The strange story of the virgin birth and Kinvara’s great huntswoman
Geoffrey Russell, fourth Lord Ampthill, died at the age of 89 last April 23. His mother Christabel, Lady Ampthill, bought Dunguaire Castle, Kinvara, Co Galway, an old tower house with a bawn and smaller tower on a creek of Galway Bay, and restored it most sympathetically. It is now owned by Shannon Development and used for mediaeval banquets.
Her son, Geoffrey, was the Russell baby who was the central figure in a series of sensational law cases in the 1920s and again in 1976.
His father, John Hugo Russell, later the third Lord Ampthill, was a young officer in the British navy during World War I.
With a couple of other young sailors he put an advertisement in the personal column of The Times (of London) as follows: “Lost in the North Sea mist – three young midshipmen who would like to correspond with young ladies . . .”
Among the replies was one with a most appealing photograph from Christabel, the daughter of Lieut-Col John Hart of the Leinster Regiment.
They took her dancing and to nightclubs, and in 1918 she married John Russell against the wishes of his parents.
Christabel made John promise that they would have no children in the early years.
She spent her evenings in London out dancing with what her husband later described as “detestable young men”. But after a visit to a Mayfair clairvoyant she found she was five months pregnant. Her husband denied paternity and sued for divorce, claiming, as did she, that the marriage had never been consummated.
The evidence of the doctors agreed with this, saying that Christabel, despite her pregnancy, still showed “all signs of virginity”.
Among the possibilities considered was that conception had somehow been achieved by Christabel soaking herself in a bath that her husband had recently vacated.
After two hearings that she lost, she took the case to the House of Lords where Lord Birkenhead upheld the view that it was inadmissible for a husband or wife to give evidence of “non-access”, which would have the effect of bastardising a child born in wedlock. So the baby was legitimised.
In 1937 she did agree to give Lord Ampthill, as he now was, a divorce and she came to live in Ireland.
Here she spent the winters hunting, riding side-saddle with the Galway Blazers or the Co Clare Foxhounds, taking her own line across country.
She was very popular and well respected in Kinvara, particularly by the nuns whom she helped get their pensions.
Geoffrey Russell was first at school in Cheam, where he shared a bedroom with Prince Philip, and then at Stowe.
After leaving school and being in the Home Guard, he set up a company with a school friend to exploit an invention to make tanks amphibious. Out of this venture they each made £10,000.
He joined the Irish Guards and after D-day was sent to Brussels, but almost immediately was “squashed by a three-ton lorry” and broke his pelvis in six places.
After leaving the army, he became general manager at Fortnum and Mason and from there went on to be a theatre impresario, being involved in the very successful West End musical Salad Days .
In 1973, the third Lord Ampthill died. Geoffrey Russell’s claim to the title was contested by the third Lord Ampthill’s undoubted legitimate son.
The contest went before the committee of privileges of the House of Lords’ in 1976. A sample of blood had been obtained from the dying third lord but without the peer’s consent.
Geoffrey Russell’s solicitors refused to have his blood tested because of an intervention by Christabel, who died as a result of a hunting accident a few days before the hearing.
The committee of privileges found no grounds to overturn the previous Lords ruling on his legitimacy and he was able to take his seat in the House of Lords where he was a cross-bencher and survived the cull of hereditary peers in 1999.
He became chairman of committees, holding the most senior office in the Lords under the lord chancellor and regularly sat on the Woolsack as deputy lord chancellor.
He was married first to Susan Winn and secondly to Elisabeth Mallon, from whom he was also divorced.
He is survived by the two sons (another son was killed in a car accident in 1969) and a daughter by his first marriage.
Geoffrey Denis Erskine Russell, fourth Baron Ampthill: born October 15, 1921 died 23 April, 2011
(The Irish Times - Saturday, June 11, 2011)