Mary Cordelia Emily Leigh was born in 1866 at Stoneleigh Abbey, the youngest child of William Henry, 2nd Baron Leigh. Her family were among the wealthiest and most influential landowners in Warwickshire, with an estate of nearly 15,000 acres.
Despite his great wealth, Cordelia’s father proved a benevolent head of the Leigh estate, with a particular interest in education and the care of the poor. It was an attitude that clearly influenced his youngest daughter.
Cordelia, who remained single throughout her life, devoted herself to helping others. She took an active interest in Stoneleigh and Ashow schools and ran a Young Naturalists’ Club there. She also held Bible study classes at the Abbey for local young men and ran a scheme by which deprived children from London could enjoy holidays in the country. Although it would have been inappropriate for her to qualify as a teacher, she spent much of her time in educational matters, especially in Religious Education. For many years she was Diocesan Adviser to Sunday Schools in the region, and wrote many books which were widely used in both day and Sunday schools, principally on Nature Study and Bible stories.
Several members of the Leigh family took a particular interest in the Leamington High School for Girls, (later, The Kingsley School) and Cordelia was to serve on the governing Council from 1916 until 1945, when she was nearly eighty. She seems to have been an innovative character as indicated by her suggestion, in 1917, that the girls be taught Russian – a suggestion which was vetoed by the headmistress!
A well-known figure in the area, which she traversed on a Singer (later a Premier) tricycle, Cordelia and her tricycle indirectly explain why Stoneleigh lost its public house. Comments that she had received from Coventry cyclists who had been drinking in the village led to Lord Leigh promptly having the village pub closed down!
Cordelia Leigh was well-qualified at the outbreak of the Great War to be a wartime diarist, and the diaries she kept tell us much about her. On the one hand, she belonged to an influential family who were fully involved in the war effort; on the other, she also had a close knowledge of the local villagers on the Stoneleigh estate, including those who joined the armed forces. Her diary thus contains insights into these very different worlds and the impact of war upon them.
However, Cordelia was not content simply to record what she saw – she was also actively involved. Within days of the outbreak of war, she had published her own recruiting leaflet and encouraged the young men on the Leigh estates to enlist. Throughout the war she conducted a correspondence with many who did join up – often former members of her Bible class. She sent them presents of food and clothing and sometimes a ‘khaki Bible’. In turn, they wrote to her, recounting their experiences in the forces, and their letters were carefully pasted into the scrapbooks that Cordelia also kept. Her diary also records recruitment drives, rumours, the arrival of Belgian refugees, Zeppelin raids, increasing wartime restrictions, rebellion in Ireland and women doing men’s jobs – and much more.
Despite the many changes and tragedies that war brought, Cordelia’s belief in her country and in her faith, and her determination to serve both, never faltered. These core values, along with her keen interest in education, were to remain with her until her death in 1956, at the age of 89. For many years she had lived at 1,St Mark’s Road, Leamington, but returned ultimately to her beloved Stoneleigh Abbey. She is buried nearby, at Ashow.
(Image of Cordelia above courtesy of Stoneleigh Abbey Preservation Trust)
A Strange Time: The Diary and Scrapbooks of Cordelia Leigh, 1914-1919 edited by Sheila Woolf and Chris Holland, is published by Warwickshire Great War Publications and is available at £9.95. ISBN: 978-0-9574216-0-8