It's No Vacation for Sir Peter and Lady Ramsbotham in Uneasy Bermuda
Fire bombs rained down on London, and in those grim days of the Battle of Britain, Frances Marie Blomfield donned the white helmet and one-piece jumpsuit of the air raid warden. “She was very cool,” recalls Sir Peter Ramsbotham, smiling gently. “I always admired her courage and, of course, I was overwhelmed by this vision in a steel helmet.”
Their romance bloomed in the bomb shelters. He entertained with baritone renditions from Figaro and Rigoletto while she sat on his knee. In 1941 warden Blomfield was married to Peter Ramsbotham of the British War Office. They were both 22.
He went off to the front as an intelligence officer, but there have been few extended separations since. The diplomatic career he began after the war took them to, among other places, Nicosia, Tehran, Washington and now to the governor’s mansion in Bermuda. Along the way he was knighted and they became Sir Peter and Lady Ramsbotham.
“She hasn’t changed much in 37 years,” Sir Peter says, and indeed both Ramsbothams seem to have retained that wartime unflappability. When normally peaceful Bermuda erupted in racial rioting last month, Lady Ramsbotham carried on as if nothing much was happening, primarily concerned that the 58-year-old governor not become overly fatigued. How did she cope with the tension? “I did little things, address the Christmas cards, fill the saltcellars,” she says. “Nothing too dramatic.”
Peter and Frances Ramsbotham are living examples of what the world thinks British diplomatic couples are supposed to be: reserved but warm, witty yet understated, always proper but never stuffy. And, very importantly, pedigreed.
His father was the Viscount Soul-bury, a classical scholar and governor-general of Ceylon (now independent Sri Lanka) from 1949 to 1954. Young Peter was sent to the right schools: Eton, followed by Magdalen College, Oxford. He recalls his father visiting him at the university and saying, “Peter, now you must decide what you’re going to do.” The son’s instant response: “I’d like to retire.” His father “didn’t think it very funny,” Ramsbotham admits, “but it was in fact what I thought at the time. I had nothing in mind other than the blissful existence at Magdalen.”
Two events shattered his student reveries. First he was stricken with polio before he could complete his degree. Then came World War II. By late 1942, recovered from the paralysis, he enlisted in the army as a private. British army intelligence had better use for his fluency in German and Russian. He landed at Normandy and also saw service in Belgium and Germany before V-E day. Ramsbotham came out of the war a lieutenant colonel with the French Croix de Guerre.
He joined the British Foreign Service in 1948 and, with his Cairo-born wife (Frances was the daughter of a British army officer), began the diplomatic travels that took them from Berlin—where the youngest of their three children was born—to the United Nations. A seasoned hand by 1969, he received his first major independent assignment as high commissioner of Cyprus. Two years later he moved to the embassy in Iran. In 1974 he earned one of the biggest plums that Whitehall can bestow: appointment as Her Majesty’s ambassador to the United States.
Sir Peter traveled throughout this country to get a feel of the land. By all accounts, he and Lady Ramsbotham were among the most popular hosts in Washington (they claim credit for introducing Elizabeth Taylor to a gentleman farmer in Virginia named John Warner). The ambassador toiled effectively to smooth out snags in U.S. British relations. Yet the assignment that was to cap a distinguished diplomatic career ended on an embarrassing note.
Last spring the government of Prime Minister James Callaghan decided to replace Sir Peter with Peter Jay, the brilliant young economics editor of the Times of London who also happens to be the PM’s son-in-law. The Ramsbothams, inexcusably, learned of their replacement in the newspapers. The Foreign Office reportedly considered Sir Peter too blue-blooded to get along with the casual new U.S. administration. In truth, however, Sir Peter had been the only foreign envoy in Washington to strike up an acquaintance with Jimmy Carter while he was still a presidential candidate—and the two had gotten on quite well.
The Ramsbothams accepted their disappointment with grace (“It was the way it was done,” she confides). Bermuda was presumed to be a cushy job where they could loll away their last years of service before Sir Peter’s retirement. But they had hardly settled into the 12-bedroom Government House when the island was gripped by crisis. Forty-eight hours of riot and arson were touched off by the hanging of two black men convicted of several murders. (One of Sir Peter’s predecessors and his aide were among the victims.) Though the unrest was quelled by the island’s small police force (plus British troop reinforcements called for by Sir Peter), he was left with the task of repairing Bermuda’s image among tourists. They constitute the island’s major industry. (Indeed, the island seems to have returned to its former tranquillity.)
In difficult times like these, Lady Ramsbotham says, “I just think of our daughter Mary to put things in proportion.” Eight years ago Mary, then 23, was involved in an auto accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down. She lives now in a specially fitted apartment in Oxford and even manages to drive herself about, but, says her mother, “It’s a big, big battle, and it made us take a different look at life. Possessions and success—they’re lovely but not important.” (The Ramsbothams are also parents of Oliver, 33, a college history professor, and Simon, 27, a doctor.)
Long interested in poetry and the arts, Frances Ramsbotham often exhibits her puckish independent streak. At her wedding she insisted on deleting the wifely vow of obedience—quite a radical move in those days. And she once regaled a Washington group with a fiery feminist speech, while her husband fidgeted in the audience. “Adam’s spare rib is on the warpath,” she warned. “From now on he may have to launder his own fig leaf.”
Sir Peter often responds with mock threats to form a human rights group for aging males. “If you’re over 50 you should be entitled to talk about girls—instead of women,” he pouts, not seriously. “We’re an abused minority. We may march to the White House in spats and waistcoats, waving our umbrellas.”