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Violet Van Der Elst

If Gregory Gregory is regarded as the "father" of the spectacular manor house overlooking the village, Violet Van Der Elst must be it's mother.

Born Violet Anne Dodge, the daughter of a coal porter and a washerwoman, Violet initially worked as a scullery maid. In 1903, she married Henry Arthur Nathan, a civil engineer 13 years her senior. She developed cosmetics including Shavex, the first brush-less shaving cream and became a successful businesswoman. After her first husband died on 15 November 1927, she married Jean Julien Romain Van der Elst, a Belgian who had been working for her as a manager but was also a painter.

Having amassed a huge personal fortune she purchased Harlaxton Manor, in Lincolnshire, England in 1937. She restored the house, renaming it Grantham Castle. It was Violet who had it wired for electricity, installed central heating and added bathrooms to the Manor which had previously had just one for the entire house.

Violet was a strong believer in the occult and had a library of 3000 books on the occult in the Manor where she also held seances to contact her dead husband. In the same year she bought the Manor she published a collection of 13 ghost stories, "The Torture Chamber and Other Stories".

She gained publicity from her vocal campaigns against capital punishment, and wrote the book On the Gallows in 1937 as part of her efforts to eradicate the death penalty.

She stood three times as an independent candidate to be a Member of Parliament, each time unsuccessfully. Firstly she fought the Putney constituency at the 1935 general election, coming third. Then she stood for Southwark Central in the 1940 by-election as an independent supporting the National Government, coming third. And lastly, she contested Hornchurch at the 1945 general election, coming fourth.

Violet van der Elst, abhorred animal cruelty and forbade anyone to shoot or carry a gun in her grounds.  She said "now it is mine I shall preserve it as a sanctuary for the dear birds and wild creatures".

Violet bought several pit ponies to get them out of the mines and employed George Winfield to look after them. When George offered to help a neighbouring farmer to clear rabbits, Violet sacked him saying "I will not have you killing all those beautiful creatures".  Despite his dismissal Violet continued to pay him as before, saying he had a family to feed.  Two weeks later she sent for George and asked him to return to work, saying "you see Mr Winfield the ponies need caring for".  So George returned to look after 9 Shetland ponies, 2 aged hunters, 1 heavy workhorse and13 geese - all of which were never to be killed.

When Violet sold Grantham Castle,as she called it, the ponies and horses all went to a rest home.  The geese went to live with Mr Radley's sister who assured her they would never be killed. As a farewell gift she gave George £5 and bought his wife a new chicken shed.

Mrs Dimmock who ran the village shop and post office from Maytree House, said Mrs van der Elst was a very kind person who took care of anyone in the village who was struggling.  When war broke out she told the Dimmock's 'anything in the way of food which I have, should anyone need it, tell me'.

She eventually lost most of her fortune through "obsessive litigation". She was forced to sell Harlaxton Manor in 1948 and moved to a flat in Knightsbridge, London, later dying in Ticehurst House Hospital, a lunatic asylum in Sussex, on 30 April 1966, aged 84. By then her wealth had been reduced to £15,528, but she did live long enough to see the abolition of capital punishment for murder in Britain the previous year.

Violet Van der Elst was frequently arrested protesting outside prisons where executions were taking place.

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