The Messel Family: Living in Britain with German Heritage

The Messel family were significant in the banking sector throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. They had German Jewish heritage, which caused tensions and hostilities during the First World War period. This page follows some of the Messel family members who resided in Nymans House, Sussex.

Jewish Roots of Messel family – Copyright National Trust

Ludwig Messel was born in Germany in 1847, where he received a good education. He moved to England in 1868 and became a naturalised British citizen in 1878.

Around 1800, Jews living in German states were required to adopt a surname.  Many used the name of the town where they were living. For example, we know that the Messel family took their name from Messel a town in south-west Germany.  

Copyright National Trust, Nymans.

After moving to England, Ludwig soon established his own stockbroker firm, L. Messel and Co., building upon his family’s banking business.

Ludwig Messel. Photo: National Trust, Nymans.

In an effort to synthesise both the German and British aspects of his identity, Ludwig purchased an estate. Here, he sought to integrate into the British gentry. This is a goal he would never achieve though.

Commemorative plaque for Alfred Messel, well-known German architect and brother of Ludwig in place at Nymans – Photograph courtesy of Dr Diana Wilkins
Anne & Ludwig Messel seated on the veranda at Nymans. Photo: National Trust, Nymans.

Ludwig continued to love his home country and chose a Germanic style of architecture when he initially renovated his estate at Nymans.

He also retained a strong German accent. This caused problems for Ludwig when the First World War broke out.

In response, Ludwig remodelled his house to make it less Germanic. Rumours still continued to circulate about his Germanic links. It was believed that Ludwig was communicating with the Germans from a high tower at his house. Read more about this here:

Star of David on wall at Nymans – Image courtesy of Dr Diana Wilkins

Ludwig later removed this tower in efforts to quell such rumours. Photos of this renovation can be seen on the National Trust website. The pressure of being a German living in Britain in the First World War took its toll on Ludwig. He became depressed and was never able to recover. He died in July 1915. As he was torn between his love for Germany and Britain, his family attributed his death to a broken heart.

Messel Coat of Arms. Copyright The National Trust

Upon the death of Ludwig, his eldest son Leonard Messel inherited Nymans House. Leonard was born in Brixton, London. He attended Eton before studying at Oxford. Despite this, Leonard suffered as a result of his Germanic heritage.

Leonard Messel on horseback. Photo: National Trust, Nymans

Pre-war, Leonard was part of the 4th (reserve) battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. He was skilled and held a wealth of knowledge. Yet, when war broke out, he was debarred from service. Those with German connections were treated with suspicion, and Leonard did have close family still living in Germany. In fact, he had cousins fighting in the German Army.

Due to his extensive military experience, Leonard was allowed to get involved with the war effort by training soldiers in the 4th reserve of the East Kent Regiment. The pride he took in his work is shown by his dedication to the soldiers he trained. He exchanged many letters with soldiers, providing further support. On occasion, Leonard provided financial support for the families of soldiers. He also offered references for soldiers if they were needed post-war. Despite his knowledge and passion, he was unable to serve on the front lines simply due to his heritage.

Leonard had been a member of Volunteer movement (or Territorial Force) since c.1892.  In 1912, he was given the grade Captain and Hon Major Leonard C R Messel 4th Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment, Territorial Force (see London Gazette 15 March 1912) During WW1, Leonard was debarred from fighting overseas due to his German origin. Instead, he trained soldiers from the 4th reserve Battalion, ‘The Buffs’ (Kent), for which he was awarded an OBE.  Leonard became a Lieutenant-Colonel but he was known as ‘Colonel’ for the rest of his life.
Leonard’s younger brother, Harold (1877-1920), joined the Royal Sussex Regiment but was also prevented from serving abroad.

The importance of the letters Leonard exchanged with the soldiers he trained is emphasised as he had the documents copied and bound. In 1947, Nymans House caught fire. In this disaster, the original letters were destroyed, however, the letters can still be read as the bound copies have survived.

Nymans House following the 1947 fire. Image sourced from Slaugham Archives
The Great Hall at Nymans – Present Day – Photo taken by Nicola Benge

These letters have become a significant source in studies of the First World War. They span the length of the war and recount harrowing stories of life on the front line. This provides valuable insight.

Below is one example of a letter sent to Leonard. The soldier, W Painis, writes:

‘We are getting rather a rough time out there just now–especially north and south of the Ancre where all the scrapping has taken place, and the ground has all been torn up by shell fire; the trenches totally wrecked and the number of dead still lying about in areas long since left behind is simply appalling. Thiepval and Beaucourt exist only as names. One passes over them without dreaming that they could have been villages. Of course, they were only small hamlets–larger villages, like Athuille, can still boast of a few poles with half a roof every here and there.
I wonder when it will all end–whenever things begin to look better, something always comes along to spoil it all, like the Rumanian fiasco.’

Letter written by W. Painis to Leonard. Documents held by the Imperial War Museum.

In 1919, Leonard received an OBE for his service.

Maud Messel (nee Sambourne) became Leonard’s wife in 1898. The daughter of Edward Linley and Marion Sambourne, Maud was educated at home and displayed artistic talent. She was the daughter of Punch illustrator E. Linley Sambourne. She had drawings published in Punch and Pall Mall Gazette.

The couple had three children: Linley 1899-1971, Anne 1902-1992 (later Mother in Law of Princes Margaret), and theatre designer Oliver 1904-1978. The children spent much of their childhood at Nymans. 

“As an adult in the 1940s and 1950s Oliver become a famous theatre designer and Anne married into the aristocracy with her marriage to the Earl of Rosse.”
Lady Maud Messel with Linley & Anne. Photo: National Trust, Nymans.

Maud also played a key role at Nymans during the war. She became a commandant at a Voluntary Aid Detachment hospital, which treated over 600 patients during the war. The Voluntary Aid Detachment was a unit of civilians who volunteered to provide nursing care for soldiers. Maud was one of the main leaders of Balcombe Military Hospital in West Sussex very close to Nymans.

Maud Messel (centre) with her family, Photo: National Trust, Nymans.

Nymans House provided nursing accommodation, and a visitor book was kept for the hospital. Patients and staff filled this book with entries recording their experiences alongside signatures. Some individuals were more creative, entering poems and drawings in the book.

Staff of the Balcombe VAD hospital in 1918, Commandant Mrs Messel, front row, far left,
Photo: Balcombe Historical Society

In the Second World War, the Messel household became a temporary home for evacuees who fled from the dangers of the city.

It is clear the Messel family were heavily impacted by their status as Germans, though the Jewish aspect of their heritage is less explored. Leonard did convert to the Protestant religion, and Maud was not Jewish, meaning the family’s connection to Judaism did begin to fade.

The Messel family did everything they could to demonstrate their loyalty to Britain during both wars, yet it seems they were unable to fully integrate into British society due to such suspicions and rumours.

Leonard was appointed High Sheriff, and after Nymans burnt down in a fire in the winter of 1947, the family moved nearby to live at Holmstead Manor, West Sussex.

Holmstead Manor in 1940s – Image courtesy of current occupants
Holmstead Manor, present day – Photo taken by Nicola Benge

This project focuses on Jewish people in Sussex in WWI so whilst this large family bears exploration, it is not within the remit of the project to explore this. However we can say that Oliver Messel worked on camouflage during World War Two, in the theatre as a set designer and later, as the interior designer of Princess Margaret’s home in Mustique.

Oliver Messel working on Gloriana costume. Picture © V&A Images / V&A Theatre Collections
A pretty military wedding. The marriage of Mr Linley Messel and Miss Anne Alexander at St Mark ‘s North Audley St. The bride and bridegroom. 11 October 1932.
Courtesy of

Linley Messel married Miss Anne Alexander at St Marks North, Audley St. in London on 11th October 1932, commanded the Middlesex Yeomanry in the Second World War (he was mentioned in despatches) and then worked in the family firm of L Messel & Co.

Anne Messel lived in Nymans and also later in Ireland after divorcing her first husband and then remarrying.  Anne was a renowned beauty and socialite in her twenties. She was married first to Ronald Armstrong-Jones and quickly became one of the ‘bright young things’ who featured regularly in the media. Anne and Ronald divorced in 1935 and later that year she married Michael Parsons the 6th Earl of Rosse, becoming the Countess of Rosse. She moved to the family seat at Birr Castle in Ireland but often stayed at Nymans where her family could enjoy the magnificent gardens. She moved back to Nymans as a widow in 1979. Her son, Anthony Armstrong-Jones, married Princess Margaret, becoming Lord Snowdon.   

Lord Snowdon was Anne’s son from her first marriage to Ronald Armstrong Jones. In 1960, the then Anthony Armstrong Jones married Princess Margaret and he was created Earl of Snowdon and Viscount Linley, of Nymans in the County of Sussex in 1961. The title reflected his father’s Welsh roots. 

He certainly inherited the Messel family talent for creativity and was a highly successful and well respected photographer.  In a career spanning six decades he captured the likenesses of some of the greatest icons of the 20th Century: royalty, society and celebrity.

Lord Snowdon has a close connection with Nymans and for many years lived at one of the estate properties. Upon the death of his mother, he provided tremendous support to the Nymans team in the presentation and opening up of the mansion show rooms and loaned a number of items to our collection such as family photographs.  He agreed to interviews with the property team and we have some wonderful archival footage of his memories and reflections.

Lord Snowdon also had extensive collections of items belonging to his uncle, Oliver Messel which are now in the archives at V&A.  He was also a great campaigner for the disabled having suffered from polio as a child.