Jill, Duchess of Hamilton

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Jill Vietnam 

 

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton was a woman of indomitable energy who left her native Australia as a young reporter for the Murdoch press and ended up marrying Scotland’s premier duke; after her divorce, she distinguished herself as a writer and researcher.

Jillian Robertson was born in Sydney on January 30 1940, the daughter of a First World War veteran, Noel Robertson, and spent her youth in Townsville, Queensland. After school, she made her first trip to Britain. On her return to Sydney in 1961 she trained as a newspaper reporter under Donald Horne, then Australia’s leading journalist and later one of its great public intellectuals. Three years later she was sent to report from London.

She was one of the group’s youngest foreign correspondents and later recalled the young tycoon himself as a friendly man in a brown suit wandering between the desks of his journalists. Assignments took her to America, India, Russia, Tahiti, Vietnam and Afghanistan. Among the people she interviewed were Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, the Dalai Lama, Marlon Brando, Richard Burton, Nancy Mitford and P G Wodehouse..

In November 1963 she attended a dinner for President Kennedy in Miami four nights before he was assassinated. Two years later, when working in Vietnam, she was one of the first women to write about the effects of bombing raids, having flown in a raid from Da Nang.

Her journalistic career was cut short by motherhood and marriage. Finding herself pregnant, she married the father of her child, a fellow journalist named Martin Page.

Her only son Jamie was born in April 1968. The marriage was brief and unhappy, and after their divorce the couple never spoke to each other or saw each other again, communicating solely through lawyers.

Nevertheless, Jill was deeply annoyed some years later when the marriage was annulled by the Roman Catholic Church to enable Page, a convert to Catholicism, to marry again.

Her second marriage, to Edward Hulton, a scion of the newspaper dynasty who was several years her junior, brought with it a residence in the south of France, a flat in Monte Carlo as an address for tax purposes, and a sea plane in which they regularly toured the West Indies. But they were unsuited to each other, and divorce followed.

Her third and final husband was Angus, 15th Duke of Hamilton. They married in 1988, and divorced in 1995. She was his second wife. She shared his love of nature and conservation, as well as his championing of distressed animals, and carried out her duties as chatelaine of Lennoxlove, his house, with great devotion and energy.

Nevertheless, none of this hard work and commitment was quite enough to overcome the Duke’s alcoholism and unhappiness.

After her third divorce, she swore that she would never marry again. Based in a small but charming flat in Chelsea, which she had been given by the Hamilton estate, Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, as she now became, threw herself into the business of making her living, drawing on her dynamic personality and her journalistic training.

In later years she came to dislike the awkward title with which her last divorce had saddled her and demanded that it be removed from her byline as a journalist. On being asked the correct written form of address for a divorced duchess, she replied: “I have absolutely no bloody idea, and please don’t tell me.”

Her best book, Marengo, the Myth of Napoleon’s Horse (2000), uncovered some hitherto unknown facts about Napoleon’s favourite horse and identified, through some impressive detective work, one of its hooves, until then lost. First to Damascus (2002) dealt with her father’s wartime experiences in the Australian Light Horse in Egypt, Palestine and Syria.

Later came God, Guns and Israel (2009), which placed the Balfour Declaration in its correct context and identified the many evangelical Christians in Balfour’s cabinet who were instrumental in ensuring British support for a Jewish homeland. This ran to several editions and was translated into Italian as Il Dio in armi (“God under Arms”).

Her appetite for research knew no bounds, and she was constantly on the lookout for new projects, her prose style reflecting her enthusiastic and catholic approach. There was also a First World War poetry anthology, Gallipoli to Gaza (2003).

The Holy Land soon became an abiding interest. She spent several months every year as the guest of various religious bodies in Jerusalem, having enrolled at London’s School of African and Oriental Studies, first to do an MA and then a doctorate, which was to investigate the status of marriage law in Israel, a state that has no civil divorce.

In the course of her researches she uncovered the way that Christian women in the Middle East would often change religion so as to escape the restrictive practices of the various churches with regard to divorce. From her place in Jerusalem she fired off regular columns for the Catholic Herald.

Her reporting from the Holy City was only one string to her bow, and hardly enough to channel all her formidable energy. She tried her best to have the Garden of Gethsemane, perhaps the world’s most ancient and important garden, replanted with native plants.

In 2007-8, using only native flora, she designed a garden beside the Baths of Bethesda at the Church of Saint Anne in the Old City. This is now visited by pilgrims who take bunches of herbs as souvenirs to press in their Bibles.

She had by this stage already written numerous volumes on gardening, including Scottish Plants for Scottish Gardens (1996), English Plants for Your Garden (2000) and The Gardens of William Morris (1998), the last of which was translated into several languages. She had also exhibited at Chelsea on several occasions and won medals.

If this were not enough, as the daughter of a soldier, her campaigning zeal inspired her to set up a memorial in London to Australian soldiers who had fallen in Europe and the Middle East in both World Wars.

In 1995 she organised an Australian War Memorial at Battersea Park in London, and a dawn service on Anzac Day. This eventually led to the memorial that now stands at Hyde Park Corner, which was built by the Australian government.

Her energetic personality, which could exhaust less hardy souls, was equally to the fore in her social life. A familiar figure in the Chelsea Arts Club, she advised on the garden there as well as offering suggestions on a wide range of other subjects.

She was frequently invited to parties, quite often by people she hardly knew. “There’s a list,” she once explained. “Once you are on it, you get invited to everything.”


Strikingly attractive and looking several decades younger than her real age, she was pursued by numerous men. One, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, tried to kiss her through a taxi window. “Can you imagine the horror of that face coming towards you?” she recalled.

Jill Hamilton was devoted to Dame Miriam Rothschild, the natural scientist, with whom she spent much time, often staying at a cottage in the grounds of her house.

Later, she became great friends with Prince and Princess Michael of Kent, often walking their dog when they were away. “The Princess gives excellent advice,” she confided.

She was never sentimental. Cancer was diagnosed, and in her final illness she faced the business of dying with the same dauntless spirit with which she had faced all the challenges of life.

Lying in bed shortly before leaving for the hospice, she mischievously suggested to a friend that he try the powerful opiate medicine she had been given to ease her pain. “Let’s face it, darling, I’ll be gone before I can finish the bottle,” she said.

Despite her connection to the Catholic Herald, her friendship with numerous clerics, and her residence in Jerusalem, she was never religious.

She was devoted to her son Jamie, who survives her. She planned to donate her body to science and to have no funeral. “Funerals,” she told one friend, “are a bore.”

Her last days were spent in a small flat in Oxford, surrounded by devoted friends helping her to get her thesis in order for submission to Soas.

Jill, Duchess of Hamilton, born January 30 1940, died April 22 2018

Sources


Sources for this article include:

•  The Telegraph, 23rd April 2018
•  The Herald, 26th April 2018

 
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Last modified: Saturday, 18 March 2017