Hamilton, Kathleen (1905–90), duchess of Abercorn , public figure, was born Mary Kathleen Crichton on 8 July 1905 in London. Her parents were both members of prominent landed families well connected to British high society, especially to Queen Mary (1867–1953), who was asked to be her godmother. Her father, Henry William Crichton, Viscount Crichton, a lieutenant-colonel in the British army, was the eldest son of John Henry Crichton, 4th earl of Erne (qv); her mother Lady Mary Cavendish Grosvenor was a daughter of the duke of Westminster. Like so many other families, the Crichtons were devastated by the tragedies of the first world war. Kathleen's father, described as a 'splendid specimen of a soldier and nobleman' (Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, 23 Feb. 1918), was listed as missing on 31 October 1914. His fate was unknown until a body was exhumed and identified in 1916. Her grandfather, the 4th earl of Erne died in December 1914, to be succeeded as 5th earl by Kathleen's only sibling, her younger brother John (1907–1940).
Lady Mary Crichton had suffered a dreadful accident in the hunting field in 1909, lay at death's door for weeks and would never walk again. In 1918 she married to her second husband the Hon. Algernon Stanley, a brother of the earl of Derby, who was like his wife enthusiastic about hunting and racing. Lady Kathleen was educated privately, and lived with her mother and stepfather and a younger half-brother and sister, at Sopworth Hall, Wiltshire, until it was almost completely destroyed by a fire in 1926. With her stepfather, Lady Kathleen Crichton regularly went fox-hunting and as a young woman gained a reputation as a horsewoman, following the famous Beaufort Hounds and winning prizes at the Badminton Gymkhana in 1922. Her activities were often reported by society columnists; the newspapers noted in 1922 that she had 'put her hair up', and on 30 May 1923, she was presented to the queen, and was regarded as one of that season's celebrity debutantes. She wore an ivory crepe frock, embroidered in pearls, satin beads and diamanté, with a shot silver and salmon pink lace train.
When her engagement to James Edward Hamilton, marquess of Hamilton, was announced in 1927, unionist newspapers in the newly established Northern Ireland reported joyfully on the union of two of the province's most distinguished lineages. The marquess's father was James Albert Hamilton, 3rd duke of Abercorn (qv) who was first governor of Northern Ireland. Local commentators were delighted that the governor and his wife gave as a wedding gift 'all the linen requisites for a nobleman's residence', all made in Ulster, and ordered from Belfast's most famous shop, Robinson and Cleaver, not from London (Belfast News Letter, 7 Feb. 1928). Charles D'Arcy (qv), the archbishop of Armagh, married the young couple in the church of St Martin in the Fields, London, on 9 February 1928. Unusually, King George V was present at the ceremony, and Queen Mary, who had been unwell, joined him at the reception. There were a thousand onlookers outside the church.
The marquess resigned his army commission and worked as a stockbroker in London. In 1939–40, the marchioness volunteered, during the London blitz, as an auxiliary nurse on the wards of St Thomas's Hospital, and spent the war years without her husband, who returned to army service. Her brother, Lord John Crichton, 5th earl of Erne, was killed on active service in 1940; her half-brother died aged twenty, in 1943, in action with the Royal Air Force.
The couple, who had a daughter and two sons, moved permanently to Baronscourt in Co. Tyrone after the war, and Lady Kathleen was much involved in planning the changes to the mansion after the west wing was demolished. Her husband succeeded his father in 1953; thereafter Lady Kathleen was known as the duchess of Abercorn. Although she had not spent much time in the Crichton ancestral home, Crom Castle, in Co. Fermanagh, she settled in very well to life in Northern Ireland. She hunted twice a week when possible, she enjoyed fishing, was a keen gardener and eventually a member of the International Dendrology Society, attending its meetings in America and elsewhere with her husband.
She became something of a celebrity in Northern Ireland. Between 1950 and 1959 alone, her name appeared almost 700 times in local papers, as she sought out and accepted new responsibilities in voluntary work, taking each very seriously. The duchess attended thousands of meetings throughout Northern Ireland, as well as public events, such as distributing prizes at the 1962 finals of the Young Farmers Clubs of Ulster public speaking competition and opening the Taughboyne May Fair, a parish fundraiser in east Donegal. It would be difficult now to list all the organisations with which she was associated as patron or president or chairman. Her activities were particularly focussed on groups that benefitted women and girls, and examples include her patronage of the Society of Ulster Women Artists and of the Girls' Life Brigade, the Tyrone Girl Guides and the Tyrone Ulster Women's Unionist Association. From 1946–85, the duchess of Abercorn was president of the Federation of Women's Institutes of Northern Ireland, travelling to Institute events in Belfast and all over Northern Ireland, and was made an honorary life member in 1985 in recognition of her long service in that organisation. Members recall with affection that she generally lunched on sandwiches and tea from a flask, in her car, before federation meetings.
The duchess was particularly involved with the Red Cross, first in Tyrone, then from 1959 also as president of the Northern Ireland Central Council Branch and chair of the Executive Committee. Much more than a figurehead, the duchess took a personal part in fundraising and other activities. For a gala Red Cross dinner in 1980 in La Mon House (rebuilt after the 1978 IRA atrocity there), waiters were expected to wear white gloves, but the duchess's rule was defied by a Belfast man who said he only wore white gloves on the Twelfth, and anyway, gloves made it awful awkward serving pints.
In the worsening Troubles of the 1960s, the duchess insisted that the Red Cross retain its neutrality in rendering assistance to both sides, and greatly encouraged Aileen McCorkell (qv) in re-establishing and running a branch in Derry; the duchess personally went out with the meals-on-wheels service into otherwise no-go areas of the city. She signed up for the Omagh district's emergency call-out register, which listed volunteers who would attend scenes of bombings to administer first aid, and she visited wounded civilians in hospital. In 1979, the duchess received the Queen's Badge of Honour, the highest award in the Red Cross.
In other roles related to health services, the duchess was for many years the chair of Tyrone County Hospital, and was patron of the Northern Ireland Benevolent Fund for Nurses and president of the British Commonwealth Nurses War Memorial Fund. She made several radio appeals on behalf of leukaemia research and other charities.
In 1964, the duchess was appointed Mistress of the Robes to her long-time friend Queen Elizabeth, the queen mother, and served in that capacity until her death. Her duties included arranging the roster of the younger women who were the ladies-in-waiting; she described her job as like being the head girl. The duchess was very close to the queen mother, attending her on trips abroad, and also on her most important engagements. In 1969, Kathleen Abercorn was appointed a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order, and in 1982, was made a Dame Grand Cross of that order. In July 1980, the University of Ulster at Jordanstown gave her the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters; the duke of Abercorn, until his death in 1979, had been the first chancellor of the university.
In an address to the Queen's University Women Graduates Association in January 1957, the duchess implored her hearers not to emigrate, saying that Northern Ireland needed educated women as leaders, but tellingly she highlighted women's role as leaders in voluntary organisations. In the Northern Ireland of 1957, no one would have imagined how quickly the world would change, but for the duchess, as for others of her generation, the voluntary service to which she had devoted herself was an obligation on those born to privilege.
Kathleen Hamilton, dowager duchess of Abercorn, died 2 February 1990 at Baronscourt, and was buried in the family plot at Baronscourt parish church.