The War Memorial in the East Sussex village of Bishopstone gives the names of nine men from the village who were killed in the First World War and four from the Second World War. The memorial includes the name of Eleanor Standish-Barry, an interesting woman who also used the stage name of Nell St John Montague (both names are shown on the memorial – there cannot be many war memorials which show an alias!) The reason why she is recorded on the War Memorial remains a mystery.
Eleanor Lucie-Smith was born at Jabalpur, India on 27th June 1875, the daughter of Major-General C.B. Lucie-Smith of the Madras Civil Service. She married Henry Joseph Arthur Robert Bruno Standish-Barry in Ireland on 18th April 1899. He was a Justice of the Peace in County Cork. The couple lived at Leamlara House, Carrigtwohill, Cork and had two children Charles (born 1900) and Marcella.
Eleanor (known as Nell or Nellie) was a noted writer and her 1916 play ‘An Irish Lead’ not only raised money for Irish prisoners-of-war but also became an important means of recruiting Irishmen into the army. Nell directed the play and also took a leading role, but on at least one occasion anti-English feelings caused the performance to be abandoned due to constant heckling.
Nell was an exotic young lady who entertained her after-dinner guests by claiming that she had clairvoyant powers learnt from the Maharajah and mystic fakirs from her early years in India. Her ‘abilities’ were enhanced when the famous Lord Kitchener attended one of her dinner-parties and she predicted that he would meet his death at sea. When he was drowned a few weeks later on HMS Hampshire she became a minor celebrity. Two years later Nell’s 18-year-old son Charles died whilst training with the Royal Irish Regiment. She became a nurse and turned her home into a makeshift hospital.
After the War, Nell moved to London where she became a society hostess, clairvoyant and actress, now calling herself Miss St John Montague. She appeared in several films in the 1920s and gave mystic readings to a number of influential people, assisted by her lucky monkey called Judy.
She claimed that her clairvoyant skills had been utilised by such people as George V, the Queen of Spain and even the Metropolitan Police who had used her mystic abilities to locate the body of Emily Kaye, the victim of the Eastbourne Crumbles Murder of 1924. In fact, she had so many political clients that she was once referred to as ‘the Power behind Parliament’. She regularly wrote for newspapers and magazines and in one week in 1927 received over 10,000 letters!
Nell had a grand house in London but spent the summer months at Lulleen, a house on the Esplanade in Seaford, worshipping at St Andrews Church in Bishopstone. Strangely, she seems to have predicted her own death, saying that she would be killed by a ‘fiery streak’. She apparently died when a German doodlebug hit her house in South Kensington. Interestingly though, one newspaper report said she was ‘missing’ and another reported she had died in a car-accident. Her probate record does not assist and is strangely worded saying “believed to have been killed through war operations on 23 August 1944 and whose dead body was found on 23 August 1944.” The will was heard at Llandudno and she left nearly £3,000 to her daughter.
Her body was brought down to Bishopstone and she is buried in the churchyard here.
An obituary in the Birmingham post reported that “She was a vivid personality and a charming hostess and she showed unfailing kindness and infinite understanding to all who went to her in difficulty or distress. Many a lame dog was helped over a stile by her and some, who had served their country well and later fallen by the way owe their rehabilitation to her assistance.”
Official Government Records shows her in a list of ‘Civilian Deaths’ and there is no record of her receiving any military awards.
There was a rumour that she had been a spy, and, with her connections with India, Ireland, show-business, royalty, the military and politicians it is not difficult to understand why. Her memorial service in London was attended by many military officers including Field Marshal Claud Jacob, cabinet minister Sir Harry Verney and even Wellington Koo, previously the president of the Republic of China. Pat Berry, the Seaford historian believed that she was a spy.
Her possible secret military service may have been the reason why she is included on the Bishopstone Way Memorial alongside soldiers. Spy or not, I am sure she went to her grave with plenty of secrets. One of them was her age – she was 69 years old when she died but her records and obituaries state she was ‘about 50’!