The Earl of Lathom (Ned Lathom) 1895 - 1930
The third and last Earl of Lathom and Baron of Skelmersdale, Edward William Bootle-Wilbraham (Ned), was only a young boy when his father died abroad and he was left, with his theatre-loving mother, to manage the large Lathom Estate. He succeeded to the Earldom in 1910 at the age of 14 but barely touched ermine before his ancestral home at Lathom Hall (near Ormskirk in Lancashire) became requisitioned as a Remount Depot for the cavalry at the start of the first World War. Thousands of horses passed through the estate, many surplus horses were sold through public auction at the Hall.
At the beginning of WWI he became an officer in the army and spent his 21st birthday in the trenches in France. After the cessation of hostilities he became an aide-de-camp to Lord Willoughby, Governor of India, and spent a year in service there. When he returned home he decided to give up the now 'battered' Lathom Hall and live at Blythe Hall which he refurbished and enlarged in an extraordinary and extravagant manner. Some of the structural alterations were stunning.The pillars of the staircase balustrade were made of cut glass and the surrounds of ebony - the effect when all the chandeliers and numerous electric candles were lit was "an almost fairyland atmosphere." Other embellishments were a bowling alley (taken from Lathom Hall) and a Greek style swimming pool with 12 Corinthian columns. The pool was surrounded with electric lights so that no shadow ever fell on the water. A new billiard room and later a library were added. £36,000 was spent on the refurbishment including £10,000 for the pool. In 1922 he moved into Blythe and it is at this time, for a period of less than two years that he lived as if there were 'no tomorrow!'
According to the entry by Ernest Rosbottom in 'Burscough - The Story of an Agricultural Village': "The third Earl of Lathom was very interested in the theatre, a passion he inherited from his mother. He entertained his friends of the theatre and high society at Blythe, amongst whom were the following: Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, designer Oliver Messel, Gladys Cooper, Marie Tempest, Mrs. Patrick Campbell and many others. Many stories are told of the high life at Blythe Hall under the Lathoms. However, on the word of some former employees, I can say that it is not true that special trains were hired to bring actors and actresses from London to Blythe to perform in plays the 3rd Earl had written. It does appear that some of the plays of Ned Lathom, as he was called, were so immoral that the censor would not allow them to be put on the London stage. So Ned put them on at the Lathom Club (in the grounds of Lathom House), not at Blythe Hall. As to the transport of these actors, they came from London by ordinary service trains to Lime Street Station, Liverpool, where they were met by a few Rolls Royces and brought to Lathom. Some of them would stay at Blythe Hall, and some stayed at the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool."
The general legacy of Ned's short reign at the Halls is the local belief that he 'badly let the the locality down' through extravagant expenditure, which led to insurmountable debt and eventual penury. His patronage of too many unsuccessful theatrical productions (of which fortunately Charlot/Coward's London Calling was not one) and his over-generous, wild and, some claim, orgiastic lifestyle, led to his downfall. His indulgent lifestyle meant that on 9th & 10th January, 1924 most of the estate of some 40 farms, several public houses, dozens of cottages and 4,000 acres of land had to be sold by public auction at The Drill Hall in Ormskirk. Lathom Hall, previously plundered for its fittings used to refurbish Blythe Hall, was left to decay and masses of timber including a splendid row of oak trees was felled, all to help pay off debts. Ned then moved to live in London but spent most of his time abroad.
He was only in his twenties when he started to suffer from the Tuberculosis (one lung had been removed and the other was diseased), that eventually killed him.
In London he opened an antique shop in a street off Grosvenor Square, almost opposite Claridges. He lived in flats at different times in Portland Place, Park Lane and Mount Street. In 1927 he surprisingly married Maria Xenia, daughter of E.W. Tunzleman, of Singapore (formerly wife of Ronald William Merison, from whom she obtained a divorce in 1921), and in 1930 he died, without an heir, at the age of 35 and was cremated at Golders Green.
Typical of the more positive memories of local people in Lathom, Burscough, and Ormskirk in Lancashire are the following:
One lady who lived in a cottage opposite to the entry of Blythe Hall recalls seeing Ned Lathom, Noël Coward and Ivor Novello, clearly the better for drink, dancing and singing down the lane past her house when she was a child. In particular she remembers the sweet-smelling perfume that trailed behind them.
She also remembers going with her mother to see Noël Coward in a play in what is now a scout hut (previously the home of the Lathom Women's Institute) on the Lathom Estate. It was then the home of the 'Lathom Club' where Ned Lathom, Noël Coward, Ivor Novello, Mrs Patrick Campbell and friends put on plays and revues for other London guests and the Estate workers and their families. On occasion Ned's risque writings were staged - banned by the Lord Chancellor but much enjoyed by London friends.
A recent piece in the local Ormskirk Advertiser talks of the small stage as that trod by these London luminaries in the 1920s. This week ( week beginning 24th April 2000) sees an exhibition at the 'Lathom Club' relating the history of the Lathom Estate - largely focusing on its earlier role in the Civil War.
Coward makes several references to Ned in 'Present Indicative'. The first two relate to his value in solving Noël's pecuniary problems.
Coward freely admits that he sold two songs to Ned Lathom " ... who didn't want them in the least and only bought them out of charity ..." All to help buy his fare to America with Jeffrey Holmsdale (Lord Amherst) on the Aquitania.
Later he went to see Ned " ... knowing how kind and generous he was, and also knowing how many hundreds of people had already sponged off him, I asked him flatly, without preliminaries, to lend me two hundred pounds. He refused almost sharply, and he added that he would willingly give me two hundred pounds, but that never, in any circumstances, would he lend money to anybody ever again, it was too dangerous a commodity, he said, to pass between friends ... with Ned's cheque in my pocket, the sun shone, temporarily with all its might."
In November 1922 Ned Lathom was recovering in Davos from a first bout of Tuberculosis. Noël writes: " I also knew that he had only his sister Barbara with him, and that they both would be probably pleased to see me, so I sent him a telegram and waited hopefully for the reply. It was comfortingly enthusiastic, so after buying a few sweaters, thick socks and, breeches, off I went; second-class on the trains, but first-class on the boat, arriving the next day my eyes dazzled by leagues of white snow in strong sunlight and my ears pleasantly humming in the high altitude to the jingling of sleigh-bells.
Ned looked better, but he still had coughing-fits from time to time. He managed, as usual, to be amazingly luxurious and had surrounded himself with books, cushions and large rich sweets which, I am sure, were bad for him.

I stayed there for three weeks with Barbara and him alone before anyone else arrived. The Christmas season had not yet begun, and the only other occupants of the hotel were T.B. patients, all in various stages of the disease. It was a strange life, gay in the evenings, when everyone made an effort to dress, dine in the restaurant and dance afterwards in the bar. During the days, of course, everybody had cures and treatments to undergo, and the whole hotel seemed dead and empty. At night, however, it regularly awoke.
The gambling machine in the bar tinkled merrily, the band played, and there was the sound of corks popping and noisy conversation in many languages. Only very occasionally would someone slip away from the fun to flit upstairs, coughing, almost furtively, into a stained handkerchief.

Those evenings, with their noise and music and gaiety, were slightly macabre, but somehow not depressing. It was as though they were unrelated to ordinary existence - a few detached hours of pleasure, floating between life and death, untouchable by the sadness of either. The knowledge that practically everybody present, themselves included, would probably be dead within a year or so was, I suppose, tucked away behind the laughter of most of the people there, but it was in no way apparent. There seemed to be no strain in the air, no eager snatching at flying moments. Perhaps the disease itself carried with it a compensating illusion that ultimate cure was certain, that all the slow tedious intricate process of dying was nothing more than an interlude of small discomfort.

Ned, who had always been badly stage-struck, had financed Charlot's last revue A to Z, and still appeared to be avid for punishment. He made me play to him all the songs I had written, and when he realised that there were enough comparatively good ones to make up a score, he wired to Charlot commanding him to come out immediately. I was thrilled at the thought of doing a whole revue, but scared that Charlot, when he arrived, might not be quite as eager and appreciative as Ned. However, when he did arrive in due course he was expansive and benign, and a series of cigar-laden conferences ensued, during which London Calling was born.
I worked on sketches in the mornings, waking early when the clouds were still veiling the mountains, submitted them to Ned and Charlot in the afternoons, and within the space of a few days the whole plan of the show was roughly laid out. It was to be produced the following autumn, with Gertrude Lawrence, Maisie Gay, a comedienne as yet undecided, and myself.

Charlot took me aside and told me that he would be unable to were pay me more than fifteen pounds a week, as I was inexperienced in revue work, but that as I was bound to make a great deal of money out of royalties I was not to worry about it. I didn't worry about it at the time as I was too occupied with the show as a whole, but later I gave it a certain amount of thought. Charlot went back to England, seemingly pleased with everything, and left Ned and Barbara and me in a ferment of excitement.

Christmas pounced on Davos and everything lit up. Train loads of strange people arrived daily. A whole extra wing of the hotel was thrown open. The Kurhaus, down in the village, surprisingly produced a highly decorated bar and a jazz band. The whole place became, with abrupt thoroughness, a resort. Ned's Christmas guests, it is unnecessary to remark, were far and away the star turn of the hotel. In order of appearance, rather than precedence, they consisted of: Clifton Webb, Mrs. Fred (Teddie) Thompson, Gladys Cooper, Dick Wyndham, Edward Molyneux, Bobbie Howard, Dickie Gordon, Elsa Maxwell and Maxine Elliott. From their advent onwards life was less peaceful but certainly more stimulating. We went on tailing parties, stringing out in a long line of sleds behind a large sleigh in which Elsa sat screaming like a banshee. We went on skating parties, Swedish Punch parties and lugeing parties. In course of one of these, quite unintentionally,
I got caught up in a time test race, and to my amazement on reaching the bottom was presented with a small silver cup. Apparently I came down the two and a quarter miles in just under four minutes, not, let it be understood, because I had the least desire to do so, but because, owing to the whole run having been rebanked and iced since Barbara and I had been on it, I was completely unable to stop myself.

Gladys Cooper took a marked dislike to me, and we had several acrid tussles, notably at a lunch party at the Kurhaus, where she remarked in a tone of maddening superiority that it was ridiculous of me to go on writing plays that were never produced, and that why on earth I didn't collaborate with someone who really knew the job, she couldn't understand. I replied that as Shaw, Barrie and Maugham didn't collaborate I saw no reason why I should. Whereupon she laughed, not without reason, and said that she had never heard of such conceit in her life and that she might just as well compare herself to Duse or Bernhardt. I jumped in here quickly on cue and retorted that the difference was not quite as fantastic as that. After which the lunch continued amid slightly nervous hilarity.

Oddly enough, after this preliminary blood-letting, Gladys and I parted glowing with mutual affection, and the glow has strengthened through the years, with never so much as a breath of disharmony."
Later on after 'The Young Idea' had been greeted with acclaim, Coward refers to Ned, "Meanwhile Ned was back from Davos, much improved in health and already beginning to dissipate the effects of his cure by giving the rich lunches, dinners and supper parties that he loved so much."
With his return the preparations for the Revue (London Calling) were resumed. The dress rehearsals were hectic Coward says " ... and the general frenzy was in no way mitigated by the frequent appearances of Ned in the stalls, accompanied by a few gay but critical friends. True he thoughtfully brought champagne and chocolates as a rule, but our insides were too twisted with nerves to be able to respond suitably to luxuries."
The Everyman Theatre nearly missed the birth of The Vortex and all that followed when Norman McDermott announced " ... that unless £200 were procured immediately the whole thing would have to be abandoned." Ned Lathom was considered as a possible Angel but Coward went to Michael Arlen who eventually saved the day.
The sad reality is that this rich young aristocrat who had a passion for the theatre, wrote plays, backed numerous theatrical enterprises, lent and gave money to friends and who became a particular friend to Coward, funding much of his early work - acted in an often feckless manner in matters of business and finance. His actions provided pleasure for many but in the end through the demise of the large Lathom Estate he caused the destruction of one of the most important Palladian houses and estates in Lancashire and created a loss of employment and hardship for local people that has not been forgotten.
A more detailed history of the Lathom family including details of the celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Lathom Estate Chapel and the current renovation of the remaining West Wing of Lathom House will be placed on the website in the near future.

John Knowles April 2000

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 Copyright - The Noel Coward Society - May 2001