The story of Almina Herbert would have been too far-fetched for the fictional Downton Abbey; but she was the real-life countess of Highclere Castle, she bankrolled the discovery of Tutankhamun's tomb, and her love-life was as scandalous as it was colourful. But from living in grand houses with her every need attended to, she ended her days in genteel poverty in Bristol in 1969. Gurjeet Landa tells her remarkable story.
On May 8 1969, an ambulance raced to 19 Hampton Road, Redland, where the housekeeper had found her 92-year-old mistress choking on a piece of gristle from a chicken stew.
The woman was rushed to Frenchay Hospital, but died soon after.
This was no ordinary citizen of Bristol – quite the opposite. This was Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, widow of the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, the aristocrat-explorer who, alongside Howard Carter, discovered the Tomb of Tutankhamun.
Almina's fame does not stop there; she was the former chatelaine of Highclere Castle, where 'Downton Abbey' was filmed. She was quite possibly a member of the outrageously wealthy Rothschild dynasty, and at the centre of a cover-up so damaging even Julian Fellowes would not dare script it.
So how did this lady of luxury come to live her last remaining years in an unremarkable terraced house in Bristol?
Born under a black cloud as the illegitimate child of an affair, Almina was shrouded in controversy her entire life. Supposedly the daughter of Alfred de Rothschild, heir to the family banking empire and his beautiful French mistress, Marie Wombwell, she was used to the finer things in life and lavished with expensive gifts from her doting "godfather."
Although Almina grew up to be just as beautiful and vivacious as her mother, and her early life revolved around high society balls and parties, she struggled to find a respectable marriage because of her less-than-respectable parentage.
At the age of 17, she was presented at Court as a debutante, hopeful this tradition would secure her a well-bred husband. Only two months later Almina caught the eye of George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon.
Sadly, the attraction, and later marriage, was not based on love but was an arrangement of convenience and common sense for both parties. Almina came with a dowry worth about £25 million in today's money, which was more than enough to pay off the Earl's gambling debts incurred in his youth and help with the high running costs of Highclere Castle. In return, Almina received the respectability she desperately craved.
Almina, Countess of Carnarvon, dressed for the Coronation of Edward VII in 1902
With the chance of being a Countess at the age of 19, Almina turned a blind eye to (or disregarded) the Earl's weak moral character and pockmarked complexion, which she suspected was due to a sexually transmitted disease he had contracted from a brothel whilst holidaying in Egypt in his twenties.
It is a reasonable assumption because many close to the Earl in his younger days remarked that he had been led into "wild ways to prove his manhood" by friends. So in 1895, Almina - wearing pieces of the Carnarvon jewel collection, including a diamond and emerald tiara – walked down the aisle of St. Margaret's Church, Westminster to marry her first husband.
The couple were expected to produce an heir shortly after their honeymoon, but it was two and a half years later when Almina finally fell pregnant. Whispered rumours about the Earl's inability to complete his duty in the bedroom spread across aristocratic circles at the time. However, William Cross, who wrote a biography of Almina, Countess of Carnarvon in 2011, argues that the Earl was not sexually impotent - he just didn't find his wife attractive.
But if the Earl didn't appreciate Almina's beauty, his best friend certainly did.
Prince Victor Duleep Singh was the son of the last Maharaja of Lahore and the favoured godson of Queen Victoria. Welcomed in the highest echelons of British society, he and the Earl were close friends from their time at Eton together. The Prince was a frequent visitor at Highclere, and an openly flirtatious distraction for the lonely Countess. So much so that there has always been an air of suspicion about who is the true father of her son; the Earl or the Indian Prince? Was she seduced or set-up by her uninterested husband?
These questions were sufficiently answered – or at least deliberately ignored - when a son, Henry Herbert was born on November 7, 1898 - with a pale complexion. The Earl claimed a Carnarvon heir and no more was said on the matter. In 1901, the couple introduced their daughter, Lady Evelyn Herbert, into the world without any questions of her paternity.
Now with an heir, the Earl was free to follow his great love of Egyptology, and with Almina's fortune financed numerous expeditions to the Valley of the Kings, leading to the most famous archaeological find to date – the Tomb of the boy-Pharaoh, Tutankhamun.
Unfortunately, the Earl never saw the treasure that lay within.
In 1923, just before the inner chamber was opened, he was bitten by a mosquito and taken seriously ill, contracting pneumonia. Throughout his illness, Almina remained at her husband's side, nursing him devoutly.
But to no avail, as George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon died within a few weeks. To this day, some people ascribe the Earl's death to the "Pharoah's curse".
July 1922: Egyptologist Howard Carter (right) with Lord Carnarvon at the Valley of the Kings in Egypt
Almina continued to bankroll the Egyptian expeditions though, now with the British archaeologist, Howard Carter in charge.
Even though her marriage appeared to be loveless, the Countess held strong affection for her first husband. Speaking about him in 1927 she passionately declared, "Nobody in the world loved Lord Carnarvon more than I did. His life was just sacred to me."
The Countess was now a widow - but only for eight months. Later that same year, Almina married Lieutenant-General Ian Onslow Dennistoun on December 19, 1923 at the registry office in Hanover Square, London.
She had met the military man (then newly divorced) three years previously in Paris, and had become instantly besotted with him, even buying him a small cottage.
The relationship was not one-sided though as Almina used Dennistoun for money-laundering. She often sold jewels and works of art inherited from Alfred de Rothschild to fund her luxury lifestyle, using Dennistoun's accounts as secret pockets away from the taxman's gaze.
If Almina's first marriage had started off rocky, it was nothing compared to her second one. In 1925 the couple were involved in a sensational High Court case that had been brought against Dennistoun by his former wife Dorothy.No doubt because of Almina's wealth, she accused the Lieutenant-General of owing her money. Paying her off straight away would have been far cheaper than dragging the case through Court, but Almina chose to do the latter - with very negative consequences.
The judge, Justice McCardie called the case "the most bitterly conducted trial I have ever known," with the illegal exploits of both parties being exposed for all to see.
Dorothy Dennistoun argued that she was entitled to compensation as her former husband had forced her to sleep with General Sir John Cowans, the Quartermaster-General of the British Army in the Great War, in order to secure a promotion. It was a damning allegation with much supporting evidence but one resolutely denied by Colonel Dennistoun, who counter-claimed that his former wife had slept her way round Europe and was not to be trusted.
Almina was forced into the witness box, confessing to money laundering and adultery. On more than one occasion she was on the point of fainting so had smelling salts passed under her nose.
The Countess's fame ensured the trial was splashed across the front pages of newspapers up and down the country. In the end the case went in favour of Colonel Dennistoun, but not before blackening the names of all involved, and costing Almina close to £400,000 (in today's money) in Court fees and other related expenditure.
Now in serious financial difficulty, and few valuable assets remaining, Almina resorted to opening a nursing home for the rich and famous. During the First World War, Highclere Castle, like many stately homes, had been converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers, and it was here that Almina found her true calling of nursing. She took this experience and found Alfred House Nursing Home (named after her "godfather") in London in 1927.
Dubbed "the Ritz of nursing homes," members of British and foreign high society were treated in the most luxurious surroundings one could imagine for a hospital. Care in this institution was not cheap, but luckily for patients, Almina – forever the generous hostess - often failed to provide a bill at the end of a guest's stay. As one grateful patient recalled, "She simply thought it was bad taste."
She also followed in the footsteps of European clinics and began to offer pregnancy terminations. Abortions were illegal in Britain until 1967 so if Almina had been caught, she would have earned a long stretch in prison.
Fortunately for the steady stream of well-to-do women visiting Alfred House from 1933, she was never questioned by the police. Her secretive service was so popular her own nephew, Evelyn Waugh referred to the place as "Almina's abortionist parlour" rather than a nursing home.
The Second World War and the bombings of London saw Alfred House permanently close its doors in 1939. Over the next few years, Almina set up and was forced to close two other nursing homes – The Red House in Hove and The Glebe in Hertfordshire – because of the war and her mounting debts.
Even though her son, Henry Herbert had become the 6th Earl of Carnarvon on the death of his father, and was financially comfortable, he refused to help his mother.
The Earl and Countess at Ascot (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)
Since 1923, the mother-son relationship had been strained because he accused Almina of selfishly flittering away his inheritance. Henry despised his mother so much that he had her favourite room at Highclere closed off simply to spite her. It was not re-opened until his death in 1987.
The strained relationship finally came to a head when he reported her to the Inland Revenue for tax evasion and arrears in the 1950s. With the threat of imminent bankruptcy, she made sure she was on favourable terms with her daughter and all her grandchildren.
Declared bankrupt, Almina was given £60 a week to live on from the authorities, meaning she had to find a cheaper residence and turned to her favourite grandson (Henry's son), also named Henry Herbert, for assistance. He agreed to buy her a house, as long as it was in Bristol (the reason for his specific location is not known), so Almina chose to settle down in the Redland area of the city in 1954.Number 19 Hampton Road was an unremarkable three-bedroom house in an unremarkable row of Victorian terraced houses. Many renovations were made (also paid for by her grandson) before Almina moved in because the place didn't even have hot water! Almina went from the chatelaine of Highclere Castle to living in a modest house with inadequate bathroom facilities.
She was not bitter or resentful. Her infallibly upbeat outlook was helped by what was now her adoptive "family" – her friend and housekeeper Anne Leadbetter, and Anne's son, Tony, whom Almina doted on.
Then there was Almina's new, and much younger, beau James Timothy Stocking. Thirty years her junior, Stocking had met Almina whilst renovating The Glebe in 1942. It was not long before he left his unhappy marriage to move in with the 70-year-old Almina.
The Countess found she enjoyed Bristol almost as much as London as she often delighted in days out in the city, visiting art galleries and attending day concerts. Bristolian people were very welcoming towards her too. Although she liked to keep a low profile, the Bristol cabbies knew exactly who she was and were extraordinarily protective of her; making sure she made it into the house safely after her journey before moving off.
Despite her small income, Almina managed to keep a few luxuries as Tom Page, a Bristolian who lived down the road from Almina recalled, "I remember an elderly lady in old fashioned clothes with a chauffeur driven black Morris Oxford car."
Regular handouts from the Highclere Estate also allowed Almina and her adopted family an annual holiday in the South of France.
As her bankruptcy scandal receded, many old aristocratic friends visited the aging Almina at her modest address, and she was slowly accepted back into society circles. The partial return of her social respectability gave her the confidence to carry on the tradition of Highclere Castle at Hampton Road and host an annual New Years' Eve party.
But in 1963 tragedy struck Almina's less affluent but happy life: the unexpected death (from a sudden heart attack) of her lover, James Stocking. Following this, Almina suffered from a period of emotional withdrawal; finding comfort in embracing her mother's religion, Roman Catholicism.
Through-out her carefree life, Almina had always feared chicken and fish bones, instructing her staff at Highclere and chefs in the best restaurants across Europe to take special care with her food. So it was a cruel irony that the oversight of one small chicken bone in her evening dinner put an end to her long and colourful life.
Her death went largely unnoticed; there was only a small announcement in the Post. The funeral was functional and included a Catholic Mass, but it was certainly not emotional and comforting as no eulogy to this eccentric but generous woman was given.
Tony Leadbetter wrote a tribute to Almina, 5th Countess of Carnarvon in 1979: "A great lady, who throughout her life did so much for others. [Her finest hour came when] she worked and cared for the sick between 1914 and 1945. She was often misunderstood and finally accused and taken to Court for bankruptcy, as a result of her generosity and extravagance. She gave my mother and I hope and help in our hour of need and I am grateful to her for this, and for her service to others."