CHRISTOPHER WILSON tells story of Camilla's adored Uncle Jeremy
CHRISTOPHER WILSON tells the story of Camilla’s adored Uncle Jeremy… and the tragic sequel to the day she was a proud bridesmaid at his wedding
- Camilla was made a bridesmaid for her favourite uncle Jeremy Cubitt in 1952
- Cubitt tragically died by suicide, motive unclear, six years later in January 1958
As she prepares for Coronation Day, it would not be surprising if Camilla did not get out her family scrapbook and reflect on the milestones which have led her to become Queen.
Of her varied and colourful life, there’ll be many mementoes, but one photo taken 71 years ago stands out.
It shows a four-year-old Camilla and her younger sister, Annabel, making their public debut, as bridesmaids at a society wedding in Mayfair.
The glamorous bride is Diana du Cane, daughter of a wealthy Hampshire landowner and designer of Donald Campbell’s record-breaking powerboat Bluebird II. The groom is Jeremy Cubitt, dashing former Guards officer and Camilla’s favourite uncle. Rich and well-connected, the couple’s happiness seemed serene and assured.
Jeremy, then 25 and the younger brother of Camilla’s mother, Rosalind Shand, was the Eton-educated son of the 3rd Baron Ashcombe, whose forbears constructed London’s poshest enclave, Belgravia. His brother, Harry, went on to inherit the family peerage and marry the daughter of former Foreign Secretary Lord Carrington.
But the family story is marked by unanswered tragedy.
The Queen Consort during the State Banquet held at Buckingham Palace in London, during the State Visit to the UK by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa, November 22, 2022.
A gifted artist and companionable man, Jeremy joined the Coldstream Guards after school before entering the family firm, while also joining the Territorials as a highly-regarded platoon commander in the 10th Parachute Brigade. But despite his glittering wedding at St Mark’s Church, North Audley Street, on January 17, 1952, there were problems with the marriage, and after the birth of a daughter, the Cubitts parted.
At about this time, Jeremy quit the family firm and volunteered to help at the Oxford and Bermondsey Boys’ Club in London’s deprived docklands – an organisation which a few years earlier had encouraged a young Tommy Steele on his way to fame as a singer and entertainer.
‘He rang us up out of the blue and offered his services,’ recalled Edwin Harlow, warden of the club. ‘He was a well-bred, wealthy young man who had not been very happy. We thought he was trying to find himself by helping others.’
Jeremy abandoned his smart Chelsea flat and moved into a modest working-men’s hostel in Fair Street in the docklands area.
As well as working for the boys’ club, he volunteered for the New Bridge Association – run by anti-pornography and prison reform campaigner Lord Longford – to help discharged prisoners find personal friendships.
The peer remembered him as a ‘moving spirit in the association’, adding: ‘Nobody showed more zeal or sympathetic understanding than Jeremy, and no one was more effective at finding jobs for these unfortunate people.’ Jeremy’s duties at the boys’ club included looking after a unit of young men under the age of 18.
‘He took a great interest in cultural activities and frequently took parties hiking and camping,’ recalled Mr Harlow. ‘He was also an accomplished boxer and runner.’
In June 1957, when his niece, Camilla Shand, was nearly ten, Jeremy’s marriage was dissolved. By December, he was telling friends, he’d become engaged to a cousin, Imogen Tallents, the daughter of shipping magnate Sir Thomas Tallents.
But those friends later talked of a family row, with vehement opposition from both sides to the union.
A few weeks after the engagement announcement, on January 12, he cycled from his docklands home to his old stamping-ground in Chelsea, where he had lunch in a restaurant and cashed a cheque.
The sequence of events which followed has never been verified, but a doorman at the Savoy Hotel in the Strand reported that he had seen Jeremy being spoken to by a policeman.
Also at about that time, the future Queen’s uncle went to a nearby post office, wrote a postcard and sent it on its way.
The wedding of Jeremy Cubitt and Diana du Cane in St Mark’s church, North Audley Street, London, 17th January 1952. In the background are bridesmaids 4-year-old Camilla and 3-year-old Annabel Shand. The bridegroom’s dog William greets the newlyweds as they leave the church after the ceremony
His body was found later that day. He had thrown himself from a 35ft parapeted pathway called Adelphi Terrace, situated under an archway behind the Savoy and known locally as a Lovers’ Walk. His sports cycle was found nearby standing at a kerb.
At the inquest which followed, a verdict of suicide was given, but no evidence was offered as to why he killed himself. However, it was revealed the message was addressed to his father Lord Ashcombe’s secretary.
It was a white card with a five-line note scrawled with a ballpoint pen, announcing the intention of killing himself. The card was date-stamped just 90 minutes before his body was found.
Later, the secretary said Jeremy had been ‘in good spirits’ just days before and had talked about his planned wedding.
In his will, he left £15,653 (the equivalent of £450,000 today) to his ex-wife and their only child, a daughter born in 1953.
No mention was made at the 30-minute inquest of his conversation with the policeman, nor was the officer called as a witness.
The Coroner, Dr Gavin Thurston, said there was no indication why he’d taken his own life but did not seek to delve further into the family’s grief.
Rosalind, Camilla’s mother and Jeremy’s only sister, did not attend the inquest. His ex-wife, Diana (Camilla’s aunt by wedlock), took the couple’s daughter into a new marriage. That daughter – Camilla’s first cousin – has, I’m reliably informed, been invited to the Coronation.
Why did Jeremy Cubitt kill himself? Newspaper reports of the inquest were scant. Whatever questions that might have been asked did not emerge as, at the same time, the nation was plunged into shock after a plane carrying the Manchester United football team crashed at Munich airport, killing 23 people on board.
The awful death of Jeremy Cubitt was forgotten to those outside his family and his name has never since been mentioned publicly in connection with Camilla, now 75.
Whether he became troubled by the row over his engagement, whether he had become too close to one or more of those young men he sought to help, or something else altogether, we shall never know.
The woman he was due to marry, Imogen Tallents, had flown from Cape Town but got stuck in London traffic from the airport and missed the inquest. She left Britain soon after and set up home in a sparsely populated community in New Zealand’s South Island, where she lived anonymously until her death in 2008. She never married.
Camilla (L) and Annabel Shand (R) as bridesmaids at wedding of Diana Du Cane and Jeremy Cubitt, January 17th 1952
Though his memory is largely lost to history, Jeremy Cubitt’s name lives on. A small but prestigious prize is presented each year in his name at London’s Slade School of Art. A smaller prize is offered to young artists through a separate charity in his name, too.
For those still around to remember him, the recollection is one of an outgoing, charming and warm individual who very much cared for those less well off than him.
Lord Longford, who died aged 95 in 2001, said in a tribute: ‘Jeremy was young, but he displayed an insight and imagination in helping people in need which is unequalled in my experience.’
As the Company Sergeant-Major of his fellow soldiers with the Territorial Army’s 10th Parachute Regiment said: ‘He was the life and soul of the party.’
Christopher Wilson is the author of A Greater Love: Charles And Camilla.
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