Nancy Astor, Hamilton MA

Nancy’s Corner

For many years there was a barn at the intersection of Highland Street and Cutler Road in Hamilton with a sign that read “Nancy’s Corner.” I wondered who Nancy was and discovered an amazing story.

Nancy Witcher Langhorne was the daughter of a Virginian slaveholder whose family fell into poverty after the Civil War. By the time she reached her teen years he had regained most of his wealth. Nancy and all of her sisters were phenomenally beautiful, and she was a born elitist. She went to finishing school in New York City, which is where she met her first husband, Robert Gould Shaw II, a wealthy Boston socialite. They built a mansion on 140 acres of land across from what we know as Appleton Farms Grass Rides.

Shaw Astor estate in Hamilton
The Robert Gould Shaw estate where Nancy lived. Now known as Groton Farm, the long driveway intersects Highland Street across from Cutler Road
Nancy of a fox hunt
Nancy at a fox hunt on the Appleton estate

Nancy was of course an equestrian, as was expected of anyone in that exclusive neighborhood. She would ride her horse down the driveway to the corner of the Appleton estate to meet other riders for fox hunts. One of the Appleton men was such an admirer that he named that spot “Nancy’s Corner.”

Robert Shaw had a reputation for alcohol abuse and promiscuity. She had a reputation for being (how shall I say this) blunt. She once said “I married beneath me–all women do.” Their marriage was a disaster and after four years Nancy divorced him. At her father’s suggestion she left for England where she made quite an impression on the men. A woman once asked her, “Have you come to get our husbands?” to which she replied “If you only knew the trouble I had getting rid of mine!”

Nancy nonetheless married Waldorf Astor, another American expatriate and a member of one of the richest families in the world. In 1919 her husband inherited the title of Viscount and became a member of the House of Lords. Lady Astor had became involved in a political group known as Milner’s Kindergarten which advocated expansion of British imperialism. She won the seat he vacated in the House of Commons despite being a political novice, making her the first female member of the British Parliament. Her victory was all the more surprisingly in light of her zealous and vocal advocacy of Christian Science.

Although Nancy Astor’s political accomplishments in the House of Commons were minor, she made up for it with flamboyance and a sarcastic wit. An English politician recalled, “She was absolutely unabashed by any situation…Great effrontery but also, of course, enormous charm. People were usually overcome by it. She was much better when she was interrupted. She must have prayed for hecklers and interrupters. She certainly got a lot.” When people complained that she had rejoiced at the death of a political foe, she replied “I’m a Virginian, we shoot to kill”.

Nancy Astor’s story of ascending from poverty in the American South to a world of wealth and power is told in the book Nancy by Adrian Fort. He portrays an unforgettable woman who left a lasting but controversial imprint on the social and political life of Great Britain.

She was an ardent feminist, devoted herself to the causes of women and children, but also demonstrated no reluctance in expressing her overtly racist and elitist views. Her narcissistic personality and sarcastic retorts made her wildly popular but created many enemies. When miners went on strike in the 1930’s, she was overheard saying, “What do those earthworms want now?”

Nancy Astor in Life Magazine

Nancy Astor’s downfall was hastened by her support of Nazism as a solution for ridding the world of communism. Among much of the citizenry she was viewed as Adolf Hitler’s advocate. It is widely reported that she once said to Winston Churchill, “If you were my husband, I would poison your tea” to which the indomitable Churchill replied “Madam, if you were my wife, I would drink it.”

After the Second World War began, Astor admitted to having been mistaken about Hitler but redoubled her outspoken prejudice against Catholics. She was increasingly seen as a quack, and even her own husband refused to support her politically.

In 1945 Astor decided not to run for another term in the House of Commons. She died in 1964 at the age of 85. Her son Michael Astor wrote in his memoirs Tribal Feeling “At no time did she accept that the ordinary standards of life need necessarily apply to her.”

Groton House

And what of the grand estate at Nancy’s Corner? The Appletons purchased the property from Nancy’s first husband Robert Shaw. Frederic Winthrop became the next owner of the property and renamed it Groton House, as it is known today. During World War II, while he was serving in the Pacific theater, his wife, Angela Forbes Winthrop, opened their home to refugee children from Britain and the Netherlands. In 2011 Angela Forbes Winthrop, the widow of Frederic Winthrop and at that time the oldest resident of Hamilton, died at Groton House, her home since 1933.

Appleton and Winthrop children family portrait
The two women standing in the back row are, left to right, Joan Egleston Appleton (1912-2006) and Angela Forbes Winthrop (1912-2011). Photo courtesy of the Trustees of Reservations and Digital Commonwealth.

Further reading:

7 thoughts on “Nancy’s Corner”

  1. Around 1990 I worked at Groton House Farm taking care of the horses. I worked for Anne Getchell, daughter of Angela Winthrop. Anne also has a house on the property. I enjoyed riding horses all over the beautiful property there. I was in Ipswich visiting friends and family a couple years ago and I stopped by the farm and was able to see Anne and some of the horses I used to ride. I noticed somewhere that the property was owned by the Arbella Land Trust. I had assumed that this might be the original Winthrop family and thought they had owned it from the beginning, but I see that it was acquired relatively recently.

  2. Gordon, what an interesting piece about Nancy. Might I suggest FIVE SISTERS: The Langhorns of Virginia by James Fox which tells the tale of all the siblings in that fascinating family? I believe she had one son by Shaw, called Bobby, who also cut quite a figure among his Astor half-siblings in London’s highest society.

    It was certainly another world.

  3. She reminds me of Mary Sargent Duncan (see her Hiram Power’s bust at the Sargent House Museum). Another horrible beauty and slave owner who fled to London for a time with her great wealth. During the War, she complained to General Grant that the Union soldiers “press ganged” her “hired hands” on her family’s nine plantations. An inquiry was made. Her cotton workers were still virtually enslaved, starving and poorly clothed, and joined the soldiers when they had the chance–risking severe punishment.

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