Turtle Bunbury

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Margaretta Eagar needed to set the record straight. The rumours were becoming ridiculous. Some said she had been caught stealing from the Tsar of Russia’s study. Others called her an ‘English spy’. Still more claimed she had been dismissed for mistreating the Tsar’s sickly young son and heir. In any event, it was time for the Irishwoman who had spent six years as governess to Tsar Nicholas II’s beautiful, ill-fated daughters to address the situation.

Margaretta Alexandra Eagar was born in Limerick on 12 August 1863.[i] As genealogist Sharon Slater explains on her limerickslife.com blog, Margaretta was the fifth of eleven children of Francis McGillycuddy Eagar and his wife, Frances Margaret Holden. Shortly before Margaretta’s birth, her father became Governor of Limerick County Gaol. (He had previously been governor of Naas Gaol and deputy governor of Spike Island, Cork). Her mother was the daughter of Francis Smollet Holden, a prominent composer of military music, who ran a music publishing and instrument shop on Parliament Street in Dublin. [ii]

Margaretta, or Margaret as she sometimes called herself, was 17 years old when her father retired as Governor in 1880. He and his wife then moved to the West End, Kilkee, Co. Clare. It was here that Margaretta had her first encounter with royalty when the young Prince of Siam (later Rama VI, king of the country now known as Thailand) stayed with a friend at Kilkee in the 1890s.[iii]

The Shannonside town was also abuzz in the wake of a visit by Prince Louis of Battenberg, whose wife was an older sister of the Russian Tsarina. Prince Louis, a naval officer, called by Moore’s Hotel in Kilkee one night when his ship was anchored in the Shannon. Not realising who her guest was, Mrs Moore shovelled him into a twin room with a passing commercial traveller. When the prince requested a room of his own, Mrs Moore tetchily directed him to an empty cottage nearby. When the prince signed the visitor’s book the following morning, Mrs Moore finally twigged. She nearly fainted on the spot and apparently spent the remainder of her days convinced that she would be arrested at any moment for her discourtesy. Many years later, Margaretta met Prince Louis who confirmed the tale.

During her twenties, Margaretta trained as a medical nurse in Belfast. She later worked as matron at an orphanage and learned how to cook, as well as needlework and housekeeping.

In 1898, Emily Loch, a family friend, was working as lady-in-waiting to the German royal family when she learned that Tsar Nicholas II of Russia and his German wife, Tsarina Alexandra, were in need of a nanny for their young daughters. Ms Loch wrote directly to the Tsarina, recommending Margaretta, and soon the Limerick lady found herself on a train headed east from Berlin to the snowy, sunlit streets of St Petersburg.

Arriving on 2 February 1899, she advanced to the Winter Palace where, after a short snooze, she was summoned to the Tsarina’s boudoir to meet her new boss. Alexandra was clad in a mauve dress and Margaretta recalled her as ‘the handsomest woman I had ever seen - tall, statuesque in appearance, with very regular features and a high complexion.’

She was also introduced to the Tsar’s toddling daughters, the Grand Duchesses Olga and Tatiana, and the newborn baby, Maria. Her charge would increase to four with the birth of Anastasia in 1901.

Her principal base was the Winter Palace, then the largest building in Europe, and her memoirs record in juicy detail an interior stuffed with Faberge eggs and gilt furniture, Rembrandts and Rubens, tortoiseshell doors, glass cabinets full of precious jewels, stuffed horses that had once been ridden by Peter the Great and an aviary with hundreds of canaries.

The imperial nursery, where the children learned to dance, was apparently ‘large enough to hold a "mountain" down which the children toboggan.’

Margaretta adored her four ‘dear little charges’.

‘Olga has grace, wit, and good looks; Tatiana is a regular beauty; Marie is so sweet-natured, good and obliging, no one could help loving her; but little Anastasie [sic] has personal charm beyond any child I ever saw.’

The Irish governess was certainly a hit with Tatiana who ‘thought me a marvel of education, and confided in her music master that no one in the whole world knew so much as I did; she thought I knew everything, except music and Russian.’ (When Margaretta read "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" to the girls, Tatiana was horrified at the manners of the queens. "No queens," she said, "would be so rude.")

Olga took a little more work. When she espied a policeman arresting a drunken woman on the street one day, she urged Margaretta to stop him from hurting her. Margaretta explained that the woman had been ‘very naughty’, after which there was a marked improvement in Olga’s behaviour.

It is said that the girls began speaking English with a soft Limerick accent. Margaretta hinted as much when she recounted how Maria, hitherto hailed as a virtuous angel, polished off a tray of her mother’s biblichen (vanilla-flavoured wafers) when no one was looking. When Margaretta busted her, the child remarked: "Dere! I've eaten it all up." Margaretta ordered her straight to bed but the Tsar, who was especially fond of Maria, intervened. ‘I was always afraid of the wings growing,’ he said, ‘and I am glad to see she is only a human child.’

As Margaretta observed: ‘When she was barely able to toddle, Maria would always try to escape from the nurseries to go to papa, and whenever she saw him in the garden or park she would call after him. If he heard or saw her, he always waited for her, and would carry her for a little.’

At length, the Tsarina called upon the services of Charles Sydney Gibbs, an English linguist, to rid her daughters of this unbecoming Irish brogue.

Ireland was never far from Margaretta’s mind. In her memoirs, she frequently alludes to the common threads in Russian and Irish folklore and superstitions.

‘The Russian fairy, like its Irish prototype, is, as a general rule, a malignant being, always ready to do some mean or nasty trick.’ Moreover, the ‘unaccountable bruises [that] appear on one's body’ are supposed to be ‘the work of evil spirits who wish to get you out of the house.’ In Ireland, she noted, such bruises are called ‘dead men's pinches.’ She also observed how the Irish and Russians both consulted cards to interpret dreams and have their fortunes told.

Maria’s baptism at the Great Palace in Peterhoff was one of the first events Margaretta attended; the exceptionally elaborate ceremony lasted nearly three hours. However, the Royals were often on the move on State visits or attending weddings, shooting parties or other events with their Royal cousins in Europe. Margaretta always went with them, tasked with keeping watch over the four Grand Duchesses. The Tsar’s yacht was ‘as large as an ocean liner’ and carried a crew of 500 men.

In Darmstadt, the Tsarina’s home city, she was at the wedding of Princess Alice of Battenberg (a niece of the Tsarina) and Prince Andre of Greece; they were the parents of Prince Philip, the present Duke of Edinburgh.

In Potsdam, she met the Kaiser, who would all too soon plunge Europe into the Great War. In Denmark, she met Edward VII, the new king of England, who ‘frequently spoke to me … and called me "My Irish subject."’(After the birth of the Tsar’s son Alexei in 1905, the king sent her a green enamel brooch. ‘He has very winning manners and great tact,’ wrote Margaretta. ‘They say he never forgets anything, and I know he never forgets to be kind.’)

Over a long Christmas in the Crimea, she saw many of the epic battlefields of the Crimean War and found the grave of Captain Headley Vicars, an army officer and evangelical from Ireland who was killed in it.

One of her favoured hideaways was at Subswina Datcha, a rococo villa located about five miles outside Peterhoff, where the Romanovs lived the farm-life, playing amid hay-ricks, feeding hens, gathering apples and helping milk cows. The children rode Shetland ponies or were driven around in a cart, feeding bottles of warm milk to newborn kittens.

Otherwise she was in St Petersburg, where she often accompanied the deeply religious Romanovs to church. They worshipped in the Greek Orthodox Church, which, noted Margaretta, was ‘in ritual and doctrine’ more Catholic than Protestant. (She was baptised into the Church of Ireland). Every Good Friday, for instance, she and the children would colour hundreds of eggs in the nurseries. ‘It was a great pleasure to the children, but rather dirty work.’

There were random meetings with fellow Irishmen such as a priest from Limerick who she met out shopping and who happened to know some of her family. The priest worked in the docks of Glasgow where many of the poorest workers were Poles. Frustrated by his inability to communicate with the Poles, he had undertaken a mission to Poland, to unite with Polish priests and source ‘a supply of prayer-books, catechisms, and other religious books’ that might offer solace to the Glaswegian Poles. Margaretta was greatly impressed, as was the Tsarina when she relayed the encounter

Margaretta’s memoir reveals that she was not immune to Russia’s horrific social problems, not least the cramped cabins she saw as the Royal carriage trotted trough the countryside. Overcrowding, she said, caused a death rate of 35% among children. She maintained that the Tsar was determined to improve the lot ‘for his poorer subjects’ but such destitution was difficult for his daughters to stomach. In Poland, the ‘very sensitive’ Olga was horrified at seeing the people kneel in the road whenever the children's carriage approached … She used to look at them with tears in her eyes and beg of me to tell them not to do it.’

After his morning workout, the Tsar spent ‘hours each day’ in his study, located next to the Tsarina’s boudoir, ‘working hard for the advancement of the great Empire committed to his charge.’ She decried the various attempts to kill him but passed no comment on Grand Duke Sergei, the Tsar’s uncle, who was assassinated by a terrorist bomb in early 1905.

She mused upon Russian industry; ‘linen is almost as good as that produced in Ireland, but cottons and woollen materials fall very far behind our own productions.’ (When a friend from County Cork posted her some Irish crochet lace, it was swiped by someone in the post office.)

She deplored the barbaric massacre of Bessarabian Jews at Kishinev in 1903, blaming the local governor.

Grand Duchess Olga Alexandrovna, the Tsar’s younger sister, observed that Margaretta was once so absorbed discussing the Dreyfus Affair with a friend that she didn’t even notice when Grand Duchess Maria escaped from her bath and began scampering up and down the palace corridors naked.

The curtain began to fall for Margaretta with the outbreak of war between Russia and the Empire of Japan in January 1904. The girls went to work knitting. ‘Even little Anastasie, worked at frame knitting. They made scarves for the soldiers, and Olga and Tatiana crocheted caps indefatigably.’ That said, Maragretta wrote, ‘It was very sad to me to witness the wrathful vindictive spirit that the war raised in my little charges.’ One day she heard Olga say: ‘I hope the Russian soldiers will kill all the Japanese; not leave even one alive.’ Margaretta gave her a stern lecture, explaining how the Japanese were ‘people like ourselves’. After that, she wrote, Olga ‘never said again anything about being pleased to hear of the deaths of the Japanese.’

Alexei, the long-awaited heir (known as the Tsarevich) was born on 12 August 1904. It was also Margaretta’s 41st birthday. When she called in to see the Tsarina, the new mother said: ‘You see what a nice birthday present I have given you.’

However, Margaretta’s term with the Romanovs ended just over six weeks later on 29 September 1904. ‘I was very sorry and grieved to say good-bye to the dear children whom I love so well.’

A rumour that she had been dismissed for stealing papers from the Tsar’s study was so serious that she wrote to the press, emphatically denying the charge. She was also obliged to refute a story that she was sacked because the Tsar disapproved of her treatment of the baby Tsarevich; as she explained, Alexei ‘did not, as a matter of fact, come under my charge.’

She insisted she had left for ‘purely personal and private reasons’ and that she remained on excellent terms with the Royal family. The Tsarina had rewarded her with a ‘handsome money present’ while she was also granted a pension for life from the Russian government.[iv] She certainly maintained correspondence with the Tsarina and her ‘dear little charges’ for many years afterwards.

However, it seems her criticism of the anti-Japanese sentiment voiced by the Grand Duchesses was actually the source of her undoing. Given that she left just three weeks after a profoundly humbled Russia conceded defeat to the Japanese, it is certainly notable that the Tsar’s diary specifically refers to her causing ‘trouble and dissension’ at court by tackling such xenophobia.

In 1906 Margaretta penned a short and fascinating memoir called Six Years at the Russian Court, which recounted her intimate experience of the Romanov dynasty. She maintained that the Tsarina ‘encouraged me to do so, saying so many untruths had been published that it would be a relief to have an account of the Russian Court which was absolutely true.’

Margaretta is assumed to have gone to Ireland for a stint to see her mother who, widowed in 1902, was now living on Main Street (now the Bank of Ireland) Baltinglass, County Wicklow, with Margaretta’s sister Grace and her bank manager husband, Alister MacLeod. Grace was on a committee of Baltinglass ladies who gathered food parcels and such like to send to soldiers on the Western Front while her husband was much involved in the Town Hall. As the time of the 1911 Census of Ireland, Margaretta was staying in Belfast with her sister Frances and her husband, the Rev. George Hanson, Presbyterian minister for Duncairn.[v]

By 1908, Margaretta was running a boarding house at 27 Holland Park Gardens, Kensington, London.[vi]

However, the Romanovs were on a road to hell. A year after Margaretta left, desperate to cure their haemophiliac son, the Tsar and his wife turned to the healer Rasputin. His rise and fall was followed by catastrophic loss of life for Russia in the First World War and a series of revolutions during which the Winter Palace was stormed. The Russian royal family were savagely and incompetently shot and bayoneted to death by drunken Bolsheviks in a cellar at Yeketerinburg on the night of 16 and 17 July 1918. Margaretta’s four Grand Duchesses were all killed. Maria and Anastasia, who had loved blowing balloons with Margaretta, were the last to die, huddled against a wall covering their heads in terror, as the bullets and blades rained down.

The sole survivor was Joy, Crown Prince Alexei's blind spaniel. Eight days later, a White Russian force arrived at Yeketerinburg commanded by Colonel Paul (Pavel) Rodzianko, one of the Tsar’s former personal equerries, who was serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Siberia. The spaniel appeared, wagging his tail hesitantly and stumbled straight into Rodzianko's leg. He assumed care of Joy and when he later fled to the UK, Joy came with him. The dog is buried in a garden in Windsor, his gravestone ironically marked by the line 'Here lies Joy'. Rodzianko later went to Ireland, married Anita Leslie of Castle Leslie and became manager of a triumphant Irish show-jumping team in the 1930s.[vii]

Margaretta’s Russian pension stopped after the Royal family’s murder but one can only imagine how appalled she was as the news of their death emerged. In 1922 a woman named Anna Anderson claimed that she was Anastasia; Margaretta was shown photographs of Miss Anderson and swiftly declared it a falsity.

Margaretta Eagar died aged 73 at the Grange Nursing Home at Keynsham, near Bristol, on 2 August 1936.[viii]


[i] Some accounts claim she was born in Tralee while her death certificate suggests a birth date of 1869.

[ii] The 1911 census suggests that Frances was born in California.

[iii] ‘On one occasion the Prince of Siam came to visit the Empress, and the children were in the room. Now I was interested to see his dusky highness as I had met him before at a little seaside resort in the west of Ireland. He had been invited to spend the summer holidays with a school-fellow, and Kilkee was chosen by his family for their holiday-resort. Some of the visitors there got up a little entertainment for the benefit of the poor, and he and his friends were invited to help. The entertainment took the form of tableaux, with a little music. The young prince was deeply interested in all, and finally begged for a part for himself. One excuse after another was offered to him, but at last to our consternation he ex claimed, ÒI know why you will not have me. It is because I am an Eastern. Well, I'll make a tableau all for myself." He went home and presently re-appeared with an armful of curtains, table-cloths, etc. Throwing these down in a corner of the hall, he went out again, and presently returned with all the false jewellery the village shops could supply, and announced that he intended to personate the Queen of Sheba when she had seen Solomon's magnificence. He quickly dressed the platform to represent an Eastern interior, and, draping himself in a shawl, squatted, native fashion, in the middle of the stage. It was wonderfully effective. On the evening of the exhibition the tableau was by far the finest, being so much out of the common. The boy was delighted with himself and his audience.’ Chapter 12, Life in the Kremlin, ‘Six Years at the Russian Court’ by Margaret Eagar.

[iv] Nottingham Evening Post, 2 January 1905, p. 5; Pall Mall Gazette - 2 January 1905, p. 2; ‘The Nurse Spy Story’, Sheffield Daily Telegraph - Tuesday 03 January 1905, p. 9.

[v] Frances Thomasina Rosanna Eagar (Frances) married the Rev George Hanson, at 5 Duncairn Avenue, Clifton, Antrim, with whom she had three children, namely Dr David Marcus Hanson (1888-1964), Ellen (1891-1942) and Grace M'Gillycuddy Hanson (b. 1893). At the time of the 1911 Census of Ireland, they lived at 5 Duncairn Avenue, Clifton, Antrim; David and Grace were also in the house. The Rev. George Hanson, D.D., (1857-1928) was variously Minister of Rathgar (1881-1898), Marylebone, London (1898-1909), Duncairn, Belfast (1909-1911), Erskine, Montreal (1911-1926) and Emperors Gate, London (1926-1928).

[vi] Royal Blue Book: Fashionable Directory and Parliamentary Guide, 1908, . 830.

[vii] Among those he trained was Johnny Hutchinson, the cover star of the first ‘Vanishing Ireland’, who, in turn, taught my pal Oisin Nolan how to ride. See memoirs of Rodzianko at http://www.military.ie/education-hq/equitation-school/equitation-school-history/

[viii] Thanks tp Paul Gorry. Jane (Muriel Grace) Forrester, the principal beneficiary of Margaretta's will, was her niece, the daughter of (Jane Mathilda) Grace Eagar and Alister Henry MacLeod. The MacLeods are on the 1911 census, along with Margaretta’s mother. At least one of them is buried in Baltinglass, by the wall and close to the steps down from the front of the C. of I. graveyard to the Abbey church. See here for more on Alister's banking record; he had been an accountant in Nenagh. Jane married William Forrester in Bombay, India, on 16th October 1922 and is recorded sailing back to the UK from Calcutta on the 5th December 1935. Perhaps to take care of Margaretta.