Esmond Romilly

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Esmond Marcus David Romilly (10 June 1918 – 30 November 1941) was a British socialist and anti-fascist, now remembered mainly for his marriage to Jessica Mitford, one of the Mitford sisters. He was born to a family of public service and aristocratic descent, but at a young age became a communist and turned his back on the privileges of his birth.


Romilly was born in Huntingdon Park in Herefordshire, the son of Colonel Bertram Romilly, a soldier with a distinguished record in World War I and governor of Galilee in 1919–20, when the country was under British military government, before it came under the British Mandate of Palestine. The Romillys were of Huguenot (French Protestant) origin and settled in England in 1701. Esmond's mother was Nellie Hozier, daughter of Colonel Sir Henry Montague Hozier (1838–1907) and Lady Henrietta Blanche Hozier (1852–1925), eldest daughter of David Graham Drummond Ogilvy, 10th Earl of Airlie.[1] Nellie's sister Clementine married Winston Churchill, making Romilly the nephew by marriage of one of Britain's most prominent politicians. In 1923 another cousin, Hon. Charles Carnegie, had married Princess Maud, Countess of Southesk, a granddaughter of king Edward VII.[2]

It was frequently rumoured that the Hozier children were not fathered by Sir Henry, but rather by one of Henrietta's many lovers.[3] Possible candidates for the paternity of Nellie and Clementine Hozier include Wilfrid Scawen Blunt, poet and anti-colonialist[citation needed], or Capt. William George "Bay" Middleton, a noted horseman — Mary Soames, Clementine’s youngest child, takes this view.[4] According to Clementine Churchill’s biographer,[5] the father was Lord Redesdale, the husband of Henrietta's sister Clementina and grandfather of Esmond Romilly's future wife Jessica Mitford. If Redesdale was indeed Nellie Romilly's biological father, then Esmond’s mother and Jessica’s father were half-siblings. Jessica Mitford suggested in more than one letter to her family that Romilly might have been the illegitimate son of Winston Churchill, stating that she thought her late husband had resembled him.[6]


Educated at Wellington College, Romilly and his brother Giles refused to join the Officers' Training Corps, distributed pacifist leaflets, and ultimately ran away from school. They published a book about the experience, Out of Bounds: The Education of Giles and Esmond Romilly (1935). Esmond moved to London, working in a communist bookshop and founding a centre for other boys who had "escaped" from public schools. His activities at such an early age, turning his back on class privilege so ostentatiously, won the attention of the newspapers, eager to report on the doings of Winston Churchill's "red nephew".


As the political situation across Europe continued to polarise, and with the storm clouds of war becoming ever more visible, Romilly's anti-fascism clashed increasingly with his pacifism. The outbreak of Spanish Civil War decided him. He bicycled to Marseille and joined the International Brigades, hoping he would be accepted despite his lack of military training. With a minimum of preparation, he and other ill-assorted British volunteers were thrown into the defence of Madrid as a machine-gun section with the German Thaelmann Battalion. Almost all his companions were killed; he was invalided out with dysentery, and sent back to Britain to recover. While recuperating, he met and fell in love with his second cousin, Jessica Mitford, all the more ardent an anti-fascist for her elder sisters' strong Nazi sympathies (Diana married Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, and Unity was a friend of Adolf Hitler). He had an offer from the News Chronicle to return to Spain as their correspondent and they created an elaborate plot that allowed her to accompany him.[7] Romilly took up journalism, sending back war news, along with his friend Philip Toynbee, who later wrote his memoirs. After some legal difficulties, Romilly and Mitford, both 19, married in Bayonne, France, on 18 May 1937. He spent his honeymoon writing Boadilla, an account of his Spanish experiences.


They returned to Britain, where Romilly joined the Labour Party and lived in the East End of London, then a poor working-class district. Their first daughter was born there, and died a few months later in a measles epidemic. The grieving couple eventually decided to move to the United States, where Romilly picked up a variety of odd jobs: selling silk stockings door to door, setting up a bar in Miami. They were perpetually short of cash. When Britain declared war on Germany in September 1939 Romilly remained in the USA, before moving in 1940 to Canada to volunteer.[8] He served in the Royal Canadian Air Force and was shot down over the North Sea in 1941 after a bombing raid over Germany. He was 23.

He had two children with Jessica:

  • Julia, who was born seven months after their wedding, on 20 December 1937, and who died in a measles epidemic in May 1938;
  • Constancia (better known as 'Dinky' or 'Donk') on 9 February 1941, who was born nine months before her father's death. She had two sons from her relationship with the African-American civil-rights activist James Forman; thus Romilly has two grandsons:
    • James Robert Lumumba Forman (born 1967 and uses the name James Forman Jr. to differentiate himself from his father), an associate professor at Georgetown Law School;
    • Chaka Esmond Fanon Forman (born 1970), an actor.

It was rumoured during his life that Romilly was born of an affair between his mother and Winston Churchill.[citation needed] The news that his plane had gone missing in action was broken to his wife by Churchill personally; Jessica Mitford took many months to accept that he had died.


  • Esmond Romilly, "Boadilla". With an introduction and notes by Hugh Thomas. London 1971. SBN 356 03534 4
  • Esmond Romilly, "Boadilla" (Edition in Spanish with an Introduction by Antonio R. Celada) Amarú Ediciones, Salamanca, Spain. 2011. ISBN 978-84-8196-324-3
  • Giles Romilly and Esmond Romilly, "Out of Bounds". Hamish Hamilton, 1935


  1. ^ Burke's Peerage and Gentry, online edition. Burke's says "7th Earl of Airlie" but this cannot be correct since the 7th Earl died in 1812.
  2. ^ Carnegie cousinage.
  3. ^ "Father always came first, second and third". An interview with Mary Soames, youngest daughter of Churchill. "I was never asked at what point Mama realised Hozier was not her father," says Lady Soames. "I don't think it dawned on her until well into middle age, but it would have been very bothering to her."
  4. ^ Dictionary of National Biography,
  5. ^ Joan Hardwick; Clementine Churchill: The Private Life of a Public Person John Murray, London (1997) ISBN 0-7195-5552-3
  6. ^ Decca: The Letters of Jessica Mitford, ed. Peter Y. Sussman.
  7. ^ Jessica Mitford, Hons and Rebels, chapter fifteen.
  8. ^ The Canadian Government lists Pilot Officer Esmond Mark David Romilly's service number as J5677, date of birth 10 Jul 1918, and date of death 30 Nov 1941.

Further reading[edit]

  • Ingram, Kevin. Rebel: The Short Life of Esmond Romilly. E. P. Dutton, 1986.
  • Toynbee, Philip. Friends Apart: A Memoir of Esmond Romilly and Jasper Ridley in the Thirties. Macgibbon & Kee, 1954.
  • Mitford, Jessica. Hons and Rebels. Victor Gollancz, 1960.

External links[edit]