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The Vintage Guide To London | December 18, 2017

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Famous Londoners: Diana Mitford – From Eaton Square to Holloway Prison

Rebecca McWattie continues her series on Diana Mitford, the third of the notorious Mitford Sisters, and details her fall from grace and imprisonment in London’s Holloway jail.

Diana married Mosley in October 1936 in Goebbel’s drawing room in Berlin. Hitler was guest of honour and presented the couple with a framed picture of himself initialled with AH.

In the UK the Public Order Act passed in December 1936 dealing the BUF a catastrophic blow. It gave the police the right to call off potentially violent marches and forbade demonstrators wearing uniforms. Another problem was the BUF’s increasing shortage of funds, and Mosley hoped Diana would be able to charm Hitler into supporting the BUF financially. She wrote asking for sums as large as £50,000-£100,000 – almost 4.9 million in today’s money.  Despite Hitler giving Mosley vast sums of money, Mosley’s finances were verging on bankruptcy by the end of 1936, and on 7 February 1937 Dr Goebbels noted in his diary “they use up a fortune and accomplish nothing”.

Unity Mitford returning from Germany – (Image by © Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS)

Diana could now speak and read German, and would spend hours listening to Hitler’s speeches. She thought very highly of Hitler, and years after the war she related in her autobiography how polite and charming he was. Unity’s infatuation with him only increased when he gave her a Swastika badge engraved on the back with his signature.

Unity’s greatest fear was for Germany and England to be at war. She loved both countries deeply and perhaps hoped they would somehow unite in Fascism. Yet, on 3 September 1939 England declared war on Germany. After writing letters of farewell to her sisters and parents, Unity took the small Walther pistol Hitler had given her for protection from her a drawer in her writing desk and went to the Englische Garten, a park in Munich.

Sitting on a bench, Unity calmly took the pistol from her handbag and shot herself in the head.

Two men, whom Hitler had employed to protect Unity, heard the shot and rushed her to a clinic. The wound did not prove fatal but the bullet was lodged in her brain. She remained unconscious at the clinic for several weeks. Hitler visited her after she had regained consciousness and made all the necessary arrangements when Unity told him she wished to return to England.

Unity would never be the same again, on her return her family were shocked at her appearance – her huge blue eyes had shrunken in her face, her hair was short and matted and her teeth yellow. She was paralysed on one side of her body which made her movements clumsy. She had lost her memory and had no idea why she was ill. At home she would sit for hours staring into space or talk loudly, giggling for no reason like a child.

Meanwhile Mosley was being investigated by the Special Branch. They reported to the Home Secretary that Mosley and the BUF were not merely advocating an anti-war and an anti-government policy, “but a movement whose aim it is to assist the enemy in every way it can.”

On 23 May 1940 the BUF offices were raided. Diana travelled to London with Mosley. As they pulled up to their flat in Dolphin Square, they saw four men standing outside. Mosley was arrested and taken to Brixton prison. There was no charge, which infuriated Diana. Initially she thought the authorities would realise their mistake and release him but the government had passed a new law – Rule 18B, which allowed them to detain, without trial, any member of an organization known to associate with the enemy. Churchill believed Mosley’s arrest was necessary in order to prevent Hitler turning Mosley into a puppet and making England vulnerable to invasion.

Many BUF officials had also been arrested, and because of her frequent trips to Germany and meetings with Hitler, Diana was considered a threat to national security by the Home Office. Her phone was bugged and her mail intercepted in order to watch her movements while at liberty. Diana was arrested in June and taken to Holloway prison. Her sister Nancy informed on her, telling the authorities to “examine her passport to see how often she went to Germany. I also said I regard her as an extremely dangerous person. Not very sisterly behaviour but in such times I think it’s one’s duty.”

“Lady Mosley arrested at last” was the headline on the Sunday Express. More at home in the Ritz, Diana now found herself in a cell six feet by nine with no window and only a thin mattress on the floor for a bed. At night, as Diana listened to bombs falling over London, did she pray for a Nazi victory?

Eating only bread and cheese, Diana grew very thin and desperately unhappy without Mosley and her children. After eighteen months the government permitted the husbands and wives imprisoned under Rule 18B to be incarcerated together. Diana and Mosley were placed in the Preventive Detention Unit on the grounds of Holloway prison where they remained until their release in 1943.

Unsurprisingly Diana and Mosley never regained popularity with their friends or the British public. Mosley stood for parliament twice after the war, never managing to win a seat. Unity died in 1948 from meningitis stemming from the bullet wound.

In the Fifties Diana and Mosley moved to France where they began a long friendship with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, also known Nazi sympathisers. Diana published her autobiography A Life of Contrasts in 1977, where she accused Churchill of desiring war, comparing him to Hitler and recounting the many similarities she had observed between them.