Conduct Unbecoming

Lady Docker – a woman out of time.

Lady Docker – 1955. (c) Popperfoto/Getty via The Guardian

Amid these two broadly similar, yet so different Islands, ideals of propriety were for some considerable time, strictly constrained. In Fifties Ireland for instance, this was a task enthusiastically carried out by the Church, who policed matters with an iron will. Across the channel in post-war Britain, the repressive atmosphere was a little less orchestrated, but no less restrictive. There, the engrained social stratifications of money and class were for the most part sufficient to keep people firmly in their place.

Within such an environment, anyone who exhibited the temerity to step outside of decorous norms opened themselves up to a fearsome backlash. It therefore took bravery and perhaps no small portion of self-confidence to take the route chosen by Norah Turner, following her marriage to Sir Bernard Docker, chairman of the Birmingham Small Arms group, which then included the storied Daimler Motor Company.

Women have always had something of a raw deal in society anyway. While their male equivalents were allowed their indiscretions, Ms. Turner has for more than half a century been characterised as the scarlet temptress who ensnared the hapless (and rather ineffectual it would seem) Sir Bernard into marriage, exile and notoriety.

While it’s clear that Norah was something of a social climber and not a lady to be trifled with in her quest to attain the position she so desired, it’s neither unusual, nor especially these days, frowned upon to try to better oneself. In Fifties Britain however, when forelock tugging deference was not only alive and well, but in full bellringing force, Lady Norah (as she became by marriage) was viewed as a pariah, not least because of her rejection of the accepted nostrums of propriety.

In short, she was probably a bit of a monster, but as we can all recognise, monsters (who are generally the ones who truly inherit the earth) are inevitably far more interesting subjects than the meek. Lady Norah (she would have insisted upon the title) therefore was and remains a fascinating character in herself, but beyond that, for her refusal to accept her original position in life, for her willingness to upend accepted codes of behaviour and let’s not forget the cars she inspired – which are equal objects of often lurid wonder.

The Docker’s yacht, the Shemara, was the largest in Europe at the time. Seen here is one of the Hooper bodied drophead coupés commissioned by Lady Docker for Daimler on the Straight 8 chassis. (c) carjager

In some respects they were throwbacks to the carefree and bucolic (for those who could afford its charms) immediate pre-war streamliner era, enjoyed by the 1930s super-rich in their exclusive Riviera enclaves. As social metaphors amid Blitz-riven post-war British austerity however, they were so off-zeitgeist as to beggar belief.

And yet, as she no doubt grasped, they offered entertainment and diversion when there probably wasn’t much of either to go around, and while the establishment turned their finely bred noses at the Docker-Daimlers’ consumptive excesses, she gained the company column inches in a manner no advertising campaign could have replicated. By today’s standards, she might even have been a visionary.

Having become notorious, Lady Norah and the compliant Sir Bernard retired to Majorca during the 1970s, living quietly outside of the limelight Norah once so openly courted. Following her husband’s death in 1978, she returned to the UK, spending her latter years as a long-term guest at Paddington’s Great Western hotel (it would probably once have been Claridge’s), where she quietly passed away in 2003, aged 78.

Colourful is a word often employed to mask other, less comely characteristics of the deceased. In Lady Norah Docker’s case, it was probably entirely appropriate. A woman who got what she wanted, on her own terms. One has to admire that.

There is always more than one opinion on any given subject. From the DTW archive, fellow scribe, Sean Patrick lends his view on Lady Docker and her automotive legacy, which you can read by clicking here.

Author: Eóin Doyle

Founder. Editor. Content Provider.

14 thoughts on “Conduct Unbecoming”

  1. Without Lady Docker in the picture to what degree could money spent on her excesses have been better spent on investing in Daimler on the automotive side towards more modern products and possibly avoid a takeover by Jaguar (or at minimum enter into a temporary collaboration with Jaguar)?

    Based on what was proposed it seems BSA was interested in building / assembling the Panhard Dyna (specific model unknown) during the 1950s before working on the ill-fated Lanchester Sprite with Hobbs Mechamatic gearbox along with the Vauxhall Cresta PA-based Daimler DN250 V8, awkwardly styled Daimler DP250, the Ogle styled Daimler SX250 and Jaguar built Daimler SP252 projects.

  2. Watch some you tube footage of her being interviewed, she’s a real piece of work, terrible snob and must have been a dream for journalists copy back in the grey and somber fifties.
    The footage of her return to the UK after her falling out Monaco is classic while her obediently mute husband smokes and sits by. If this was reflective of their off -camera relationship no wonder the BSA board wanted them out, out, out.
    In these more enlightened times it’s probably not pc to say it but if ever there was a place for a husband to politely, but firmly, say to his wife “Alright love, pipe down” this was probably it.
    She toppled him and killed the golden BSA goose they both depended on for their lavish lifestyles.

    1. Not sure whether the DN250 replica could have worked as a Daimler compared to the Jaguar Mk2-based 2.5-litre V8, it does look much better than the Vauxhall Cresta PA it is based upon.

      It does bring to mind the question of whether the Jaguar Mk1 could have also formed a suitable basis for a Daimler model had an earlier collaboration with Jaguar happened as well as earlier impetus been given to develop Edward Turner’s Daimler V8 engine for the mid-50s (plus a related 4-cylinder for a smaller MK1/Mk2-based successor/alternative to the Lanchester Sprite).

  3. Er, she wouldn’t have been Lady Norah; she’d only have been able to style herself thus if she had been the daughter of a peer – which, as you observe, she emphatically wasn’t. She would have been (at best) Norah, Lady Docker. And there is no (dis)honourable mention of the notorious gold-plated Daimler, commissioned when the UK was still labouring under post-war rationing. Bernard was booted out of Daimler because of his – more probably her – egregious abuse of the expenses account, including the small matter of getting the company to buy them a castle.

  4. The Monaco “deportation” incident James mentions is one of the more notorious episodes in Lady Docker’s colourful life. This is, allegedly, what happened: the couple had been invited to a reception to celebrate the christening of Prince Rainier’s son, Prince Albert. Lady Docker decided, without seeking permission, that she would bring their 19 year-old son along, as the reception fell on the son’s birthday. When admission was refused, they remained in the Hôtel de Paris and, over lunch, Lady Docker loudly said some less than complimentary things about the royal family and tore a monégasque paper flag that was decorating the table to pieces. This was reported back to the palace and the family was ordered to leave the principality. Here’s an interview with Lady Docker recorded upon her return to England:

    1. Crucually it wasn’t their son; it was *her* son from her second marriage, who was not invited. Under the mores of time, it was most tactless to drag the boy along, as the dreaded Norah had caused the break-up of her (second) husband’s first marriage.

  5. “I’m at war with Rainier!” This could be humorous if it wasn’t so tragic.
    I’m struggling to think of a modern day connection but vaping of course would be the order of the day. And a large helping of Humble Pie. What ghastly, yet interesting people

  6. Poor Norah – still getting the blame! Much of entirely deserved, of course, but there is always more than one way of interpreting past events. My late aunt knew her well, having first met the Dockers while performing in cabaret at the Palm Beach Casino in
    Cannes; an invitation to spend a weekend on board the Shemara (65-metre steel-hulled motor yacht, crew of 30, facilities for 13 passengers . . .) led to an unlikely friendship.
    Norah came from a Derbyshire working class background, her father committed suicide when she was 16. As a dance hostess at the Café de Paris in London she acquired a wealthy husband, Clement Callingham, the head of Henekeys wine and spirit merchants. Following his death she married Sir William Collins of Fortnum and Mason and when he, too, died she married Sir Bernard Docker. However, she never pretended that her origins had not been humble. She knew that the press expected her to be outrageous and she rarely disappointed them, but she also delighted in spreading around fun as well as money, be it playing marbles to raise money for charity or inviting a party of Yorkshire miners, after she had visited their pit, to a champagne cruise around the Isle of White on board Shemara.
    The Dockers’ life style was so obviously unsustainable that it begs several questions about the actions, or inactions for so long, of Sir Bernard’s fellow directors. In truth, the cars produced by Daimler in the post-war years were without any significant market and the board was apparently happy to accept the blaze of publicity which the “Docker Daimlers” attracted each year at Earl’s Court. Daimler was, in the’50s, best known as a producer of a high-quality bus chassis which enjoyed world-wide sales success; the CVG6 and it’s rear-engined successor the Fleetline were in direct competition with arch-rival Leyland for many years. Perhaps we ought to add the creation of British Leyland to Norah’s list of crimes!

    1. In the interests of pedantry – the “uninvited son” was Lance Callingham (of her first marriage), a British Water Skiing champion. Not that we care . . .

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