Socks, hoodies and Bible verses at real-life Downton Abbey

In a real-life example of Downton Abbey, Lady Edith Lyttleton Gell from Carsington in Derbyshire published a book of Christian thoughts and prayers for soldiers and their families and ran 24/7 prayer events for them.

In the award-winning TV drama, Lord and Lady Grantham open up their home as a hospital for injured servicemen. One of the daughters, Lady Sybil, finds her calling in nursing.

In real life, the Hon Edith Lyttleton Gell used her status – and her faith – to equally good effect.

Born in 1860, the daughter of William Brodrick, 8th Viscount Middleton, Lady Edith was 54 when the war broke out.

A committed Christian, she organized the publication of The Happy Warrior, a book with Bible quotes for every day of the year and published many other books, including The Cloud of Witness.

It was a nationalistic rallying cry for the war as well as a lectionary, and had themes such as ‘the summons’, ‘a righteous war’ and ‘cavalry in the field’.

Families at home and their loved ones abroad had copies. The idea was that they would be united through reading the same texts each day. Some 250,000 copies were sold.

And in 1917, Lady Edith organized a prayer vigil for servicemen. It ran all through the Easter period.

She later wrote, ‘From Ash Wednesday to Easter eve a chain of intercession had been formed so that from 6am to 12pm there was no quarter hour in which several were not interceding in their own homes for the living and perchance those in extremis.

‘This was a great comfort to the cottage mothers. They said it seemed to bring their boys nearer.’

She was moved by what she saw as ‘the desolation of wives and mothers…eating their hearts with anxiety, wondering why their world was tumbling about their ears’.

In an attitude that would be worthy of Downton Abbey’s Lady Mary, Lady Edith believed that it was the duty of daughters of country houses to display ‘self-sacrifice and devotion’ to their local communities.

To that end, she chose to support local families through working with the Mothers’ Union, holding ‘quiet days’ at Hopton Hall (her country house), where she held weekly parties in her conservatory to knit socks and hood-comforters for soldiers and sailors.

She ran a Sunday morning children’s service until shortly before her death in 1944. 

Hazel Southam

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