Lady Butterfield

Lady Butterfield © National Portrait Gallery

Hilda (née Johnston), Lady Butterfield (formerly Mrs Waters), 49, (1883-1957), socialite and later peace campaigner, was the second American-born wife of Lord Butterfield.  Her family were Aberdonians who had settled in the US Mid-West during the 19th century, her father John Johnston, president of the Marine National Bank, her mother Ethelinda Thorson, daughter of Norwegian immigrants. Said to spend $1000 a day, she enjoyed being the chatelaine of Cliffe Castle, Keighley, Yorkshire as much as London life at 14 Curzon Street or their art deco flat in South Street.[1]  She and Lord Butterfield holidayed glamorously in Le Touquet and in the summer of 1931 she was on the Committee of the Famous Beauties Ball at the Dorchester.[2]  She was fast integrating into the London, Yorkshire and Riviera scene – but also made herself useful.

puzzle-piece2-50  There is one intriguing question: does she have a link with the Gledstones? see Mrs William Liddle Gledstone


Everyone on the table would have been a suitable dinner partner for Lady Butterfield but for form’s sake she was probably seated by at least one of the gentlemen on the table, and John M. Mason, financier, may have been the man as he was possibly the main host. Jonathan Cape and Sylvia Lynd may have been alongside each other, deep into the world of who is writing what and when. Or perhaps Lady Butterfield and Mrs C.R. Niven would have shared stories from the American Mid-West – both having shared American heritage (Mrs Niven’s mother being from Ohio). Organiser Margaret Gledstone too might have found it fruitful to dine with one of the hostesses on the table, with an eye to future gainful employment as an organiser.


For someone relatively new to the London scene, this dinner was a very good entrée to the leading women of the day for someone who wanted making a positive contribution to the right causes. And she might have wanted to advertise that she wasn’t quite as ignorant as some might have assumed after her husband had derailed her bid to play a role on the Yorkshire political scene (see below).


Born 15th August 1883, Hilda Johnston, as she was then, was educated at Milwaukee Downer College, Vassar College and the Sorbonne. She had a brother, a year younger, who died in 1939. She had divorced her first husband, William L. Waters, an English engineer who had settled in New York, in 1927 and then married the widower Sir Frederick Butterfield (a Roosevelt family descendant himself) in November 1930. They met, it is said, on a liner travelling to New York. It was not long after her marriage, and a year before the dinner, that she found some minor notoriety when being first selected for, and then resigning from, the position of President of the Keighley Women’s Conservative Association – because her husband disapproved. In an article headlined “Politics not for Women” – which may well not have escaped the attention of others at the dinner – her husband was quoted as saying “I cannot recommend her for office. Her scanty knowledge of English politics and her very brief acquaintance with local conditions would hamper her on every public occasion”.[3] She could be later found on the society pages of the Tatler and The Sphere for the dances she hosted in London, in particular for the Grosvenor Ball thrown for the coming out of her daughter Carolinda (from her first marriage) – it was noted that, like Lady Astor, she did not approve of serving drinks on the running buffet.[4]

LadyButterfieldStatue.pngIn Penn Valley Park, Kansas, is the Pioneer Mother Memorial Statue, erected in 1927: it is modelled on Lady Butterfield who sat for the sculptor in a studio in New York. In terms of lifestyle, riding the rough pioneer trail was not the story of her life.[5] [6]


Lady Butterfield was more than just a society hostess: the 1934 Women’s Who’s Who also cites: President of the Old Girls Friendly Association of Waifs and Strays; President of Barnardo Homes Sunshine Circle, Westminster; Vice President, Ladies Lifeboat Guild of England, Keighley; and Vice president of the Grand Council of Operatic Dancing.[7]

Our headline photograph is from two years after the dinner. A year later on a trip around South America she injured her back when the coach overturned in Chile: the intrepid traveller needed several operations to restore her health. In March 1936 she and her husband sailed from the Falklands back home to Liverpool. In 1936 her daughter Carolinda went to Vassar College, Pennsylvania for her education. In May 1937 she and Sir Frederick both shuttled to and from the US, leaving from Monaco. Back in 1928, after her divorce, the Milwaukee press noted that Mrs Waters, as she still was, hosted a dinner at her new London home for guests including Lord Hewart, the Lord Chief Justice. Nine years later, in September 1937, Lady Hewart did the honours and presented Carolinda at Court. You have to be persistent in these things.

During the second world war she set up the Children of the Fighting Forces war relief charity at Cliffe Castle whereby children from the US could help the children of British soldiers – enlisting help from Eleanor Roosevelt to promote her cause. Schoolgirls in the US collected money and materials, which 100,000 schoolgirls in England would make up into garments for themselves or other children.[8] A letter Hilda wrote to the papers around this time, reporting on the differing US attitudes to the war debts owed by France and Britain, reflected her activities to promote good relations and understanding across the pond.[9]

In 1943 Sir Frederick died and the Cliffe Castle estate went to his daughter from his first marriage. Which is why, I assume, Lady Butterfield returned to the land of her birth, where she lived for the rest of her days – aside from some travel, including a voyage to Australia in 1949.

800px-USA_1956_3c_FriendshipTheKeyToWorldPeacePassionate about world peace, in the 1950s she campaigned to have a US postage stamp made to make children aware of peace issues: launched in Washington in 1956 it was issued in 44 countries. The copy we show here has been stamped ironically with the word Fight – in this case the enemy being Tuberculosis.  In January 1953 she was a guest at the White House for the inauguration of President Eisenhower.

LadyButterfield1A less glamorous but perhaps more patriotic photograph survives of her later years.[10]

Hilda died on 31st May 1957 in Palm Beach, Florida, aged 73.


[1] Leeds Mercury, 17.11.1930 p6

[2] An excellent review of her life from her local historians: Daru Rooke, in Bradford Museums and Galleries, Museum Detective Work, post by Heather Millard, 20.7.2015, accessed 7.1.2018

[3] Daily Herald 10.3.1932

[4] Leeds Mercury, 10.6.1938

[5] K C Parks, Pioneer Mother Memorial, accessed 25.1.2018

[6] Pioneer Mother Statue, Kansas City Public Library, accessed 25.1.2018

[7] Lady Butterfield, Hutchinson’s Woman’s Who’s Who 1934, Hutchinson & Co. London

[8]Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 29.12.1942

[9] Yorkshire Post and Leeds Intelligencer, 7.2.1933

[10] Source: Ancestry

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