her headstone in St Marylebone cemetery describes her as “one of England’s greatest patriots”.
Although she was a good friend of Grindell Matthews, we cannot be certain that Lady Houston visited Tor Clawdd.  But might an avenue between Newton and Murton be named after her?  If Housty were a corruption of Houston, that might explain why Lady Housty Avenue is so named.  There have been enquiries about who Lady Housty was from as far afield as Canada, without any definitive answer as yet.  However a Lady Housty cottage, with two fields attached, is shown on the tithe maps from the 1840s, thus predating any Grindell Matthews connection by a century.  Swansea’s local studies librarian Gwilym Games speculates that the avenue might have been church land during medieval times, with the name being a corruption of Lady House, indicating some connection with worship of the Virgin Mary - perhaps the land was owned by St Mary’s, Swansea, or St Mary’s, Pennard?       
While Lady Houston may not be remembered through the name of an avenue in Newton, “the saviour of the Spitfire” was a friend of Grindell Matthews, thereby providing an indirect, albeit tenuous, connection with upland Gower.

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