Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, who has died aged 104, was a long-serving lady-in-waiting to the Queen Mother, who joined Clarence House in 1965 and remained with the Queen Mother until the latter’s death in 2002.
She was selected for the post by the private secretary, Sir Martin Gilliat, who had been in Colditz during the war with her husband, Patrick. She proved a stalwart member of the team, being a redoubtable figure who brooked no nonsense and was not afraid to ask the Queen Mother difficult questions when other members of the Household were being nervous and over-courtierly. As the older ladies-in-waiting faded away, Gilliat wrote of her: “She, anyhow, goes from strength to strength and has a most splendidly stimulating and down to earth outlook on all our activities – bringing any form of overt pomposity very quickly down to earth.”
She was born on September 2 1918, as Frances Olivia Grenfell, daughter of Lt-Colonel Arthur Grenfell, a financier with a deep love for cricket whose talent for making money was matched by his ability to lose it. The family Titian, their country house and their Rolls-Royce, which formed the backdrop to her childhood, alternated with battened-down hatches in London flats in periods of financial adversity.
Her eccentric mother, Hilda Margaret Lyttelton, was the daughter of General Sir Neville Lyttelton, who in later life was Governor of the Royal Hospital, Chelsea, where Frances, as a child, recalled meeting four veterans of the Crimean War, then in extreme old age, one of whom claimed to have been nursed by Florence Nightingale.
She came from a large family, the product of her father’s two marriages, though the siblings were so close that they scarcely noticed this. By his marriage to Lady Victoria Grey, her father had two sons and a daughter. The eldest brother Reggie married Joyce Phipps, later celebrated as the actress and diseuse, Joyce Grenfell, an event which proved something of a whirlwind in the family, Joyce introducing her young sisters-in-law to make-up, lipstick, the wireless and the theatre.
Joyce Grenfell wrote that Frances had “courage, warmth, and wisdom” and declared that she was closer to her than to any of the other sisters-in-law. Another brother, Harry, lost his legs in the Second World War, while Vera, a Bright Young Thing in the 1920s, went on to do stalwart war work in the East End and to serve as lady-in-waiting to Princess Alice, Countess of Athlone.
Her father’s second marriage produced Mary, who married the 12th Earl Waldegrave; Katie, who married twice and lived to be 95; Frances; and her closest sister, Laura, who married General Sir Bernard Fergusson, later Lord Ballantrae, and was killed when a tree hit their car.
Frances was memorably subjected to the medical ministrations of Dr Janos Plesch, a fashionable if maverick doctor who set himself up in Mayfair, and who had been a friend of Einstein. Her mother was worried that her daughter was too fat, and Plesch, observing that statues were eroded by water, recommended that the girl be hosed down and given a stiff brush to reduce her contours. When Plesch further suggested that she run round Hyde Park in her nightdress, her father drew the line.
She attended a PNEU school, St Paul’s Girls School in London and a finishing school in Paris. She was presented at court in 1937, and went through a season as a debutante at a time when the family fortunes were in good shape. The season over, she was dispatched to Canada to stay with the Governor-General, Lord Tweedsmuir (the novelist John Buchan), acting as a kind of lady-in-waiting to Lady Tweedsmuir.
After a whirlwind courtship, she was engaged to an ADC at Government House, Patrick Campbell-Preston, a young officer in the Black Watch. They returned to England and married in 1938. From then on a Scottish element was added to her life, the Campbell-Prestons living at the 13th-century Ardchattan Priory in Argyllshire on the West Coast.
Life as an army wife took on a more demanding aspect when the Second World War broke out. Patrick served in the Black Watch, and in 1940, in the wake of Dunkirk, he was captured and imprisoned variously at Warburg (from which he escaped) and later, being an inveterate escaper, in Colditz Castle. At 22, Frances Campbell-Preston was left the mother of a young daughter. She spent her time between London and Scotland, presently joining the Immobile WRNS at Oban.
Patrick returned home after the war, and between 1947 and 1955 two sons and another daughter were born. Patrick achieved his cherished ambition to command the Black Watch, but soon afterwards his health declined, his long years of imprisonment having taken their toll, and he died in 1960. His wife was left to bring up their four children on her own.
Five years later, to her astonishment, Frances Campbell-Preston was invited to become one of the Queen Mother’s ladies-in-waiting. It was a role for which she proved eminently suited. Her down-to-earth character matched the Queen Mother’s sense of fun and enjoyment of meeting people from all walks of life. She understood the nuances of life at Clarence House, and accompanied the Queen Mother on numerous royal tours, including one to New Zealand (particularly enjoyable since her sister Laura was the wife of the Governor-General, Sir Bernard Fergusson).
On one expedition, when she was new to the job, they embarked on a train and Sir Martin Gilliat suddenly announced: “Now we must get out the automatic arm.” Astonished, Frances Campbell-Preston asked what this meant. “Well, you can hardly expect the Queen Mother to wave all the time during the journey, so we have this wooden arm….” As she said later: “I was very green!”
These overseas trips involved long voyages in the Royal Yacht Britannia. Unfortunately, sea life was not something Frances Campbell-Preston found congenial, claiming to have been the only person ever to have been seasick on the Royal Barge, while being tendered to the Royal Yacht. Frances Campbell-Preston was also in attendance on the Queen Mother on all widowhood visits to Canada into the 1980s.
She was created a DCVO in 1990 to coincide with the Queen Mother’s 90th birthday. When she herself approached 80, she thought it was time to retire, and broached the subject with the Queen Mother, who was then 98. “You know I am about to be 80, Ma’am …” she began. “Congratulations!” said the Queen Mother. “You feel marvellous after you’re 80!” Any plans of retirement were squashed, and Dame Frances Campbell-Preston served until the Queen Mother’s death in March 2002 at the age of 101.
Concurrent with her royal duties she bought Inverawe, a vast rambling house overlooking Loch Etive. In due course, her son Robert and his wife Rosie took this over, and using Frances’s Christmas card list of 150 for initial mailing, established the successful Inverawe Smoked Fisheries business.
After the Queen Mother’s death, and finding herself with a sprained ankle, she wrote her memoirs, using a great number of vivid family letters, particularly between herself and her sister Laura, her half-sister Vera, and her parents. At this time, Hugo Vickers, who had lately published a biography of the Queen Mother, helped her to edit the book.
When she had finished it, her 96-year-old cousin, Sir Edward Ford, offered to proofread it. She took it round to him at his house in Little Venice, and was horrified when he pulled up a desk and proceeded to correct it in her presence, an experience she equated to returning to the schoolroom.
The resulting autobiography, The Rich Spoils of Time, was published in 2006. She was able to draw on the 18,000-strong mailing list of her son’s Inverawe business and received excellent reviews from, among others, the late Hugh Massingberd, who wrote: “The outstandingly vivid wartime chapters remind one how much we owe to the sadly vanishing generation of which Dame Frances Campbell-Preston (born 1918) is such an admirable and down-to-earth ornament.”
It ran to several editions, and as a result she was invited to speak at the Windsor Festival, commissioned by The Times to write an article on old age, and even interviewed in Hello! magazine.
Her life was not always easy. Widowed at a young age, she lost two grandchildren and was the last survivor of her siblings, but she lived to become much-loved matriarch to a large family of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She retained her independence to the last, learning how to surf the internet, send emails, operate Skype, and at the age of 90, mastered the Naturally Speaking Dragon programme so she could dictate text directly to her word processor. She never lost her robust approach to life nor her enjoyable sense of humour.
Dame Frances Campbell-Preston, born September 2 1918, died November 22 2022