Fascinating tale of Howick’s ‘pretty French brunette’

Fernande Boutet with two First World War soldiers during their convalescence at Howick Hall.
Fernande Boutet with two First World War soldiers during their convalescence at Howick Hall.

A talk on Howick’s ‘pretty French brunette’ will be given to a group of her countrymen and women next week when they visit Northumberland.

A group of 26 visitors from France are staying in the area next week as part of the Amicale (friendship) link between the villages of Héry, in Burgundy, and Shilbottle – an exchange which has been going for more than 50 years.

Fernande Boutet, right, standing, at home in France.

Fernande Boutet, right, standing, at home in France.

On Monday, they will be in Howick with their host families, visiting the gardens and enjoying a cream tea in the Earl Grey Tea House.

A talk has been arranged and Avril Meakin, of the Howick Heritage Group, will tell how Howick’s French connection goes back to the arrival of the Greys’ ancestors with William the Conqueror in 1066.

A much more amicable tale is the life story of Fernande Boutet, who was lady’s maid to the Fourth Countess Grey, around the time of the First World War.

While at Howick, her French was invaluable at the rescue of 25 French sailors from the wreck of the Tadorne in 1913 and it is reported that ‘the pretty French brunette’ then translated at the inquest of the five drowned fishermen a few days later.

Fernande Boutet - the small figure holding a wreath - was present at the burial of the French sailors at Howick in 1913.

Fernande Boutet - the small figure holding a wreath - was present at the burial of the French sailors at Howick in 1913.

In the following year, Fernande became a nurse at Howick’s convalescent hospital. She went on to travel the world with successive employers – film stars and aristocrats, even royalty.

When Fernande had set out from her modest home in rural France, she could not have expected that her skills would prove so useful or that illustrated episodes from her life would be being told a century later to her compatriots in a Northumberland village.