Althorp, Northamptonshire, England

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The approaching tenth anniversary of Diana, Princess of Wales’s death brings Althorp back into the news. This is where she grew up, and where she is buried. The BBC first became aware of the difficulty about pronunciation well before the Second World War – Broadcast English II, published in 1930, included it, with the pronunciation áwltrŏp. Later, in about 1952, the Pronunciation Assistant, G.M. “Elizabeth” Miller, wrote to the then Viscount Althorp (Diana’s father) about it, and was told the same thing. I, as Pronunciation Adviser, wrote to the present Earl Spencer (Diana’s brother) in 1992, and in January the following year, he wrote back saying “áwltrŏp. This is definitely correct. I can remember my grandfather pronouncing it like this; my octogenarian great-aunt does, too – and it is clear that alternative pronunciations only came about recently, out of laziness (it became simpler not to correct the many who mispronounce it – the majority of whom were foreign visitors to the house.)” See here for more on the argument. He included the same pronunciation in his history of Althorp

However, some time after this, he succumbed to the pressure, and put out a press statement saying that henceforth the house should be called ‘áwlthorp’ – as spelt.

Added in December 2020:

Thirteen years on from writing that post, the death of Diana came back into the news with the disclosure that part of the background to an interview that she gave to the BBC in the shape of Martin Bashir (now BBC Religious Editor) was some faked documentation. I’m not one for conspiracy theories, but was there a concerted effort to determinedly irritate the Spencer family? In 1998, on the first anniversary of Diana’s death, when Althorp was very much in the news, the Pronunciation Unit came under a lot of pressure from senior BBC executives to change the recommendation, despite the clear evidence that the family’s pronunciation was still ‘áwltrŏp’. The Head of Policy Management gathered ‘evidence’ supporting the revisionist version. He wrote “I have consulted and discussed widely and have concluded that the overwhelming view is that we should pronounce it All-thorp.”

The evidence:

World Service: someone who “knows people who live in the area and it’s All-thorp to the locals”.

BBC World: “All-thorp, having checked their database.” (Which database? – the only one I’m aware of that included pronunciation was the BBC’s own, i.e. the one I was in charge of.)

Programme Complaints Unit: another person who “knows people round there, and to them it’s All-thorp. He believes the All-trup pronunciation to be ‘almost totally spurious’.

(BBC) Radio Northampton: “they say All-trup at present on the basis that that’s what the current earl calls it. If that’s how he pronounces his home then who are we to argue. However, the overwhelming view of the audience from correspondence etc. is that it should be All-thorp.” The writer of the memo adds – interestingly at this point in the narrative: “Of course, much of this is hearsay and of little real value, but interesting nevertheless.”

Someone from Rugby (“fairly nearby” [15 miles by the nearest route]) agrees with All-thorp and “says his mother also calls it that.” [The writer of this memo lives about 15 miles from the village of Thriplow in Cambridgeshire, but was unaware that it was pronounced ‘Triplow’ by all its inhabitants.]

I am named as “an intractable Altrupist”. He goes on “the letter [a further letter from the Spencer Estate] was prompted by Graham – I have a copy of the whole thing – presumably as a way of re-validating the earl’s 1993 letter in the light of the current debate.” So I am responsible for persuading the earl to retain the ‘awl-trup’ version? That is what is implied here.

A note to [the late] Peter Donaldson [then Chief announcer Radio 4] “included a page from the BBC dictionary of placenames, which plumped for All-thorp.” [Its correct title is the BBC Pronouncing Dictionary of British Names, and it gives All-thorp as the second pronunciation, not the first.] “When I pointed this out to Graham – he had a hand in the book [I was its editor, and only my name appears on the title page!] – he drew my attention to the introduction which, applied to this case, would favour All-trup on the grounds that it is preferred by the ‘local educated population‘ – the book’s qualification. Therein, I think, lies the heart of the affair: should the view of the local population be subordinated to that of the incumbent squirearchy?”

These last two words give away the whole thing: Earl Spencer and his family are merely “the incumbent squirearchy” whose views can safely be ignored. In a telephone conversation I had with another ‘policy’ manager, he used the word ‘effete’ to describe such people.

Should we be surprised, therefore, to discover that underhand methods were used to inveigle Diana into giving such a damaging interview?


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