London: The news of the sudden disappearance of former UK prime minister Herbert Asquith’s daughter was perhaps the most shocking event of 1908’s Edwardian summer, but the mystery behind it has finally been solved, it has been claimed.
The 21-year-old was reported missing at Cruden Bay on the Scottish coast, where the family had been spending their holiday in September 1908 at a rented fortress with the ominous name of Slains Castle.
After a dangerous search lasting half the night, Violet Asquith was finally discovered lying in wet grass on a rocky ledge above the sea — uninjured but apparently barely conscious.
The prime minister offered an innocent tale about his daughter stumbling in the dark but no one could explain why Violet had remained missing for so many hours.
What happened that night has long remained a mystery — but buried in the Asquith family papers, now at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, have revealed astonishing discovery - the story of Violet Asquith’s brush with death is inextricably linked with her doomed love for a rising young star in her father’s Liberal cabinet — Winston Churchill.
Only 20 when she came under Churchill’s spell, Violet met him one April weekend in 1907. Getting to know young Winston Churchill, who was 12 years her senior and still unmarried, filled her with a sense of ‘new excitement’, as she later put it.
Over the next few months, they continued to meet at balls and dinner parties.
For Churchill, there was an obvious career advantage to having this remarkable young woman’s unqualified support. At the time they started growing close, her father was still several months away from becoming prime minister, but few doubted that he would get the job — and bring new men into the Cabinet with him.
Churchill was determined to be one of those men and he knew that Violet would eagerly plead his case. She didn’t disappoint him and in early April 1908, when Asquith became prime minister, she bluntly told her father to “make the most of Winston”.
On April 08, Churchill was asked to serve as president of the Board of Trade — the youngest man to join the British Cabinet in almost half a century.
By the time spring turned to summer that year, Winston seemed to be on the verge of proposing to Violet. For her part, Violet knew plenty of other young men, but everyone else seemed second-best to the young politician.
When she invited him to stay with her family at Slains Castle, he agreed to come on August 17 and remain for at least a week, but she hadn’t realised that there was another woman who had recently captured his heart.
Clementine Hozier, the 22-year-old granddaughter of Scottish peer the Earl of Airlie, had an allure that Churchill found irresistible.
Churchill began weighing the merits of the two women, who were almost exact opposites. Although his strongest emotions were aroused by Clementine, he wasn’t sure whether she would marry him — whereas he knew that he could count on Violet to say yes.
At some point that summer, he decided to make her his fall-back choice in case Clementine turned him down - which is how he came to lead one woman on while secretly hoping to win another.
A week before his promised visit to Slains Castle, he suggested to Clementine that she come to Blenheim Palace — the home of his cousin, the Duke of Marlborough — on August 10. After she arrived, he wasted little time before proposing, and she said yes.
They agreed that the engagement, which was announced on August 15, should be short. Winston needed to be in London that October for his work at the Board of Trade, so there was just enough time to get married in mid-September and have a fortnight’s honeymoon abroad.
But Violet was still expecting his visit on August 17. Realising it was best for her to know about the engagement before the news appeared in print, Winston sent her a note — in which he added that he’d have to postpone his trip to Scotland.
She was utterly devastated, but Violet put up a brave front, telling friends and family that she was pleased for him, but she was deeply jealous of her rival.
Afterwards, the newlyweds rushed off to Italy for their short honeymoon, and for a week everything was quiet at Slains.
But, late on Saturday afternoon, September 19, the prime minister’s daughter left the castle with a book in her hand and wandered along the path above the cliffs where she and Churchill had been rock-climbing.
Asquith and his wife were hosting a dinner and didn’t notice her absence. When darkness fell, and there was still no sign of Violet, everyone rushed out to look for her, with servants carrying lanterns and dinner guests following.
After an hour of searching the rugged slopes and ledges, the prime minister grew desperate. At this point, dozens of villagers offered to help, including fishermen who knew the coast well.
As midnight approached, Asquith feared that his daughter had fallen over a cliff and been swept away by the waves but minutes later she heard the fishermen cheering and promptly fainted. Her stepdaughter had been found. Afterwards, Violet claimed she had slipped and landed on a ledge, where she hit her head.
But, contrary to what journalists were told, she’d been found lying near the coastal path and her head showed no signs of injury.
The next day, the castle was inundated with requests for interviews and photographs. Violet had never received more attention in her life — and Margot soon concluded that the ‘accident’ had been staged as an attention-seeking exercise.
The lack of any physical injury suggests that that Margot was right - while Winston and Clementine were enjoying their honeymoon, the deeply wounded Violet was simply making a desperate cry for attention and help.