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Mistress’s Touch Of Roller Ecstacy

February 1, 2014 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

Rolls_Royce_Spirit_of_Ecstasy_SideYOU’D imagine she’d be British Society to her bootstraps – after all, she had been chosen as the model for the mascot on the radiator of that most British of all institutions, the Rolls-Royce motor car.

But rather than coming from some famous society family, or being plucked from the best of London model schools for her Rolls-Royce assignment, Eleanor Thornton was simply the English-born daughter of a Spanish mum and an Aussie dad, and was a school drop-out at 16.

And as well as modelling for the Rolls-Royce radiator mascot she had notched up another, if somewhat more dubious honour – by 22, she’d become not only secretary to, but mistress of the older Eton- and Oxford-educated John Edward Scott-Montagu, member of the House of Commons, officially Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, and married to Lady Cecil (Kerr,) daughter of the 9thMarquess of Lothian.

Eleanor_Thornton_With_Roller.Rsz.WikipediaEleanor’s relationship with Rolls-Royce was well-contrived. When Charles Rolls and Henry Royce built their first motor-cars in 1904 they that did not give them radiator mascots, preferring instead simply a stylish R-R logo. But many buyers thought a car of such prestige warranted its own distinctive marque, and through his own Roller ownership and friendship with British artist Charles Sykes, Lord Montagu was instrumental in having Rolls-Royce officially appoint Sykes in 1910 to create a Rolls-Royce radiator mascot.

A motoring enthusiast, Lord Montagu was publisher of Britain’s first motoring magazine, Car Illustrated and in 1902 had taken-on as his secretary Eleanor Thornton. And despite the fact that she was 22 and he was 36 and married, the relationship between the two moved quickly from that of employer and employee, to one of intense lovers.

Second Baron Montagu of Beaulieu.Rsz.FlkrLord Montagu suggested to Charles Sykes that his mistress would make the ideal model for the Rolls-Royce mascot Sykes was working on, pointing out that the company wanted a “graceful little goddess” who reflected amongst other things Rolls-Royce’s spirit of harnessing of energy, of speedy silence, beauty, and of superb grace…

Sykes’ first figurine made in 1911 depicted a beautiful wind-swept lady with a finger pressed to her lips and which he titled ‘The Whisperer’ – signifying Rolls-Royce’s silent swiftness, but in fact a nod to Lord Montagu and Eleanor Thornton’s illicit affair; Lord Montagu used it on his own Rolls-Royce’s for many years.

Sykes also created a second mascot, the now-famous figure of a woman leaning forward with arms outstretched behind and above her, fine cloth billowing wing-like from her arms and back…

Ship SS Persia in Aden_postcard

He called it Spirit of Speed, and Rolls-Royce later dubbed it officially The Spirit of Ecstacy (although as Eleanor Thornton was the model, some wags knowing of her relationship with Lord Montagu, re-titled it “Ellie in her nightie….”)

Eleanor Thornton bore a daughter to Lord Montagu, but immediately had her adopted-out so as to avoid a scandal in London’s high society.

England Beaulieu-National Motor Museum.BNMM

And in 1915 when Lord Montagu was invited by the British Government to go to India to advise on public transport needs in the colony, it was decided Eleanor would go with him – by this time Lady Cecil, well aware of her husband’s infidelity, had met and become as friendly as possible in the circumstances with Eleanor, presumably to avoid any public airing of dirty laundry.

Montagu and Eleanor sailed on the steamship SS Persia, and on December 30 1915 off Crete, a German U-boat fired a single torpedo at the ship, which exploded and immediately began sinking. Montagu grabbed Eleanor and attempted to get her to a lifeboat, but as the Persia listed he lost his hold on her and she was swallowed in a wall of water: he survived, grieving later from his hospital bed “I should have got a stronger grip on her.”

England Beaulieu_Palace_House of the Barons Montagu of Beaulieu

Once home he placed a memorial plaque to his beloved mistress on the Family Pew in the Beaulieu parish church; today visitors to the Beaulieu National Motoring Museum in the grounds of the imposing Beaulieu Palace House, that’s still home to the Barons of Montagu in Hampshire’s New Forest, can see the original ‘The Whisperer’ Rolls-Royce mascot.

And over 250 famous, historic and antique vehicles including early Rolls-Royces, James Bond’s, Mr Bean’s and other movie character’s cars, Australia’s first Holden’s, British racers, historic buses, motorcycles, and a detailed replica 1930’s English motor garage.

Written by David Ellis

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