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Lady Westbury, St John Ambulance Superintendent-in-Chief and friend of Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret – obituary

Ursula, Lady Westbury
Ursula, Lady Westbury - Courtesy of family

Ursula, Lady Westbury, who has died aged 99, was the Superintendent-in-Chief of St John Ambulance who organised a party for more than 100,000 children in Hyde Park featuring a nine-mile-long sausage; a lifelong friend of both Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret, she took on informal royal duties including representing Princess Margaret at memorial services and chaperoning the 23-year-old Prince Andrew on a trip to New York.

She was born Ursula Mary Rose James on May 6 1924 in the house of her grandfather, the Earl of Scarbrough, at 21 Park Lane. In the communal garden on the edge of Hyde Park, she befriended two girls, with whom she would play hopscotch under the ilex: they were Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret, then living at 145 Piccadilly.

There was an idiosyncratic emphasis on first aid in the Scarbrough household. The Earl, who had been Prior of St John Ambulance since 1923, arranged for Ursula and her friends to be taught artificial respiration.

Ursula James with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret on her wedding day, October 21 1947
Ursula James with Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret on her wedding day, October 21 1947 - Reg Speller/Fox Photos/Getty Images

Ursula James’s mother, Lady Serena James, née Lumley, was the Earl of Scarbrough’s only child; had she been a boy, she would have inherited his estates. As it was, she inherited the Lumley Brick Company, which she passed on to Ursula.

Lady Serena had shocked her mother by marrying Robert James, son of the 2nd Lord Northbourne and a great horticulturalist. The Countess of Scarbrough’s objection was not that “Bobbie” James was a widower 28 years her daughter’s senior, but rather that Serena was “going to live in a little cottage by the road”.

In fact, Bobbie James’s house was the romantic 17th-century St Nicholas, built in the ruins of a medieval hospital on the edge of Richmond, in Yorkshire. Ursula spent the war years there, with six evacuees, in her father’s garden, filled with his own hybrid roses, notably the Mary Rose (named after her), and the Bobbie James rose, the enormously popular, fragrant, creamy-white rambler named in his honour.

St Nicholas, Richmond, Yorkshire
St Nicholas, Richmond, Yorkshire - Alamy

Ursula was educated at the Convent of the Assumption in Richmond, although she was not a Roman Catholic. In 1944, she went to London and taught children Montessori at the convent in Kensington Square.

Through her half-brother Arthur James – from her father’s first marriage to Lady Evelyn Wellesley, daughter of the 4th Duke of Wellington – Ursula had a foot in the racier world of the Bright Young Things, thanks to Arthur’s short-lived marriage to the fashionable Zita Jungman, one of the Jungman twins described by Cecil Beaton as “a pair of decadent 18th-century angels”.

Ursula James was doubly connected to the Wellesleys: in 1943, her aunt, Serena’s half-sister, the poet Dorothy Wellesley, became the Duchess of Wellington on her husband’s unexpected succession as the 7th Duke. The Duke lent Apsley House for the coming-out ball of Ursula’s younger sister, Fay, in July 1947; Princess Elizabeth dined with Ursula James beforehand at the Dorchester, but left the ball early, to announce at midnight her engagement to Prince Philip.

Princess Elizabeth with Ursula James on the night she announced her engagement to Prince Philip
Princess Elizabeth with Ursula James on the night she announced her engagement to Prince Philip - Courtesy of family

A few months later, Ursula James married Captain David Bethell, younger son of the Egyptologist Richard Bethell, who as Lord Carnarvon’s secretary had entered Tutankhamun’s tomb with Howard Carter in 1922. In 1929, Richard Bethell died mysteriously in his sleep; three months later, his father, the 3rd Baron Westbury, jumped seven floors to his death from the St James’s apartment where he kept the tomb artefacts.

David Bethell, seemingly untouched by “the pharaoh’s curse”, survived a lively war, winning an MC with the Scots Guards in Tunisia in 1943, when he escaped from hospital 40 miles behind the lines to return to the front, with shrapnel in his hand and chest. Handsome and moustached, with a look of Lord Lucan, by the time of their courtship he was equerry to the Duke of Gloucester.

For their first date, he asked Ursula James to the races. Nervous, she made herself a new outfit out of a curtain, and arrived (characteristically) a few minutes late, mortified to realise that Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip constituted the rest of their party, and she had held them all up.

Both Princess Elizabeth and Princess Margaret attended the Bethells’ subsequent wedding at St Martin-in-the-Fields. Fifty years later, Queen Elizabeth II would attend their golden wedding anniversary.

Capt David Bethell and Ursula James on their wedding day
Capt David Bethell and Ursula James on their wedding day - Brock/ANL/Shutterstock

From 1951, the Bethells made their home at Knapton Hall, near Malton, and had two sons and a daughter. In 1961, on the death of his older brother, Richard succeeded as Baron Westbury; after a desultory period selling fertiliser, he discovered a flair for public relations, representing Moët & Chandon and London hotels including the Stafford, Dukes and the Ritz, where Princess Margaret lunched with them often. They also took the Queen, Prince Philip and Princess Margaret dancing at The Talk of the Town night club.

On the surface, the Westburys shared no interests, he being a Master of Foxhounds, obsessed with horses and dogs, to which she was indifferent. Their house was filled, to her irritation, with dogs of all breeds, most egregiously an Irish wolfhound called Lena. One Sunday, Lena ate the joint of meat from the kitchen table, and was evicted in punishment; revenge was later taken when the dog slipped back indoors and urinated all over her mistress’s bed.

What the Westburys had in common, however, was ebullience, strength of character, a taste for lively debate and a fascination with people from all walks of life. When Lady Westbury discovered that a Chelsea Pensioner at her church had been a sergeant in her husband’s regiment, she asked him to tea; her husband, meanwhile, took a taxi driver and his wife to lunch in the House of Lords, because the taxi driver had wondered wistfully what it was like inside.

The Queen and Princess Margaret were frequent guests – the latter, wanting a swim, was taken by Lady Westbury to the Olympic-sized pool of the local Yorkshire police – as were Margaret and Denis Thatcher, Penelope Keith, Jimmy Tarbuck, Elaine Paige, and Derek Nimmo, who published the anthology Memorable Dinners with the Westburys’ help.

Queen Elizabeth II tours The Great Party in Hyde Park, in June 1987, to mark St John Ambulance's centenary
Queen Elizabeth II tours The Great Party in Hyde Park, in June 1987, to mark St John Ambulance's centenary - Popperfoto

Lady Westbury’s career with St John Ambulance began in 1954, as County Vice-President of the East Riding of Yorkshire. On one occasion, she was on St John’s business at the docks when a striking docker sauntered over and said: “Have a drink with me, love.” She told him she’d love to, but sadly she was driving. He replied: “You’ve got a bloody chauffeur and a bloody Rolls-Royce.” She said: “I’ve got a bloody Mini, and if you don’t believe me, you can come with me.” The docker was most impressed.

She accepted the post of Superintendent-in-Chief in 1983, despite trepidation (Princess Margaret told her: “You’ve got to do it”). Her first obstacle was her new staff, who “had stiff ideas how I was going to do it, and I was going to do it my way,” Lady Westbury recalled.

She toured Commonwealth countries, and modernised the women volunteers’ uniforms: instead of dresses, she brought in skirt suits, with the option of trousers, plus bow-ties (which the volunteers “hated”). In 1987, to complement the Cadets (volunteers aged 10-17), Lady Westbury founded the Badgers, for children between five and 11.

That year, with the help of the ebullient Major Michael Parker, impresario of the Royal Tournament, she threw The Great Party in Hyde Park to mark the centenary of St John Ambulance. Lord Vestey donated a sausage weighing five and a half tons, which 50 Boy Scouts cooked on a massive saucepan. Mother’s Pride donated 100,000 slices of bread. Lady Westbury won over the various police departments with chocolate biscuits, which she described as her great secret in life.

It rained solidly the week before. The royal box was meant to be borrowed from It’s a Royal Knockout, but 24 hours before, it collapsed into a ditch, so another had to be conjured up. On the morning of The Great Party, Lady Westbury recalled, she woke up at 3am, put her hair in a bucket to wash it, and thought: “What have I done?”

Lady Westbury as Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St John
Lady Westbury as Dame Grand Cross of the Order of St John - Courtesy of family

But the clouds parted, and the roads were so thronged with the 40,000 St John’s volunteers coming to the party that Queen Elizabeth II was made late. Lord Westbury organised a cheque for £100,000, charmed out of American Express, to be dropped by parachute onto a pony, then presented to the Queen in the royal box.

When it was all over, the police telephoned Lady Westbury to report that nine children had stayed behind: “They’re having a bloody good time, and they don’t want to go home.”

In 1990 she stepped down as Superintendent-in-Chief, and was appointed CBE and Dame Grand Cross. She was also, from 1984, President of the Women’s Electrical Association (being practical-minded, she availed herself of the wiring courses). She raised more than £10 million for various charities, and served for decades on the grants sub-committee of the Royal Variety Charity.

She remained dedicated to St John, visiting the St John’s Eye Hospital in Jerusalem well into her nineties; she thought nothing of driving herself from London to Minehead for a cup of tea with St John’s folk.

Lady Westbury had a phenomenal memory for names and faces, and was stoic, humorous, forthright and determined to do what was right (to the point of stubbornness). She created wonderful, sweet-smelling gardens, filled with camellias, hydrangeas, salvias and the Bobbie James rose, in Yorkshire and later in the communal garden of her Chelsea flat. She adored bridge, and lived to 99, in both respects taking after her mother. In her final year, Lady Westbury was not only still driving, but the proud recipient of her first speeding ticket.

Lord Westbury died in 2001. She is survived by two sons and a daughter.

Ursula, Lady Westbury, born May 6 1924, died November 25 2023