Polesden Lacey and Its Society Hostess

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Front of the Polesden Lacey country manor house in Surrey, England
Polesden Lacey in Great Bookham, Surrey, England  was once a country retreat where the elite partied and is now a National Trust property open to the public

Polesden Lacey, a National Trust property, is a British Edwardian country retreat four miles from Dorking in the Surrey countryside with views of the rolling Surrey Hills and acres of countryside. Margaret Greville bought the early 19th century house and estate in 1906 and transformed it into a mansion for weekend parties and intimate gatherings of an elite circle of friends and acquaintances. When she died in 1942, she left Polesden Lacey to National Trust requesting that the house gardens and park be open to the public. The house and grounds are beautiful and fascinating to visit. Equally interesting is the story of Margaret Greville herself. She has been described as ambitious, formidable, shrewd, kind, amusing, acerbic, and naughty.

Grand red carpeted staircase with dark wood walls at Polesden Lacey
When Mrs. Greville bought the house, the stairwell was closed in. She opened it up to be able to make grand entrances.

Mrs. Greville was born Margaret Anderson in 1863. She was the daughter of Helen Anderson, who ran a boarding house in Edinburgh. Her birth certificate listed her father as William Anderson, an employee of Scottish brewer William McEwan, a man who had the same last name as her mother. It was a story concocted to make Margaret appear as the legitimate daughter of a widow. She learned later in life that her father was William McEwan, the brewer. William married her mother in 1885, after both his sister and mother were dead and could not contest what they would have considered an unsuitable match.

Margaret became heir to the McEwan fortune. In 1891, she married Ronald Greville, eldest son of Lord and Lady Greville. After her marriage, she launched herself into society life and entertained on a grand scale. Ronald died in 1908, but Margaret was known as “Mrs. Ronnie” for the rest of her life.

Dark wood screen from a Christopher Wren church in central hall at Polesden Lacey
The central hall features a screen salvaged from one of Christopher Wren’s churches and Flemish tapestries.

Mrs. Ronnie remained at Polesden Lacey after her husband’s death and entertained many high profile guests, including monarchs, maharajas, and millionaires. King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, known in later years as the Queen Mother, spent part of their honeymoon here when they were still Duke and Duchess of York. A corridor on the second level contains photographs of the many famous guests. It was fun to look through those photos.

Polesden Lacy dining room with art hanging on red patterned wallpapered walls
Dining room with original furniture and china

Elegant formal dining table with white fireplace in background

Guests gathered and mingled in the central hall at six pm where the footman served them drinks before they went to the dining room for dinner. Dinners were elaborate affairs. Throughout the house, Mrs. Greville did everything she could to make her guests comfortable. The bedrooms had telephones and en-suite bathrooms.

Bedroom with dark wood bedroom, red bed coverings, and red upholstered chaise lounge

Only one bedroom is currently open to the public. Up until recently, the other rooms were used as National Trust offices. Those offices have been relocated. The rooms are being restored and will be viewable in the future. Knowing that most of the contents are original Mrs. Greville possessions, we asked how these rooms would be furnished. We were told that other Greville artifacts now residing in various museums across the country will be returned to Polesden Lacey.

Mannequin in front of fireplace wearing long white flowing gown with embroidered flowers on bodice and train

Shelves containing books recessed in white walls with ornate upholstered chairs in front

Volunteers in each room of the house are available to provide information about the room’s contents. Information about the many art pieces in the room is also found in booklets about the room. The house has museum status which means the amount of light entering is carefully monitored and must stay below certain levels to retain museum status. The cumulative effects of light over time can be damaging to museums’ collections. A fair amount of sunlight bathed the study when we entered it. A volunteer said they would be lowering blinds shortly.


The salon is designed to overwhelm and intoxicate guests. It is decorated with paneling from an Italian palace. The room is definitely “over the top.”

Mrs. Greville was an art collector and pieces of her collection can be found throughout the house. Items such as paintings by Dutch masters, Meissen procelain, Chinese and Japanese ceramics, Fabergé and Cartier carvings.

Long hallway with red carpeting covered with Persian rugs and art work hung along its wood panel walls
Picture Hall

Volunteers in each room of the house are available to provide information about the room’s contents. Information about the many art pieces in the room is also found in booklets about the room. The house has museum status which means the amount of light entering is carefully monitored and must stay below certain levels to retain museum status. The cumulative effects of light over time can be damaging to museums’ collections. A fair amount of sunlight bathed the study when we entered it. A volunteer said they would be lowering blinds shortly.

Large expanse of grassed yard overlooking a forested valley

The natural setting for Polesden Lacey is beautiful. There is  plenty of green space. We saw families picnicing and children playing. It was late September when I visited. Most of the flowers in the large garden were past their blooming season, but there was still some colourful foliage to be found.

Gravelled pathway lined with massed of blooming flowers leading to a gingerbread house style stone cottage
Gardener’s Cottage

Polesden Lacey was used as a hospital for a while during World War I. In modern days, it has been the setting for a number of movies and television shows, including the Miss Marple mystery At Bertram’s Hotel and The Creeper episode of Midsomer Murders.

Polesden Lacey is among the top ten most visited National Trust properties. There is a restaurant that is accessible without admittance to the house. Special events occur throughout the year. For information on events, hours, and admission prices see the Polesden Lacey National Trust site.

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  1. Sounds exactly like a place I would like to tour, Donna. I am always astounded when I get to go through one of these elaborate mansions–the expanse and everything within is overwhelming. In a good way!

    1. Rose, the elaborate mansions can certainly be overwhelming at times. One of the things that makes Polesden Lacey stand out, besides the stories of its mistress, is its art collection. So much on display everywhere.

  2. This is just beautiful and such a fascinating history! I don’t know how I have never heard of this! But you are really constructing quite a tour for me, when I next go to England! Thanks for that!

    1. Jacquie, I had only heard about this recently. I read something a few months before our trip. But lots of others must know about it – it is well visited site.

  3. After reading the history and seeing your photos I can understand why Polesden Lacey is one of the most popular places of the National Trust properties to visit. Mrs. Ronnie must have been a fascinating hostess and the house must have the atmosphere of a place where you say, “If only these walls could talk!” Anita

  4. Donna, what a fabulous place and a terrific bio of Mrs. Ronnie. Can’t you just see her living there? Reminded me a little bit of Auntie Mame. I loved the story of her ‘birth certificate’ and that her mother and William McEwan ended up married was great.
    Her opening up the staircase so she could make a grand entrance really set the background for the article. Those parties must have been something. So wonderful that it’s all being preserved.

    1. Lenie, I expect the parties were quite something. As would be a weekend at the place. I’ve read that Mrs. Ronnie went out of her way to make her guests comfortable.

  5. There are so many fantastic manors in the British country side. Friends of mine have that kind of estates and it’s a delight to go and stay for the weekend. To keep warm they use huge fireplaces and it’s really nice and magic to do everything close to their beautiful fireplaces. Catch is they frequently don’t have central heating so you have to go to bed with a hot water bottle.

    1. Catarina, I’m envious of your weekends at estates like this, even if you do need a hot water bottle at night.

  6. I love learning about how the uber wealthy of past decades, earlier decades, used their mansion estates like this. We have several here in the USA – like on Rhode Island and Florida – that I love visiting. When I lag behind a tour or take one of those self-guided tours, I find myself getting more into the feeling of how it might have been. That’s assuming of course I were on the owners A-list at that time. Thanks so much Donna.

    1. Patricia, it’s great to go through these places imaging we were A-list visitors. It might have an entirely different feel if we imagined we were the staff.

  7. I’m really taken by the outdoor shots. The countryside is really so beautiful. I guess because I live in a city I never see open space like that. Of course, the mansion is amazing as well and its history is really fascinating.

    1. Erica, the setting is beautiful. And there is a lot of outdoor space. It was easy to understand why families might visit and picnic on the grounds.

  8. What a beautiful building; the view of the hills is stunning. The hallway and library stood out for me- so grandeur. I would get lost in those books. This was certainly a mansion of it’s day.

  9. I find it so interesting to so how people used to live that had money. And oh the secrets. We watched a series that was on TV a couple of years ago called War of Roses.
    It was a dramatic series about the reign and marriages of King Henry VIII.The period drama was about the intrigue surrounding the War of the Roses. You had to keep asking yourself was this a soap opera but the events really happened. You story about the owner of the Polesden Lacey didn’t surprise me. Your photos are beautiful

  10. I love visiting these kinds of historic houses — or mansions in this case. It could have been used as the setting for Downton Abbey. My husband and I always made a point of looking up historic houses wherever we visited. They are glimpse into history.

    1. Thanks Jeanette. Friends we visited in another part of the U.K. live very close to Highclere Castle, the main filming location for Downton Abbey. It is open for public tours in the summer and for special events at other times. We visited in late September and it was closed.

  11. What an amazing place and wonderful photos Donna. The shot of that hallway with all of the art is especially impressive. I do love history and especially visiting historical sites in person. I always encourage first time visitors to the islands to visit our own Iolani Palace because it is so beautiful and culturally significant. Thanks for the inspiration!

  12. What a fascinating story! It’s so fun to visit places like that which were owned by people who took pains to make sure that we ordinary folk would get to experience them later.

  13. Wow. that is one of the most beautiful estate I’ve seen. I’ve never heard of Mrs. Ronnie. She sounds a bit like, Molly Brown.I love Midsomer Murders, I’m binge watching the show now, I can’t believe their still filming that show. I always wondered where they filmed the series because it’s so charming. Now I have something to Google about!

    1. Thanks Pamela. I too like Midsomer Murders. I admit I hadn’t heard of Molly Brown, so googled her. Interesting lady.

  14. Wow! Polson Lacey would make a great day trip. The only real estate I’ve toured was the Biltmore house in Asheville, NC. It really transports the visitor back in time and to a totally different societal structure. Such tours of estates also make one stand in awe at how much “stuff” one can fill their lives with if they have all that wealth. Me? I’d be more at home in the gardener’s cottage 😉

    1. Jeri, I’ve heard about the Biltmore house from several different sources and would really like to visit it some day. I’m not sure what the gardener’s cottage is like on the inside, but I quite liked the outside and expect I’d be more comfortable there as well.

  15. It is certainly an example of the decency of wealth. A time capsules when there were lords ruling over a commoner.
    I appreciate the architecture and also the way it looks, just not a fan of why it was built.

    1. William, it was interesting to go through the house and see all the artwork. You raise good points about the gap between the privileged and the poor, something we see in modern day as well.

  16. Really beautiful but I am more the cottage dweller like Jeri. I see a long hallway and I think of a bowling alley or an archery range…must be the kid in me.

    1. The National Trust does a lot to ensure historical buildings are preserved and open to the public. Dedicated volunteers also help.