Dorothy Una Ratcliffe (1887-1967)
Writer, Poet, Traveller, Collector

Dorothy Una RatcliffeDorothy Una Ratcliffe (often known as D.U.R.) led a rich and colourful life. Glamorous, wealthy, a socialite who loved nature and the gypsy life, she published almost fifty books, travelled all over the world, nurtured her garden, adored Yorkshire and its traditions, was a prolific collector and the inspiration behind an magnificent legacy to Leeds.

Brought up in Sussex and Surrey, she was the eldest of the three daughters of George Benson Clough, a wealthy barrister originally from Scarborough: she called him the first Yorkshireman in her life. He was active in local politics, author of several books, and encouraged her early literary efforts. Dorothy and her sisters were educated locally, then sent to finishing schools in Germany and Paris to polish their accomplishments.

In London in 1909, aged 22, she married Charles Frederick Ratcliffe, nephew and heir of the wealthy chemical tycoon Edward Allen Brotherton, later Lord Brotherton of Wakefield. He had no children, as his wife and baby had died in childbirth, and Charles, his sister’s son, was destined to inherit the business. The newly married couple settled in a house near Edward Brotherton’s home at Roundhay Hall (now the Spire Hospital), and in later years moved there themselves.

Dorothy and Edward Brotherton got on famously – she filled the place of daughter and hostess in his busy social and political life. In 1913, when he became Lord Mayor of Leeds, he chose her as his Lady Mayoress. Her striking appearance caused a stir – ‘a most picturesque figure’, gushed the papers, ‘tall and slim, in champagne coloured satin…with a huge stole and muff of snow leopard’. But their year in office was darkened by the outbreak of war. Dorothy supported him in raising and equipping, at his own expense, the volunteer ‘Leeds Pals’, and with her fluent French helped welcome Belgian refugees. He clearly had a great affection for her, and they shared a passion for literature and fine books. Over the next years he financed her publication of a literary magazine, ‘The Microcosm’, with articles by writers like Tolkien and Chesterton, and she helped him build up a stunning library of rare and precious books and manuscripts, which was later bequeathed to Leeds University ‘in trust for the Nation’, and housed in the Brotherton Library which he had so munificently endowed.

From her early years she had loved writing, especially poetry and drama. She fell in love with the Yorkshire Dales, their landscape, dialect and customs, and in 1918 published her first volume of lyrical, romantic Dales ballads, ‘The Dales of Arcady’. From then on, year after year, she published poems, plays, memoirs, based on Dales life, some in local dialect and some specially for children (sadly she could have none of her own). Her other passion was for the Romanies and their culture which she loved to explore and write about – she was sure she had gypsy blood. It’s easy now to judge her work as over-sentimental, a fanciful version of country and gypsy life, but she felt she was writing in the old ballad tradition (which she gave lectures on) and her work was widely-read (often featured in ‘The Dalesman’) and enjoyed for its idealised imagery, and its dialect humour.

Her marriage to Charles Ratcliffe (who later took the name of Brotherton – and was the benefactor of the LGI’s Brotherton wing) proved deeply unhappy, but to avoid scandal they divorced only after Lord Brotherton’s death in 1930. He left her a generous inheritance of her own and she began a new life. In 1932 she married Noel MacGrigor Phillips and together they travelled all over the world, often in their caravan or yacht. Their home was Temple Sowerby Manor, near Penrith; a few years after his sudden death in 1942 she gave the house and her beloved garden (Acorn Bank) to the National Trust. She married a third time, a long-term friend called Arthur Vowles, and they lived in Edinburgh until his death, when she moved to North Berwick, where she died aged 80, still writing (always under the same name) almost to the end.

She was an active campaigner for the Yorkshire Dialect and Gypsy Lore societies, and remained an untiring friend to the Brotherton Library, to which she gave her outstanding collection of Romany material. The Leeds Museum has her fine collection of fans and miniatures, and (poignantly) baby bonnets – and a powerful bronze of her reading. Meanwhile her many books, once so popular, moulder on library shelves, though some of her lyrical poems have recently been set to music (by Artisan Harmony). Her own words can serve as an epitaph: ‘Here lies a lover of rain and sun,/ Loving, and loved by everyone; /Who left these beautiful dales to find /The dales where the heavenly rivers wind.’


Eveleigh Bradford
July 2014