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  Winifred Margaret  Coombe Tennant (1874–1956), by Ian Smith, 1946 [Princess Elizabeth (centre), later Queen Elizabeth II, at one of the Gorsedd stones, between her two sponsors, Mrs Winifred  Coombe Tennant and Mrs Maud Thomas] Winifred Margaret Coombe Tennant (1874–1956), by Ian Smith, 1946 [Princess Elizabeth (centre), later Queen Elizabeth II, at one of the Gorsedd stones, between her two sponsors, Mrs Winifred Coombe Tennant and Mrs Maud Thomas]
Tennant, Winifred Margaret Coombe [née Winifred Margaret Pearce- Serocold; pseuds. Mam o Nedd, Mrs Willett] (1874–1956), suffragist and spiritualist medium, was born at Rodborough Lodge, Rodborough, Gloucestershire, on 1 November 1874, the only child of George Edward Pearce-Serocold (1828–1912), lieutenant in the Royal Navy and gentleman, and his second wife, Mary Clarke née Richardson of Derwen Fawr, Swansea.

Her parents travelled widely, and from the age of four Winifred spent much of her childhood on the continent. Educated at schools in France, Switzerland, and England, from the age of sixteen she studied music in Naples, where she met her future husband Charles Coombe Tennant (1852–1928), a barrister and landowner, of Neath, Glamorgan. She married Charles on 12 December 1895 and bore four children. An intelligent, cultured, and socially aware young woman, marriage into this prominent and wealthy family greatly broadened her horizons. At the celebrated London salon of her mother-in-law, , she mixed with such figures as Gladstone, Ruskin, Tennyson, George Eliot, Burne Jones, and Cecil Rhodes; the explorer H. M. Stanley, who was married to Gertrude's daughter Dorothy, was her brother-in-law. She also met through her mother-in-law the leading suffragists Millicent Fawcett, Ray Strachey, and Eleanor Rathbone and began to work alongside them.

At her home at Cadoxton Lodge, near Neath, Winifred Coombe Tennant was a leading figure in the campaign for women's suffrage in south Wales and became president of Neath Women's Suffrage Society. She played a prominent part in public life during the First World War and served as director of national service for Wales. She was at pains to stress that women claimed the vote as of right and not as a reward for their war work, although she acknowledged the role the war had played in changing attitudes to women's enfranchisement. The war dealt her a heavy blow in the loss of her nineteen-year-old son Christopher at Ypres in 1917; she reacted to his death by throwing herself into public work.

In politics Coombe Tennant was an ardent Liberal. A member of the executive of the Welsh National Liberal Council and of the Committee for Self Government for Wales, she was a leading campaigner for Lloyd George's Coalition Liberals at the general election of 1918. In 1922 Lloyd George appointed her a delegate to the third assembly of the League of Nations held in Geneva that summer—she was the first woman to be a member of the British delegation. At the general election of November 1922 she was one of sixteen Liberal women candidates; she stood, unsuccessfully, for the Forest of Dean division.

Coombe Tennant's Welsh identity was very important to her and even though in late 1931, three years after her husband's death, she left her home at Cadoxton Lodge and took up permanent residence in London, she maintained close contacts with Wales, particularly in cultural matters. A well-known and prominent eisteddfodic figure, she was president of the arts and crafts section at the national eisteddfod held in Neath in 1918 and was elected to the Gorsedd of Bards in the same year. In 1931 she was elevated to the post of mistress of the robes, a position which she held until 1953. On her death, she bequeathed a fund, Cronfa Mam o Nedd, to the national eisteddfod.

Coombe Tennant also took a great interest in the visual arts in Wales and was an important patron. As well as serving on the executive committee of Swansea Art Gallery, she built up her own private collection of contemporary European art in the inter-war years. She did much to promote Welsh painters. She was Evan Walters's chief patron, and was a source of encouragement to John Elwyn and to the Welsh-based German artist Heinz Koppel, among others. She died at her home, 18 Cottesmore Gardens, Kensington, London, on 31 August 1956.

Winifred Coombe Tennant lived a public life of service and devotion to good causes and the arts. Only after her death was it revealed, in the journal of the Society for Psychical Research for December 1957, that she had been a long-standing member of the society and a psychic medium who worked under the pseudonym Mrs Willett. She had maintained this secret existence for over fifty years, concealing it even from her own family. Her membership of the society dated from 1901, and by 1908 she was acting as a medium. The death of her eighteen-month-old daughter in July 1908 probably intensified her interest in this field, as did the loss of her eldest son in 1917. A practitioner of ‘automatic’ handwriting, through whom the dead were claimed to communicate, she wrote down ‘automatically’ a series of messages attributed to deceased members of the society, including Frederic Myers (to whom she was related by marriage), Edmund Gurney, and Henry Sidgwick. Her mediumship was highly regarded within spiritualist circles, attracting the attention of Gerald Balfour among others. After Coombe Tennant's death forty scripts, said to be communications of her experiences in the afterlife, were transmitted into ‘automatic’ writing by the medium Geraldine Cummins.

Deirdre Beddoe

Sources  

E. W. Jones, ‘Winifred Coombe Tennant: “Mam o Nedd” mawr ei nodded’, Y Traethodydd, 151 (1996), 40–52, 85–103; 152 (1997), 48–52 · H. Spaull, Women peace-makers [1924] · A. Mee, ed., Who's who in Wales (1920); 2nd edn (1933); 3rd edn (1937) · P. Lord, The visual culture of Wales: industrial society (1998) · G. Cummins, Swan on a black sea: a study in automatic writing, the Cummins-Willett scripts, ed. S. Toksvig (1965) · J. Oppenheim, The other world: spiritualism and psychical research in England, 1850–1914 (1985) · b. cert. · d. cert. · Burke, Gen. GB (1937) [‘Pearce-Serocold of Taplow Hill’ and ‘Tennant of Cadoxton’] · Kelly, Handbk (1950)

Archives  

West Glamorgan Archive Service, corresp. and papers |  NL Wales, letters to John Elwyn


Likenesses  

E. Walters, oils, 1920, repro. in Lord, Visual culture of Wales, 185; priv. coll. · I. Smith, group portrait, photograph, 1946, Hult. Arch. [see illus.] · E. Walters, oils, 1950, repro. in Lord, Visual culture of Wales, 239; priv. coll.

Wealth at death  

£46,913 14s. 10d.: probate, 10 Jan 1957, CGPLA Eng. & Wales