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Chapter Two: Lady Denman

I think that countrywomen are the salt of the earth. I do not feel they get a fair deal, and I have always thought that if we got together we could do something about it; and it has been extraordinarily satisfactory to me because we have been able to do something about it. It has given me the very greatest happiness.
— Lady Gertrude Denman
Balcombe Place

Balcombe Place

Where to start.... 

The Balcombe Estate was purchased by Weetman Pearson, 1st Viscount Cowdray for his daughter and became the home of Lord and Lady Denman from 1905. Balcombe Place was included within the greater estate, forming approximately 3000 acres of West Sussex countryside. The Balcombe Estate, and with it Balcombe Place, remain in the ownership of the same family, now the fourth generation since the Denmans.

Thomas Denman 28, and Gertrude Pearson 18, met at a ball in London in 1902. They enjoyed a courtship for a number of months before Lord Denman proposed marriage. It was only with persuasion from her parents that she finally accepted his proposal in August 1903. Lord and Lady Denman were married in November of the same year. It was following the birth of their first child, Thomas, in 1905 that Lord Cowdray gave his daughter her own country estate; Judith was born two years later at Balcombe. Although Lord Denman carried a prestigious title, he had little family money and it was Lady Denman's family money that predominately fuelled the Denman family life.

In May 1908, Lady Denman joined her mother, Lady Pearson on the Executive of the Women's Liberal Federation. The burning answer they sought surrounded the question of women suffrage and opposing those in parliament who did not answer the Executive's test questions on the subject. Sitting with a number of formidable women, Lady Denman, a youthful, energetic lady, with very little experience, grew over the next couple of years until she was reelected to the Foundation in 1910 with a greater voice and increased voting power. Her parents' political and feminist views propelled Lady Denman to be involved in developing the future roles women would play through the war and within society. By the end of 1910 it was clear that Lady Denman's life was about to change considerably; her husband Lord Denman was to become the fifth Governor-General of Australia. This meant leaving London, and Balcombe, to set sail for Melbourne. Lord Denman took a different route to his wife and children, who, rather than going via Marseille as he did, sailed through the Cape to avoid the heat of the Red Sea.  

As the wife of the Governor-General Lady Denman was expected to attend all sorts of official engagements, but she ensured that she could dedicate time and effort to those things that she found interesting, and that she believed in. One thing is for certain, Lady Denman was not one to be quiet about something that she was passionate about. She took time to meet with councils from each State in relation to the National Council of Women, she encouraged their first joint conference in 1912, and told them how important it was for them to meet regularly, together, to help each other to work towards the same goals. 

Lady Denman was influential in the development of bush nursing, a service provided to those living in remote and scattered areas of Australia. Such areas had difficult, if non-existent access to doctors and hospital facilities. Lady Dudley was Lady Denman's predecessor, and had promoted the scheme and started raising funds for the project. However, in 1911, when Lady Denman arrived, only one nurse had been appointed, but by the end of the same year another three were at work and in 1912 two new centres had been opened. In total, by the end of her time in Australia, 1914, Lady Denman's support led to the opening of almost twenty Bush Nursing Centres in Victoria alone. 

Lady Denman supported the Melbourne Repertory Theatre Club, not just by attending productions but also fund raising. In ten days 20,000 people attended an exhibition Lady Denman collated, with over 500 exhibits, many from her own collection and the money raised was split between the Theatre Club and the Arts and Crafts Society. 

One of the most interesting, and we think rather cool, tasks Lady Denman had in Australia was the naming of its capital city on 12 March 1913. 500 official guests and 5,000 spectators travelled on to witness the opening ceremony. 

Lady Denman at the ceremony for the naming of Canberra. From the left: Lord Denman, Governor-General; Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister; Lady Denman; King O'Malley, Minister for Home Affairs. 12 March 1913.

Lady Denman at the ceremony for the naming of Canberra. From the left: Lord Denman, Governor-General; Andrew Fisher, Prime Minister; Lady Denman; King O'Malley, Minister for Home Affairs. 12 March 1913.

Lord Denman laid the first foundation stone for the city, followed by Prime Minister and King O'Malley. This was the first day of the capital's future and the future of Australia. As well as the choice of name, the final pronunciation had been debated by the Cabinet. It was finally decided that whatever pronunciation Lady Denman gave when she read out the name would be the one officially adopted. At noon, a gold cigarette case, made especially for her and which she went on to use for the rest of her life, containing a card with the chosen name written on it, was presented to Lady Denman. Amid a fanfare of trumpets and the bands playing she made her way to the dais. The music ceased and Lady Denman said, "I name the capital of Australia, Canberra." There were loud cheers, and while the artillery fired a twenty-one gun salute, bands played "Advance Australia Fair" and "God Save the King." 

The family settled well in Australia and took hold of the many opportunities it had to offer, in reference to Lady Denman, "country folk were astonished when she arrived at one centre in riding breeches and with a cigarette hanging out of her mouth." It is noted, or at least the Denmans claimed, that due to poor health Lord Denman struggled with the climate and found it uncomfortable. So, after a couple of attempts, finally in May 1914, his resignation was accepted and amid a barrage of praise and commendation addresses the Denmans left Australia.

On returning from Australia World War 1 was about to really start. Lord Denman took command of a regiment and Lady Denman became heavily involved in war charity. The "SSS" or Smokes for Wounded Soldiers and Sailors Society was operated from Lady Denman's London home where she turned the ballroom into a packing station. She was part of an impressive committee including Queen Alexandra, Field-Marshal Lord Grenfell and Admiral Lord Charles Beresford. Gertrude Denman became the chairman of the Society in 1916, and by the time she resigned due to other commitments in 1917, some 265 million cigarettes and other smoking materials had been distributed - an essential element for our soldiers in the day! 


Together with her recently returned friend Nellie Grant Lady Denman began a scheme to make use of food scraps and save food imports by encouraging the keeping of poultry. This was a popular endeavour, with families, hospitals and other institutions taking part, and resulted in Lady Denman becoming President of the Women's Section of the Poultry Association.

In the latter part of 1916, Lady Denman accepted the post of chairman of the Women's Institute Sub-Committee of the Agricultural Organisation Society. In 1917 the administration of the expanding Women's Institute movement was transferred to the Women's branch of the Board of Agriculture's Food Production Department, which had been set up to form a Women's Land Army.

In 1917 the National Federation of Women's Institutes was formed and Lady Denman became the first President, a post she was annually reelected to until her resignation in 1946. As well as her work for the WI and Women's Land Army, she was also the first Chairman of the Family Planning Association, President of the Ladies Golf Union, a Trustee of the Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, and a Director of the Westminster Press.

In 1933 Lady Denman was appointed a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire (DBE). 

At the outbreak of World War II, Lady Denman was invited by the Minister of Agriculture to become the Director of the Women's Land Army, which in turn led to the Land Girls. Lady Denman offered Balcombe Place to become the headquarters of the Women's Land Army. Personal accounts describe the influx of administrative workers, tables, desks and office supplies; and stables containing WLA uniforms and other distributable goods. The tennis courts became used for livestock. Lady Denman kept the "Business Room" as her private office and it is believed she built steps through the window so that she was able to come and go as she pleased, without the secretaries being aware of her movements. Accounts have been found outlining Lady Denman's love of bonfires, one of the reasons she so loved slipping out! 

She was advanced to Dame Grand Cross (GBE) in 1951. These titles entitled her to be known as Dame Gertrude Denman; however, as the wife of a peer, her existing title Lady Denman subsumed this.


Balcombe Place transformed during WW2

Balcombe Place transformed during WW2

Lady Denman's assistance and work throughout the war, and the rest of her life is something to be admired and remembered. 

What we love hearing about is the personal, more intimate side of Lady Denman, given these stories are often the least accessible to historians and the general public. The nine hole golf course she had made at the front of Balcombe Place, for instance, with the ninth hole against the Dining Room windows so that her competitors would be far too frightened to make a decent shot and she would always win the hole! 

Described by Dr Headon: 

"Not only did they love their sport but they were genuinely 'of the people', especially Lady Denman," Dr Headon said. "She loved her golf, she loved her tennis, she loved riding. She was shooting the day before the 12th of March 1913 with the locals, she was rabbit shooting, so she was quite a package." Dr Headon said that Lady Denman also had "a real social conscience". Which we can clearly see from her work. 


Lady Denman had a a wide reputation and a high position in social society. Often noted in fashion pages and society pages in national newspapers of the day, she "was popular for her informal style, her infectious smile and her unpretentious ways." A passion for hunting, shooting, skiing and motorcars Lady Denman's life seems an extraordinary adventure for a woman in that time.

We thank you, Lady Denman, for your legacy. For the influential support you gave and the benefits this had for women's rights, health and social acceptance. 

Lady Gertrude Denman playing tennis 1923.

Lady Gertrude Denman playing tennis 1923.