Convert with a missionary soul

Lady Devlin, née Madeleine Oppenheimer 


-  By Tim Devlin

Madeleine Devlin, who died on March 22 aged 102, was a woman of boundless energy, grace and academic talent. She helped two brothers and made their lives much easier: the first her husband Lord Devlin, the Law Lord, and the second his younger brother Christopher, the scholar and missionary, who inspired her to convert to Catholicism when she was 46.

Of Jewish origin and Anglican upbringing, she was the third and youngest child of Sir Bernard Oppenheimer – a diamond merchant and an older brother of Sir Ernest Oppenheimer. Sir Ernest controlled De Beers and founded the Anglo-American Corporation of South Africa.

Lady Devlin grew up in London, where she attended Frances Holland School. She went on to Somerville College, Oxford, to study PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics). At Oxford she was particularly close to her cousin Harry, who was to succeed Ernest as chairman of Anglo-American and De Beers. She also formed a lifelong friendship with the historian CV (Veronica) Wedgwood.

After university Lady Devlin worked for Professor Lancelot Hogben FRS, the Professor of Social Biology at the University of London, helping him in his research into the uniqueness of fingerprints and working on what became Mathematics for the Million, a bestseller in 1933. During that period she met and married her husband Patrick in February 1932.

Patrick came from a devout Catholic Irish-Scottish family of five. The two daughters – Joan and Frances – became nuns. All three brothers went to Stonyhurst. While the youngest William became a distinguished actor, Patrick and his brother Christopher seemed both destined for the Church. Patrick lapsed and after Cambridge went to the Bar.

Christopher became a Jesuit. During the 1950s while a missionary in Southern Africa, Madeleine and he corresponded frequently. She was his English outpost, helping when needed with his dealings with Farm Street, his contributions to The Month, his biography of Robert Southwell (1956) and his edition of the writings of Gerald Manley Hopkins (1959). But above all she followed closely his missionary journeys in Rhodesia and in the process she became converted to Catholicism in 1956.

When Christopher returned to London seriously ill with cancer in 1959, she looked after him until he died at the family home, West Wick House, near Pewsey, in Wiltshire. She converted a playroom in the cellars of the house into a chapel so that he could say Mass every day. She also helped with the publication of Poor Kit Smart on the life of the eighteenth-century poet Christopher Smart.

Full obituary in The Tablet:

Baron Devlin according to Wikipedia:,_Baron_Devlin

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