Harold Nicholson and Helen’s Tower, by James O’Fee

I’m now reading Harold Nicolson Diaries and Letters 1930-1964, edited and condensed by Stanley Olson, Collins, London 1980, being a single volume condensed version of three volumes published in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Nicolson is rated among the greatest political diarists of the 20th century.

Helen’s Tower (painting)



In Nicolson and Trianon 1 (Thursday, January 15. 2009) I reflected on HELEN’S TOWER, a book which my mother loved. I’ve found these references in Nicholson’s Diaries –

(p 101) Just before the House [of Commons] rose for the summer recess at the end of July [1936] the Spanish Civil War broke out. During the recess H.N. travelled to Northern Ireland and Scotland to do research for his book Helen’s Tower, his biography of the first Marquess of Dufferin and Ava, and later to Austria, Venice and the French Riviera.

(p 102) Diary August 31, 1936
Clandeboye, near Belfast

… Ride up to the Tower [Helen’s Tower] with Basil [the fourth Marquess of Dufferin and Ava]. a lovely view. The old man Bruce at the tower remembers me. “And what have you been doing Mr Nicholson all this long while?” What indeed? What indeed?

[This diary entry was not included in the original 3 volumes.]

(p 115) H.N. did not have a holiday abroad during the summer recess [of 1937]. During that period, from August until October 21st, he finished Helen’s Tower, which was published in the autumn with V.S-W.’s [Vera Sackville-West’s] Pepita.

So HELEN’S TOWER was a biography of the First Marquess of Dufferin and Ava! His descendants presumably commissioned Nicholson for the job, for which Nicholson, as a former member of the Diplomatic Service and the author of several noted biographies, was eminently qualified.

The First Marquess was born in 1826 as Frederick Temple Blackwood to a family of minor Irish aristocrats of Scottish descent. His father held the title Baron Dufferin and Claneboye in the Irish peerage.

Clearly Francis Temple Blackwood was an exceptional man who went on to become one of the foremost British diplomats of the Victorian period. He served as Governor General of Canada, as well as Ambassador to Imperial Russia and Ottoman Turkey, before receiving the top diplomatic job of all, Viceroy of India (1884-8). For his services he was raised, first to Earl of Dufferin (1871) and then to Marquess of Dufferin and Ava (1888) in the peerage of the United Kingdom. [Dufferin is a barony in County Down, while Ava is a Burmese kingdom which was added to Britain’s Indian Empire by the First Marquess.]

The First Marquess built Helen’s Tower in 1851 in his estate at Clandeboye (which lies on the outskirts of Bangor) as a memorial to his mother, who was a grand-daughter of the Irish dramatist, Richard Brindsley Sheridan. The tower stands on a low hill which commands the surrounding area.

In keeping with these literary connections, the First Marquess brought several leading writers and poets of the day to Clandeboye. Both Alfred Lord Tennyson (Poet Laureate) and Robert Browning wrote poems with the title “Helen’s Tower” (a).

The First Marquess, who loved sailing, became the first Commodore of the Royal Ulster Yacht Club, through which the Scottish grocery magnate, Sir Thomas Lipton, who had Irish descent, issued his several challenges for the Americas Cup. But the First Marquess lost most of his fortune through a financial scam (shades of Bernie Madoff).

Helen’s Tower (photo)
Ulster Tower, Thiepval



There’s a further important historical connection with Helen’s Tower. On the outbreak of the First World War, the Second Marquess offered the use of his estate to the military. And so recruits into the 36th (Ulster) Division (many of whom had previously served in the Ulster Volunteer Force) received their training at Clandeboye where Helen’s Tower was a familiar landmark.

The Ulster Division was cut to pieces at the Battle of the Somme in 1916, along with much of the volunteer army raised by Lord Kitchener. Today a replica of Helen’s Tower, with the name of ‘Ulster Tower’, stands at Thiepval on the battlefield as a memorial to the fallen Ulstermen.


(a) A verse from “Helen’s Tower” by Alfred Lord Tennyson goes –

Helen’s Tower, here I stand,
Dominant over sea and land.
Son’s love built me, and I hold
Mother’s love in letter’d gold.
Love is in and out of time,
I am mortal stone and lime.
Would my granite girth were strong
As either love, to last as long
I should wear my crown entire
To and thro’ the Doomsday fire,
And be found of angel eyes
In earth’s recurring Paradise.

Alfred Lord Tennyson

Helen’s Tower
by Robert Browning

Who hears of Helen’s Tower, may dream perchance
How the Greek Beauty from the Scaean Gate
Gazed on old friends unanimous in hate,
Death-doom’d because of her fair countenance.

Hearts would leap otherwise, at thy advance,
Lady, to whom this Tower is consecrate!
Like hers, thy face once made all eyes elate,
Yet, unlike hers, was bless’d by every glance.

The Tower of Hate is outworn, far and strange:
A transitory shame of long ago,
It dies into the sand from which it sprang;
But thine, Love’s rock-built Tower, shall fear no change:
God’s self laid stable earth’s foundations so,
When all the morning-stars together sang.


Helen’s Tower – Wikipedia entry

Frederick Hamilton-Temple-Blackwood, 1st Marquess of Dufferin and Ava – Wikipedia entry


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