Angela Thirkell and Family

Edward Burne-Jones house at Rottingdean in Sussex UK.
North End House, home of Edward and Georgiana Burne-Jones (Thirkell’s grandparents)

Angela Thirkell and her family

Angela Thirkell (1890-1961), daughter of the classicist J W Mackail and granddaughter of Sir Edward Burne-Jones, sister of novelist Denis Mackail, and second cousin of Rudyard Kipling and Stanley Baldwin, was educated at St Paul’s School for Girls (Hammersmith, London) and in Paris and Germany.

In 1911 she married the singer James Campbell McInnes, by whom she had two sons, Graham and Colin, and a daughter, Mary, who died in infancy.

A sensational divorce

The marriage ended in a sensational divorce in 1917, and a year later she married George Thirkell, an Australian engineer who had served with the Australian Imperial Force at Gallipoli and in France. While convalescing at Glamis Castle he became friendly with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, later Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Photo of George Thirkell with Elizabeth Bowes-Lyons, who later became Queen Elizabeth the queen mother
George Thirkell & the future Queen Mother

The voyage of Angela Thirkell and her family on their move to Australia on a converted troopship provided material for her book, Trooper to the Southern Cross, 1934, written under the name of Leslie Parker. A third son, Lance, was born in Melbourne in 1921, but the marriage broke down and Angela returned to England with Lance in 1929.

She borrowed the money from her godfather, J M Barrie, to get back to England, after which she began her career as a writer. Her first book, a memoir called Three Houses, was published by Oxford University Press in 1931 and was a commercial success. This was followed by a novel, Ankle Deep, but soon Angela was creating her imaginary world using places and families in Trollope’s Barsetshire, set in the time in which she lived.

Her books have now become valuable social history, covering the years just before and during World War II and the years of austerity afterwards.

After returning to England, Angela Thirkell severed all contact with George, but she remained Mrs George Thirkell for the rest of her life. Angela died in a nursing home in Bramley, Surrey, in January 1961. She was buried at St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, beside the grave of her infant daughter Mary.

Photograph of Angela Thirkell with her sons Colin, Graham and Lance
Angela Thirkell with her sons Graham, Colin and Lance at 4 Grace Street, Malvern, Melbourne

Graham McInnes

Angela Thirkell’s eldest son, Graham McInnes, became a distinguished diplomat, art critic and novelist. His four volumes of autobiography – Finding a Father, Road to Gundagai, Humping My Bluey, and Goodbye Melbourne Town – give a memorable account of the family’s life in 1920s Australia.

Colin MacInnes

Angela’s second son, Colin, became a novelist and added the ‘a’ to his surname. Colin MacInnes is best remembered for City of Spades, Absolute Beginners, and Mr Love and Justice.  His papers are held at the University of Rochester, New York. You can find out more about Colin MacInnes on the Fantastic Fiction website.

Lance Thirkell

Lance Thirkell (Lancelot George Allnut Thirkell). Third and apparently favourite son of Angela Thirkell by her second husband, the Australian George Thirkell. Born and growing up there with his two step-brothers, Graham and Colin MacInnes, he returned to England with his mother in 1929. Educated at Colet Court and St Paul’s, and Magdalen College, Oxford, he was at first with the Foreign Office behind the Iron Curtain until forced to resign owing to ill-health, when he joined the BBC at the Aldwych.

After a long career in the BBC’s Overseas Service, on retirement he turned his energies to fund-raising at the New Bridge Foundation for befriending ex-offenders, of which he was both secretary and administrator. He also served on the boards of several other charitable and educational bodies.

Photograph of Angela Thirkell's grave marker at Rottingdean, Sussex, UK
Angela’s grave at Rottingdean. It is the family’s wish that the grave marker be left to weather away naturally.

Efficient, hardworking but idiosyncratic, he married Kate Lowinsky in 1946 and had four children, Georgiana, Serena, Robert and Thomas.

He was concerned to maintain the literary memory of his mother, whose reputation had declined after her death as had that of her Pre-Raphaelite painter grandfather, Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

He collaborated with his mother-in-law, Ruth Lowinsky, to produce Russian Food for Pleasure, 1953.  His novel A Garden Full of Weeds was published in 1962, and, deeply upset by the criticism of his mother after the publication of Margot Strickland’s biography, he published Baby, Mother and Grandmother in 1982, and the text of a talk entitled The Assassination of an Authoress, how the critics took my mother to the laundry, in 1984.  The Angela Thirkell Society published Melbourne and London, a Childhood Memoir, in 2000.  He died in 1989.