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Lord St Levan of St Michael's Mount

By The Cornishman  |  Posted: April 16, 2013

Lord St Levan: February 23, 1919 – April 7, 2013.

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BEING in command of St Michael's Mount, an island at high tide and a jewel of the National Trust, was like being "captain of a ship in the Royal Navy", said Lord St Levan, who has died aged 94.

The fourth baron had served both the Royal Navy and the mount with distinction. He lived there with his wife Susan from 1976, as the new lord and lady, until he "came ashore" in 2003 to make his home in Penzance following her death. For over 35 years he held a special affection in the hearts of the Cornish people and had a prominent role in the cultural, social and civic life of the county, devoting himself to a large number of charitable causes.

Hugely popular for his modesty, genuine friendliness, enthusiasm and sense of fun, his fondest and strongest interests included the history of the mount and the welfare of his wartime colleagues. As a Second World War sailor he served on the Russian convoys, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, was at Dunkirk and at D-Day, and was patron of the Normandy Veterans' Association and member of the Dunkirk Veterans, joining them at their reunions. It was in the tradition of a family through many centuries — and he enjoyed the spirit and comradeship.

For he was a member of the 'gentle and knightly' St Aubyn family that had made their home on the almost magical mount since Civil War years, when his namesake, Colonel John St Aubyn, purchased it from the heir of Sir Francis Basset in the mid-17th century.

The latest John St Aubyn was also its most accomplished historian. "This was where they first spotted the Spanish Armada and lit the first West Country beacon to pass the news on to England," he remarked. "The mount has been a church, priory, fortress and private house."

It is unique in Britain, has bewitched on millions of postcards, paintings and photographs; its face has watched thousands of ships and fishing boats launched across the bay down the centuries. He always showed a deep knowledge, pride and pleasure in every aspect, every mood through the seasons. Poets, from John Milton to scientist Sir Humphry Davy, expressed the legend of the Archangel Michael appearing in AD495 to local fishermen in Mount's Bay, who saw him standing on a rocky ledge. So when Lord St Levan was invited to become a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1995 he chose the name Lord of the Grey Rock – Arluth Carrek Los in Cornish – and regularly attended the annual ceremonies into his 80s.

The family has been prominent in Cornish affairs since Guy St Aubyn became sheriff in the 14th century: his lordship was high sheriff in 1974, following the tradition of several ancestors since the reign of Richard II.

He was also a deputy lieutenant of Cornwall and among many other offices had been president of Plymouth City Museum, of the St Ives Society of Artists, the Cornish Maritime Trust and of the Royal Cornwall Show. There were few aspects of Cornish life in which he did not play a part and show a positive interest. Fourteen St Aubyns had held seats in the House of Commons, including the latest, his nephew, Nicholas, younger brother of the new Lord St Levan.

The first baron was an MP for 30 years: many gave distinguished military service, including the new lord's father, the Hon Piers St Aubyn, who won the Military Cross in the battle for Arnhem with the First Airborne Division. The fourth baron attended the House of Lords when his Cornish responsibilities allowed, and was saddened by its proposed abolition because he believed it would further weaken the region's voice in Government. "Whenever a motion touches on Cornwall or Cornish interests or the fishing industry I go up to the house and when I speak, I speak from the heart because I know its people." For over 50 years he attended the St Aubyn Rent Court lunch, when tenant farmers came and he delighted in the continuity of the families on the farms throughout Penwith.

His mainland routine and meetings timetable was often dictated by the tide times and sunset. "I was notorious for getting meetings over soon after lunch. But it is good exercise, if the tide is out, to walk the causeway," he remarked.

"We almost always slept on the island and made every effort to return there after mainland engagements. It is like being captain of a ship in the Royal Navy: you don't take more shore leave than the crew. Sometimes I would walk back along the causeway on my own at night.

"I knew the mount as a boy with fishing, boating and sailing with the Mount's Bay Club. It was the most enormous fun." He continued sailing in his own craft into his 70s.

The castle garden was his great pride, regarded as a 'lost treasure of England' and was terraced in 1993. He was awarded the Octavia Hill Medal by the National Trust some years ago for his exceptional service.

His Cornish and West Country interests were legion, serving as high sheriff of Cornwall in 1974, elected a bard of the Cornish Gorsedd in 1995 and serving as vice lord lieutenant of Cornwall from 1992 to 1995. He was president of the west Cornwall branch of the Sail Training Association, past president of the Cornwall Maritime Trust, vice-president of the Royal Cornwall Show and the Bath and West, past president of the London Cornish Association, patron of the West Country Writers' Association, having written an illustrated history of the mount, and linked closely with the Penlee branch of the RNLI, Cornwall Church Action for Unemployed, and National Trust.

There were many royal visitors to the mount down the years, from Charles II when he was Prince of Wales, to Queen Victoria in 1846 when Prince Albert played the chapel organ. The late Queen Mother was a guest and so was Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Prince Charles was a visitor in recent years.

Born in London in 1919, John St Aubyn had his early education at Eton, thanks to the generosity of a great uncle. One of his friends there was Julian Amery, later an MP and government minister, whose father Leo made the devastating comments to Prime Minister Chamberlain early in the war, that helped bring Winston Churchill to Downing Street. His uncle was diplomat Sir Harold Nicholson who, with Anthony Eden and Duff Cooper, believed war was a certainty.

In his first year at Trinity College, Cambridge, aged 20, in 1939 he went swiftly to Chatham and then to sea as a midshipman on a minesweeper in the RNVR. His father and two brothers, Piers and Giles, were all on active service and his mother had the rank of brigadier as president of the Cornish Red Cross. "So I, as a sub-lieutenant, had to salute her," he quipped. His father served in the Grenadier Guards in both world wars and commanded the Home Guard after his retirement, succeeding to the title in 1940. Although he was still overseas Lady St Levan resolved to live alone at the mount.

When Dunkirk was evacuated John had command of a Dutch merchant ship at Ramsgate and made two trips across the Channel. "The beaches were not difficult to find because of all the fires," he remarked.

"I recall a brave man riding on a horse, up and down the beach, encouraging morale. We could see him from five miles out and I often wonder what happened to him with all the machine-gunning that was going on."

He said of the troops: "They were the real heroes — we were just the transport that brought them home. Submarines surfaced and had a shot at us, with enemy aircraft overhead." John St Aubyn later joined HMS Salamander and when he was 21 was promoted to sub-lieutenant. "We were minesweeping with the first convoy to Russia, going to Archangel with thousands of Russians cheering us like mad on our arrival."

Minesweeping in the White Sea on HMS Combatant and good relations with the Russians continued until the ship went back for refit and he returned to Russia with the next convoy. On one of these came the order to 'scatter' because of the feared arrival of the German battleship Tirpitz - and the "ghastly failure" of convoy PQ17.

He was made first lieutenant of HMS Combatant and brought her from Seattle, through the Panama Canal and across the Atlantic to the Clyde. "Our task was with the convoy escort when the British Army was landing and we were off Normandy on D-Day +2 or +3 and could see them going ashore," he said.

At the end of the war John St Aubyn had command of his own ship, HMS Prospect, a minesweeping trawler, as a lieutenant with 60 sailors and five officers with instructions to take eight German ships that had poison gas on board from Kiel, and sink them off Norway. There was thick fog and a narrow strait: they used depth charges, getting a 'well done' signal from the commander-in-chief of Home Fleet.

He was not demobilised until 1946 because minesweepers were still needed after the end of hostilities. When he left the Royal Navy it was decided he would become a lawyer. "I lived in the top floor of a bedsit in London, had no money to heat it and wore my overcoat to read law books. I had read history at Cambridge for only six months and was given a degree because I had been called up. I was completely bogus."

He was articled for two years, went into a conveyance firm in London for several years and then came to Plymouth to look after the family estate there and started a building firm.

"We had to rebuild Devonport after the wartime bombing — and the family still have a presence there." For just over a quarter-century he lived with his wife at the mount as the new Lord and Lady St Levan and made enormous contributions to charitable causes with their weekend 'open days'.

His mother Clementina Gwendolen Catherine St Levan (Gwen) died aged 98 in May 1995, and was the youngest child of Lord Carnock, and brother of Harold Nicolson. She was a journalist and author and wed Francis (Sam) St Aubyn in 1916. He succeeded his uncle, the second Lord St Levan in 1940: they had five children. It was in the third baron's time, in 1954, the family made a gift of St Michael's Mount, together with a large endowment, to the National Trust; they retained a lease for part of the castle, garden and grounds. He died in 1978 but moved to the mainland three years earlier, handing over the mount to his eldest son.

The day came in October 2003 when John 'swapped' the castle for a flat on Penzance promenade and later moved to a house near the town centre. He was delighted that the next two generations of his heirs, his nephew James St Aubyn and wife Mary and their four children were in residence on the mount to continue the history and tradition. The new lord, also a former high sheriff, is chairman of a commercial radio group, as well as of the St Aubyn family companies. The move followed the death of his wife Susan in February 2003: they had been married for 33 years. She was the daughter of Major General Sir John Kennedy, who was Director of Military Operations during the Second World War and later became Governor of Southern Rhodesia 1946-54.

During their years at the mount even the private rooms of the castle were regularly open to groups and guests. "We entertained at least 15,000 people a year for we had 30 different charities as well as assisting many other good causes," he commented. In 2003 there were over 200,000 visitors to the castle with a huge number more going over the causeway just to look around.

There was a focus on art and music with their support of the International Musicians' Seminar at nearby Prussia Cove, of Penlee Museum at Penzance, as well as St Julia's Hospice and the Cheshire Home at Marazion. He and his mother were close friends of Leonard (Lord) Cheshire.

Despite poor health in recent years he attended civic functions, including Truro Cathedral in his wheelchair, took part in the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations and the Duke of Cornwall's 60th anniversary in July 2012, as interested in everything as ever.

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