Henry Woodiss was the gamekeeper whose affair with his boss’s wife thrust him into one of the most sensational scandals of the 1920s. He was vilified, a common man who’d dared seduce the wife of a baronet, Sir Conngsby Coninsby-Clarke.
Many years later, he wrote a satirical and often bawdy account of these events. He tells how Lady Edith, who had artistic pretensions, ordered him to pose naked, sketched him, then shamelessly exploited her social position to seduce him.
Underlying the affair was Woodiss’s relationship with Sir Con. Woodiss had been born on the Coningsby estate, the son of the gardener. Despite the enormous gulf in status, he and Con formed a deep friendship.
At the outbreak of war in 1914, Woodiss, who had just left grammar school, enlisted in a local regiment. Before he was twenty-one he had been grievously wounded twice and twice returned to duty; he had been decorated for distinguished conduct and ordered to take a commission.
Late in the war, Con was posted to Woodiss’s battalion, then in rest camp. Whilst there he was involved in an incident which scandalised Woodiss, yet at risk to himself, Woodiss protected Con who escaped court-martial and certain disgrace.
Any embarrassment was not prolonged. Within two days of going into the line, Con was severely injured. He would be wheelchair-bound for the rest of his life. Given the nature of his injuries it is likely he was impotent.
On leaving the barmy Woodiss set up in business as a nurseryman, but found it hard to make a living; he laid off his men and went to live with his father.
Before long he was Con’s gamekeeper. He felt keenly that he was now a servant, and a badly paid one, for Con had not been generous. Woodiss denied that his relations with Con were a factor in his affair with Edith,.
After their affair came to light Woodiss suffered his first painful encounters with Edith’s relatives, notably her grandmother, the eccentric Dowager Lady Topbottom, and a humiliating interview with her father, whose insults Woodiss never forgave.
Despite the traumatic start the couple developed a lasting relationship. After her divorce, Edith married Woodiss. She had the support of her family, but on condition that Woodiss kept out of sight. They settled in a house provided by her family, in a small Yorkshire town. Edith’s passion for Woodiss did not diminish, and the couple enjoyed a loving and contented life until her untimely death.
Shortly after Edith died, war broke out and Woodiss, a Territorial officer, was called up. The war seemed a welcome distraction, but it was not long before he was again seriously injured and discharged from the army.
He found he was preyed on by women of all ages, from a teenage housemaid, through whom he tried to acquire a pair of rare monkeys, to an aging Irish widow who wanted him to persuade her son, a dissolute Glaswegian doctor, to enter the priesthood. He fell under the influence of a millenarian sect, some of whose female members took a close, personal interest in his history. He developed a love affair with Miriam, a beautiful young spiritualist, who claimed that she received messages from his dead wife, instructing her on how to comfort him.
It was his misfortune to be drawn to a young schoolteacher, a classic blonde beauty who seems to have suffered from a severe form of nymphomania. The outcome of this encounter, which Woodiss describes in painful detail, provides a dramatic climax to his story.
Woodiss chose to he present his account of this period in his life as comic fiction. His mockery spared nobody, least of all himself, whom he depicted as a hapless buffoon at the centre of the farce.
What he did with his manuscript is not known. Until recently it was in the possession of an old man whose father was one of Woodiss’s drinking companions. It may be that he realized that he had revealed intimate information about several women – one of whom had become a national figure; to protect them he chose not to publish.