Lady “Naughty Norah” Docker, who married three millionaires and spent their money with flair, was accustomed to being emblazoned across the front pages of the tabloids. Her spending, talent for tasteless excess and calculated outrageousness made her a popular choice with journalists. Indeed Lady Docker was anything but a shrinking violet and she lapped up the media attention as readily as readers lapped up the gossip and stories she created. She was flash, brash and impulsive, but she was also brimming with colourful charm.
Stories of lavish parties, fur coats and rivers of pink champagne are amongst some of the more endearing publicity that Lady Docker attracted, however, I have to admit that I have always had a fondness for the frivolous frivolity of this glamourous individual, after all she was a working class girl that had strived for the trapping of a wealthy life. It is impossible not to admire a girl who knows what she wants and is a go getter, she once said, ‘Through my life, I set both my sights and my price high.’
In the early 1950’s the bitter chill of post war austerity was still wafting through the land and as clothes rationing had only ended in 1949, glamour was still in short supply. The war had stripped Britain of much of its wealth and dreary economic times were faced by the majority. Even the old gentry classes were feeling the pinch under the weight of death duties imposed by the Labour government of Clement Attlee. Into this uninspiring, dismal and cowed world stepped the colourful Lord and Lady Docker with their luxury yachts, glamourous homes and private jets. It is little wonder that this socialite couple captured the attention of the nation.
Undoubtedly, every era needs its extravagant socialite couple, a husband and wife team whose wealth, vulgarity and apparent lack of self-awareness add greatly to the entertainment the public. Let’s be honest most of us enjoy a sneer at celebrity figures in private and indeed Lady Docker provided ample entertainment to the willing audience of 1950’s Britain. Her liking for excess and outrageousness delighted newspaper columnists who were happy to report her sensational behaviour and feed her insatiable need for media attention.
Lord and Lady Docker were to the 1950’s what David and Victoria Beckham are of today, decadent and fabulously rich purveyors of all things luxury. Suppliers by appointment to glossy magazine photo spreads around the world, Lord and Lady Docker were no strangers to the tabloid front page. Rarely have wealth and vulgarity been combined in such an entertaining way than in the case of Sir Bernard and Lady Docker. Ever sure of her popularity and unaware of her tastelessness, she once boasted, ‘We bring glamour and happiness into drab lives,’ continuing, ‘The working class loves everything I do.’
Sir Bernard Docker was ever inch a starchy board room character. A cigar smoking, industrialist, chairman of a string of companies, most notably of Birmingham Small Arms (BSA), the parent of royal car-maker Daimler. Sir Bernard was undoubtedly old money and a traditionalist, unlike his wife, Norah who was noveau rich and believed in living life to fluidic excess. They matched one another perfectly she was the glitz and he the wallet.
In 1947, the raising of purchase tax to 66.6% was a blow to the British luxury car market, which only managed to survive by exporting, but nevertheless with the war over Daimler wanted to make a splash in the headlines and it did so by building a straight eight roadster, painted a special jade green colour that made its 1948 debut on the Daimler stand at the first post-WWII Earls Court British Motor Show. Dubbed “the Green Goddess” by the motoring press, it was used for several years after the show by Sir Bernard Docker as his personal vehicle. It was the most expensive car at the Earls Court exhibition, however, the car failed to satisfy the Lady in Sir Bernard’s life and in 1950 Lady Docker designed her very own range of cars that came to be known as the ‘Docker Daimlers’. She persuaded her devoted husband to build these opulent cars — not at his expense, but at Daimler’s. The first of the fleet, commissioned in 1951, was christened the ‘Golden Daimler’ due to the gold plating used in the hundreds of stars dotting its bodywork, it captured the headlines. These cars were exercises in pure extravagance; the interiors boasted the skins of crocodile, lizard, zebra and mink and no expense was spared. Ironically it was the Docker Daimlers that would be one of the things to spell an end to the Docker’s zealous spending and lavish life.
Having read many of the headlines that surrounded this socialite I was excited to visit one of her extravagances: her very own Castle in Mid Wales. Glandyfi Castle, which the Dockers bought in the early 1950s, was by no means immune from controversy. Sir Bernard bought it through the company for £12,500 and spent more than double that on doing it up at BSA’s expense. When news of this got out, the shareholders revolted. BSA hastily disposed of the castle.
As soon as I drove up to the Castle I could see why it appealed to a girl like Norah: it’s not so much an austere, upper class castle as a fairy-tale, imaginative recreation of one. It is everything you imagine a castle to be with a stylish charisma about it and stunning views. Built in the Regency Gothic style in 1810 it oozes splendour with the original twelfth century Aberdovey Castle, lying on the wetlands below.
This Grade II-listed building has typical, Regency Gothic widows, and bags of Regency Gothic character and charm. The castle is now run as an exclusive guest house and with its towers and turrets, ramparts and octagonal rooms I consider this to be one of the most opulently romantic places in Britain. With its sumptuous interiors and quirky details I could see how it would have suited Norah when she entertained the likes of playwright Noel Coward and Bond creator Ian Fleming.
With Glandyfi Castle being just twelve miles from Aberystwyth on the Welsh Coast, and only thirty minutes’ drive from the beautiful sea side resort of Aberdovey it is a perfect base for exploring. However, with decadent bedrooms and indeed bathrooms it is tempting not to leave your room. As I sat in the library and flicked through the Dockers photograph album that detailed their interior make-over of the property, I was inspired by the tale of Naughty Norah’s ‘gin bottle path’ rumoured to exist by locals, but yet to be uncovered by the current owners. There is certainly a fun and flamboyant energy the castle and with its glamourous façade, sumptuous interiors and decadent menu I came away quite sure that the spirit of Lady Docker lives on in this boutique guest house.
Glandyfi Castle, Glandyfi, Machynlleth, Powys, SY20 8SS