Antrim's Lady Diana at rest for 90 years

IT was a dark, November day in Antrim. The gloom was mirrored on the faces of locals who lined the pavements leading through the town.

A coffin drifted through the streets, draped in a family crest and a cascade of white lilies. On this dreary day in 1930, the town was mourning the passing of a kindly young soul who had touched the lives of them all.

You may not have heard of Diana Elizabeth Margaret Skeffington. The daughter of Viscount Massereene, born in 1909, she has become somewhat a forgotten figure in the story of old Antrim.

Yet, Diana was more than a memory. Had fate aligned differently, Diana may have became a household name - a member of the Royal family, even.

Life was good in Antrim Castle. Tucked neatly amidst the Castle Grounds, Diana and her younger brother had space aplenty to play. When you’re the daughter of a Viscount, you want for nothing; many would see no need to bother with ‘common folk’.

Yet, Diana thought differently. As a young girl, she enrolled in the Antrim Company of the Girl Guides - and Diana would later become the leader of the Primrose Patrol.

In a time that it was unheard of for the social elite to mix with the hoi polloi, the little girl from the castle mixed freely with the children of local vendors.

Sadie Bain, and her sister Millie, were both in the same Girl Guides company. Her father worked as the head gardener for Lord Massereene - yet, Sadie fondly recounted how Diane would treat everyone as her equal.

The girls were good friends - which caused quite the stir when Diane would visit their home, known fondly as the ‘Frenchman's House’ on Castle Street.

Escorted by her governess, Diana would visit Sadie’s home to play. She would frequently enter through the backdoor - which ‘mortified’ Sadie’s mother, as gentry were to enter through the front as opposed to traipsing though the scullery to the parlour.

Only a couple of clues would mark Diana as any different to the other little girls.

One of such instances would be Diana’s habit of waiting for someone to take her coat when she entered. She would do the same thing when it came to leaving. This was seen as an endearing trait, however, by Sadie.

“She didn’t mean anything by it,” Sadie recalled many years later.

“It was just the way she was brought up. Diana was a very nice girl. She was tall, thin, and very beautiful and treated us as equals.”

Yet although children are less susceptible to upholding societal customs, Sadie notes that her mother was keen to uphold the old traditions of respect.

“When she was with us she was just like any other girl, but our mother always made us call her ‘Miss Diana’.”

Another instance which defined Diana’s character was a trip to the shop with Millie.

After asking permission to visit a local shop which she knew to sell sweets, the two girls embarked on an exciting mission. That is, until they reached the nearby shop.

Diana had never been shopping by herself before, so instead gave Millie the money and instructed her on what sweets to get!

On arrival home her good nature shone through again.

“Of course when they got back to the house Diana immediately shared them out,” said Sadie.

“She was known and liked by everyone, and also she knew everyone in the town.”

The girl in the castle had developed a positive rapport around Antrim town - which was music to the ears of the Viscount and Viscountess.

They encouraged Diana to socialise with children her age, and watched her character continuously growing into one that was courteous, polite, and softly spoken.

Disaster fell October 1922, during a lavish ball to celebrate her younger brother John’s seventh birthday.

A fire ravished Antrim Castle, taking the life of young Ethel Gilligan. Diana and John allegedly hid in a stairwell until they were ushered to safety.

The family would then take refuge in a converted private apartment in the Viscount’s coach house, known now as Clotworthy House.

At the age of 17, Diana attended a fete held by the Lord and Lady Londonderry, at Mount Stewart. Guests were blown away not only by her beauty, but by her gentle helpfulness.

One Lady in attendance noted Diana’s shockingly humble demeanour, not unkindly.

“There is a remarkably good looking, tall girl here,” she noted.

“I don't know who she is, but she is working as hard as any waitress in the restaurant.”

The young woman had a dazzling habit of captivating those around her, without outwardly encouraging attention. This would be further exemplified in her entry into London’s high society the following year.

Diana was thrust into the social whirlwind of ‘The Season’ in 1927 as a debutante, and did not fail to draw attention.

One in particular held deep affection for Diana, and kept this as an open secret - and like any good fairy tale, it was a Prince.

Edward, Prince of Wales, fell for the Antrim girl. In later years, he would ascend to the thrown as Edward VIII - and abdicate in the name of love, for the American divorcee Wallis Simpson.

One can only wonder whether history would have been changed had tragedy not befallen Diana Skeffington. Perhaps she would have appeared in history books and GCSE History exams across the country - or perhaps, she could have become Queen consort, rendering Queen Elizabeth II a distant successor in the line of heirs to the crown.

On October 15, 1930, Diana served as a bridesmaid at the wedding of her friend, Miss Susan Roberts, who was to be wed to the Hon Somerset Maxwell Farnham.

Amidst the preparations for the big day ahead, Diana requested a glass of water. No one was to know that this would prove to be a fatal mistake.

The water had been contaminated. A week later, Diana collapsed at her mother's family house, Ardanaiseig House, in Argyll. She had contracted typhoid fever.

Arrangements were hurriedly made for Diana to be transported to London to be treated by a doctor on Harley Street.

A beacon of hope was erected in the minds of friends and family as Diana claimed to have been feeling much better.

Ever eager to help, she took to the streets of London on a cold Trafalgar Day, to help sell flags to raise money for servicemen.

Yet despite her protests of improving health, Diana's friends urged her to rest.

In good humour, Diana quipped back “If I go to bed now, it will be weeks before I shall get up again.”

Sadly, Diana's health deteriorated further.

She had developed pneumonia alongside her battle with typhoid. In the end, the complications took her life on November 6 1930. She was only 21 -years-old.

The London socialite scene mourned her, as did the town she grew up in.

The funeral was held at All Saints’ Parish Church in Antrim and the town ground to a standstill as the coffin passed through.

Sadie’s father, as Sexton of the church, poignantly tolled the church bell for her daughter’s friend.

The Girl Guides walked alongside Diana’s funeral procession, with her parents walking behind.

Attached to the coffin was a card from Lord Massereene inscribed ‘To our Darling, from Daddy, Jean and Jock’.

At the end of the service, the organist - John Entwistle from Muckamore - played Beethoven’s Funeral March by special request of her parents.

Diana was laid to rest in her bridesmaid’s dress, in the family graveyard located in the Castle Grounds.

The area she was buried in was known as ‘The Pontier’, and was consecrated for the internment.

The entrance was once marked with two concrete acorns, with two large whalebones ornately marking an archway. Her grave was angled to face Scotland, and was covered with thousands of flowers in the shape of a cross.

Diana Skeffington still rests in the Castle Grounds. Many pass her way without paying much notice.

Yet, Diana is more than a symbol of a fallen castle, or a passing time. Instead, Diana was a girl who was kind when many wouldn't have felt the need to be.

She kept her family legacy and traditions close, whilst refusing to remain aloof.

Diana could have been royalty: but what she was, is so much more.

She was loved.

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