The Foxearth and District Local History Society

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Friday, August 02, 2019

The Princess level-crossing keeper.

The level-crossing lady at Cavendish Station, Amy Saunders, used to tell me the story of her colleague at Rodbridge railway crossing who was, for a while after the war,  a Polish Princess. The Level-Crossings on the railway were all manned, and the keepers were given free houses next to the gates. These small but well-built houses houses have generally endured after the railway closed, and have all been modernised and extended.

It was indeed a Polish Princess, Her Royal Highness Princess Madeleine von Dembinska, supposedly  of the royal house of Lothingen-Rawics who kept the crossing and opened and closed the crossing gates.
Her Royal Highness Princess Madeleine von Dembinska 
It was, to be sure, an unusual job for a Princess, but she seemed to rather enjoy it, though she kept rather aloof from the other railway employees, I'm told. I'd assumed that she and her family were one of the many Polish refugees who fled to East Anglia from the German occupation and massacres that followed. Her job, she would explain,  was necessary while she and her mother fought to prove their legal right to a considerable family inheritance under the will of her paternal grandfather. When asked why she took the job with British Railways, she would always say it was because she loved trains and there was a 'cottage thrown in'.
She lived in the cottage at Rodbridge with her brother, the Prince.

A short film exists in the East Anglian Film Archive where she explained how she got to be a level crossing keeper.

  There is also a shorter film now on youtube
There is some charming footage of the railway and the level crossing, and the Princess gave a grand performance.

Princess Madeleine Von Dembinska died at Addenbrooke’s Hospital,Cambridge aged 58 in 1966. At the time, he mother and sister were said to be still alive (she died later that year aged 81), but only her brother, the Prince, attended her funeral.

She was actually English born at Richmond in Surrey, to a rather ferocious Scottish mother and naturalized Polish-British father.  Her mother called herself Princess Carmen de Tresca-Bates von Dembinska. She had been fighting since 1918 to prove what she believed was her legal right to a huge fortune which included land and properties on the Continent. The trouble, evidently, started in 1871 when her husband's father came to this country from the Continent and became a naturalised British subject. 

The family's claim to the title seeed a bit far-fetched. According to Simon Konarski, Armorial de la noblesse Polonaise titree (Paris, 1958) 174, Jean Nepomucene Dembinski had been created a Count of Galicia by Emperor Joseph II in 1784 but the title became extinct in 1924. There are many untitled families of the surname, and the idea that they were princesses of the royal family was a shared family delusion. 

After going on a visit to France for some time with her family, was brought back to England when she was six and went to The Limes School, Chiswick and then on to Notting Hill High School, Holland Park. She lived in Chiswick with her family until 1931, and in Harcourt Buildings W, from 1931-41, still with her family. She never married. Her father died in 1931.

In 1941 the family more or less settled in the Belchamp Walter locality for a time, occupying singly or in company, several cottages. Eventually in 1957, the princess was attracted to the vacant railway cottage at Rodbridge Railway Crossing, thinking it would be at least a unique inhabitation.
On applying to the railway authority, however, she was told that the only condition of living in the cottage would be to undertake the duties of opening and shutting the railway crossing gates daily. She accepted it, and the ‘Princess in the Crossing Cottage’ became famous both in local and national press comments.

She didn't make a very fortunate start. A newspaper report in the local press in October 10th 1957 reported ...

'The crossing keeper at Rodbridge crossing, Miss Madeleine G.A.Von Debinska, was taken to St Leonard’s hospital after being injured when the 8-30 goods train from Cambridge collided with level crossing gates. Miss Debinska is a descendant of the Polish royal family, her brother, Prince Eric Von Debinska, lives in a cottage at Belchamp Walter., he and his sister are both British born, their grand father was a naturalised Englishman.'

There was a certain mystery about her. Her family had evidently fallen on hard times after the death of her father. A painting exists of her in her youth, painted by Sir John Hare.   

A lot of the mystery about the princess and her brother the prince is explained by John Heard in the chapter 'My Brush with Royalty' from his 'Collected Reminiscences of John Frederick Heard', published in  the Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 73, p.195

John Heard was looking for lodgings in London in 1932 .
"Chiswick being only a few stops on the Underground beyond Earl s Court,we got off there one day and found, almost next door to the station, the office of an "estate agent''. Did he have any flats listed which might suit us?
"Well, yes, maybe; there was the lower half of 69 Barrowgate Road, quite nice really: reception room, two bedrooms, kitchen and bath. But I could sense some reservation, and finally he came out with it: the owners, now living in the flat which they hoped to rent out, were, to say the least, queer.  
"There was the old lady and her son and two daughters, all three in their twenties. Some kind of European royalty, he understood, but quite harmless, he thought. He said we could go around anyway and take a look; no harm in that. 
"We went. Actually the house was quite nice. No central heating, of course, just coal and gas fires in some of the rooms, but in those days central heating was almost unknown in English middle-class houses. Her Royal Highness the Princess von Dembinska was quite a pleasant, stout, garrulous lady with a very broad Scottish accent. Princess Madelaine was quite a handsome girl, her sister. Princess Olga, a little on the dumpy side but quite pleasant. 
"H.R.H. Prince Eric gave every appearance of being retarded. It was immediately obvious that they took the Royal Highness bit very seriously and expected their friends and acquaintances to use Princess and Prince as forms of address. H.R.H. the Princess senior apparently earned the odd pound as a seer, and the girls worked as private guides for tourists; Prince Eric did nothing. They were renting the upper flat to a young B.B.C. pianist and his wife, and, once having let the lower flat, they proposed to move to their other London accommodation which was, they said, "chambers" in the Temple which was theirs on indefinite lease from the Barristers* Association, the late Prince having been a barrister of such standing as to have this coveted privilege.
"All four talking almost simultaneously, they told us the long and almost unbelievable story of the von Dembinski family. It was a Polish family, they said, of great antiquity. (They claimed direct lineage from King Canute and in that way relationship with the English Royal Family.) Until nearly the time of the death of H.R.H. the Prince von Dembinski he had been merely a Count and his wife a Countess. Then by the death of a co-lineal relative they suddenly inherited the titles of Prince and Princess and the claim to the Polish throne and to a large tract of land in Poland. They were realistic
enough to admit that the Polish throne was beyond reclaiming, but they were very much in earnest about the land which they said was being improperly held by a French syndicate. The late Prince had filed suit against these French gangsters who felt thereby so threatened that they set about to terrorize the family - faces at the windows and all that sort of thing.
"We did rent their flat and we saw a fair amount of the von Dembinskis during the year that we stayed there. They never let down their delusion (if that is what it was) but they were extraordinarily kind to us. The girls invited me to a party where 1 met many of their friends - very nice young English people who seemed to accept the von D. 's at their own evaluation.
"Also they had me to dinner at their chambers in the Temple - so that was real enough. Once they showed me a document which stated that the Princesses Madelaine and Olga von Dembinska were entitled to wear the White Rose of England (whatever that was). Phony or not. to tell the truth, I rather liked them, particularly Madelaine and Olga who gave every indication of being wholesome, well-bred and charming young English women.
"When I left England I lost track of the family and never heard the name again - except once. Years later a friend in England sent me a second-section front-page story entitled "Polish Princess a Crossing Guard". There was a big picture of Madelaine standing beside her little hut and holding up a huge stop sign at a railroad level crossing. Then followed the old story that I knew so well - the Royal House of von Dembinski, the claim to the throne, the land claim, the villainous French syndicate. And all in a jocular tone."

The president of the Society of Genealogists , Anthony J. Camp MBE recalls a brush with Madeleine 

"No visitor had been allowed to attend the AGM of the Society of Genealogists at which Mountbatten was elected but free tea tickets were sent to members who applied in advance. The library was closed all day. Prior to the Meeting Cregoe Nicholson was in a nervous state about one of our more eccentric members, Princess Madeleine Gabrielle von Dembinska (died 1966, aged 57),  who was threatening to disrupt the proceedings because, for some long forgotten reason, she did not approve of Lord Mountbatten. Her mother, a penniless lady calling herself the Princess Carmen de Tresca-Bates von Dembinska (who also died in 1966, aged 81), had spent years in legal battles about a vast inheritance that she believed had been kept from her.  The police had to be informed but in the event Princess Madeleine did not show up. Her request to see the Relationship Tables was subsequently declined. She lived with her litigious mother and was the level-crossing keeper at Rodbridge in Suffolk where she had a little rent-free cottage and occasionally changed the points on the branch line for £3-15-0 a week!


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