Monday, 5 October 2015

Violet Van der Elst

If I’ve learned one thing while being at Harlaxton, it’s this:

How to be grateful

I’m so grateful to everyone who supported me in coming to Harlaxton. In the long list of people I have to thank are mostly my relatives, but there are some people I’ve never met. Coming to Harlaxton would never have been possible without its previous owners.

We all know of Gregory Gregory who built the manor that we get to call home. However, not all of us are familiar with perhaps the most iconic owner of Harlaxton.

Violet Van der Elst, born Violet Anne Dodge, purchased Harlaxton, which she renamed Grantham Castle, in 1937. She saved the manor from falling into disrepair and possibly demolition. When she moved in, she introduced electricity to the manor and added many bathrooms. Her iconic status in the public eye was due to her lavish campaign against capital punishment.

During her campaign, she hired planes that carried banners such as “Stop the Death Sentence” to fly over prisons. She would also ride through the streets of London in her white Rolls Royce chanting, “Abolish capital punishment. These men must not hang,” into a microphone.

When asked about her passion for the abolishment of the death penalty, she often stated that she was carrying out the passion of her late husband, Jean Julien Romain Van der Elst. This same late husband was the one she attempted to contact during séances.

In her time, she was known for eccentricities. Her interest in the black arts and the occult was one of them. Some of these séances were even performed in Grantham Castle. Mrs. Van der Elst had a number of psychics who she consulted over the years. She was discerning about whom she let in. She could pick out a fake after one session.

Her interest in the occult began years before her husband’s death. In her book, The Torture Chamber and Other Stories, Mrs. Van der Elst writes a personal account of when she lived in a haunted house. During her time there, she said that she felt an evil presence in the house as well as heard mysterious crashes only to find that nothing had moved.

The same book also contains reminisces of her travels. Like many of us, she had the opportunity to travel. Among the many places she visited was Notre Dame in Paris. However, she was rather unimpressed for she was fan of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and the actual building did not live up to her expectations.

It’s really not surprising that she was not satisfied. She held a deep love for the arts and wouldn’t settle for anything less than perfection.

She composed music, although she couldn’t read or write the notes. Mrs. Van der Elst was a fan of Shakespeare’s tragedies and could quote them word for word. She shared a love of art and painting with her second husband, Mr. Van der Elst. During her stay at Grantham Castle, she filled the Grand Hall with statues. Her favorite was a bust of Napoleon dressed as Julius Caesar. These statues have long been sold, but the chandelier still remains.

Her interests also spread into business, which is how she amounted most of her fortune. She started the company Shavex, which produced the first shaving cream that didn’t require soap or water.
Mrs. Van der Elst didn’t spend all of her money on her lavish campaign. She also gave money to orphanages and was apt to giving to the poor.

She would be happy to know that her previous home was turned into a school. When she decided to sell Grantham Castle, she said that she would like the Castle to be used as a school where “a new generation of gentlemen can be reared.” This came to be when the Jesuits used Harlaxton to train priests. We’re fortunate that her wish was granted even to this day.

The next time you look at the chandelier in the Great Hall, take a moment to be grateful to the woman who bought it for Harlaxton Manor. She died in a nursing home with little money to her name, so in her honor, the least we can do is keep her memory alive.

For more information on Violet Van der Elst, check out her biography The Incredible Mrs. Van der Elst by Charles Neilson Gattey, which can be found by request in the library. Her books On the Gallows and The Torture Chamber and Other Stories are also available by request.

Written by: Sarah Richie


  1. Sarah - very well written, as well as interesting...