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Ned Lathom - The Lathom Angel
Edward Bootle-Wilbraham, 3rd Earl of Lathom, 4th Baron Skelmersdale 1895 - 1930
© John Knowles, October 2000

Edward William Bootle-Wilbraham, the third and last Earl of Lathom and Baron of Skelmersdale was known as Ned Lathom by the theatrical world, his riotous parties at Blythe Hall in Lathom were the stuff of legend and a source of local gossip. Theatrical luminaries of the day, Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence and a myriad of others were his frequent guests. Lathom locals saw Ned and guests singing and dancing down country lanes fizzing with champagne and trailing perfume. Footmen were sent on a whim and at great expense to London to buy a packet of chocolate almonds or a crystal-cut decanter of perfume for guests.
 
He poured his family fortune into countless, often unsuccessful, theatrical ventures, and gave and lent money to aspiring young stars. He was an early and notable patron of the young Noel Coward at a time when Coward was desperately climbing social and career ladders. He died in comparative poverty in London in 1930 at the age of 35 from tuberculosis.
 
On the death of his father and at the tender age of 14 Ned was left to manage the large Lathom Estate and its vast fortune. At this moment of greatest need his mother was whisked away by her own mother the Countess Radnor to Venice where she remained for some two years leaving the young earl to the care of trustees, Eton College and various minders. His ancestral home, Lathom Hall (near Ormskirk in Lancashire) was requisitioned as a Remount Depot for the cavalry at the start of the First World War and was largely ruined by the less than caring hooves and feet of tens of thousands of horses and soldiers.
 
By 1914 he had become an officer in the army and spent his 21st birthday in the trenches in France. At the end 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 is reported as being a changed man with a strong desire to be with others. He decided to give up his country home at Lathom Hall, or what remained of it, and live at the dower house of Blythe Hall which he refurbished and enlarged in a spectacular and dazzling manner. The pillars of its main staircase balustrade were fashioned in cut glass encased in black ebony. When all the chandeliers and hundreds of electric candles were lit it was "like a fairyland." Other extravagancies were a bowling alley (taken from Lathom Hall) and a Roman-style swimming pool surrounded with electric lights, that kept shadows from falling on the water, and 12 imposing Corinthian columns rising from floor to ceiling. A secret staircase led from a hidden door on the ground floor to his bedroom and became the subject of local speculation. 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 finally moved into Blythe as his country home. From then on, for two years, Ned proceeded to entertain the glitterati of the theatre world he loved, as if there were 'no tomorrow! They came by train from London to Lime Street Station in Liverpool, were met by three chauffeurs in his Rolls Royce, Studebaker and Chrysler cars and taken to Blythe Hall. Ivor Novello, Noël Coward, Gertrude Lawrence, designer Oliver Messel, Gladys Cooper, Marie Tempest, Mrs. Patrick Campbell were amongst numerous guests. Local stories of the high life at Blythe Hall under the Lathoms recall Ned Lathom, Noël Coward and Ivor Novello, clearly the better for drink, dancing and singing down the lane and on one occasion bounding along on pogo sticks leaving a 'trail of sweet-smelling perfume' behind them.
 
Others recall watching Ned's extravagant and sometimes risqué plays. His play Wet Paint was banned from the London stage by the Lord Chamberlain but many of his plays were staged at the Strand and Prince of Wales theatres albeit many at 'one-off' Sunday performances. At Lathom They were performed by his guests at 'The Lathom Club.' This was a wooden 'theatre' in the grounds of Lathom House now, still with its original stage, used as a scout hut.

Guests at his Cumberland Place house and his weekend parties at Blythe Hall remember servants pouring perfume into heated spoons to create a heady atmosphere as they arrived. According to Bryan Connon in 'Beverley Nicholls - A Life' one of his favoured perfumes was, 'Suivez Moi, Jeunne Homme.' Which he says summed up Ned's attitude to life! Each guest would receive a costly gift, often a cut-glass decanter of perfume costing £50. Expensive wine flowed and only the richest foods were served. The rooms were covered in flowers and "orchids massed in front of long mirrors." Young acolytes were rewarded with money or "lavish presents from Cartier."
 
For Noël Coward he was a significant friend and supporter. Coward is honest about his dependency on Ned in his autobiography 'Present Indicative'. His value in solving Coward's financial problems was vital. 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 in 1921 with Jeffrey Holmsdale (Lord Amherst) on the Aquitania. This trip became critical in developing Coward's crisp, pacey, dramatic style. On his return after living 'close to the ground' in New York he produced his first major successes, the social shocker, 'The Vortex' and the hilarious comedy, 'Hay Fever.'
 
Later when Coward needed financial help for himself and his family 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 … 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."
"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."
 
Theatre's gain was Lancashire's loss. The legacy of Ned's excess was insurmountable debt and eventual penury. His patronage of too many unsuccessful theatrical productions, and an over-generous and often wild lifestyle, led to his downfall. His financial indulgencies finally caught up with him in January 1924 when most of the Lathom estate of some 57 farms and smallholdings, several public houses, 140 houses and cottages, 4,000 acres of land and swathes of woodland were sold by public auction in Ormskirk.
Ned's legendary generosity did not however desert him at this hour of his greatest need. He withdrew items from the auction and donated them to the local community including 'The Lathom Club.'
 
Ned moved to London and opened an antique shop in a street off Grosvenor Square, almost opposite Claridges. He lived in various flats at different times in Portland Place, Park Lane and Mount Street. In 1927 he surprisingly married the aging actress Maria Xenia Morison which one source claims to be the result of a rash promise made while wining and dining in a London hotel. Ned's fall to comparative poverty, and the tuberculosis that started in his twenties and finally killed him present a tragic end. He died in 1930, without an heir, at the age of 35 and was cremated at Golders Green.
 
The sad reality is that he was a kind, witty, rich, and naïve aristocrat who acted in a totally feckless manner in matters of business and finance. Noël Coward, Ivor Novello, Beverley Nichols and Collie Knox appear to be amongst the few who may have helped Ned at the end of his life when most of the sponging acolytes had vanished. His generous actions helped many but his lifestyle, foolish spending and his role in the demise of one of the most historically important and noble estates of Lancashire, is still a matter of local controversy over 70 years later.
 
A detailed biography of Ned Lathom, his life and his relationship with the theatre and its luminaries - written by John Knowles, under the auspices of 'The Noel Coward Society' is planned for publication in 2001/2.
 
The Society would welcome contributions to its research, emails please, to [email protected]
 
Special thanks go to Mr. Howard Whitaker, a great-nephew of Ned Lathom and Mrs.Pam Nanson, of the Ormskirk and District Historical Society, for their willingness to help in this research and for providing information and photographs.
 
References:
Beverley Nichols a Life by Bryan Connon (Timber Press.)
All I Could Never Be by Beverley Nichols (Jonathan Cape.)
Present Indicative by Noël Coward (Methuen.)
Genius and Lust by Joseph Morella and George Mazzei (Robson Books.)
Burscough The Story of an Agricultural Village by Ernest Rosbottom (Carnegie Publishing.)
The Ormskirk Advertiser - various editions.
 
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