Pamela, Lady Vestey, who died on September 2 aged 92, was the mother of the 3rd Lord Vestey and granddaughter of the Australian operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, in whose house near Melbourne she lived for much of her life.
Pamela Helen Fullerton Armstrong was born at Armadale, Melbourne, on September 12 1918. Her father, George Armstrong, was Nellie Melba’s only child, and particularly precious to the singer because he had been taken to Texas by his father, Charlie Armstrong, with the result that she had lost track of him for more than a decade. Pamela’s mother, Evie Doyle, was George’s second wife; she was a Brisbane-born singer, and Nellie Melba was devoted to her.
The infant was christened in the Music Room at Nellie Melba’s home, Coombe Cottage, at Coldstream, north-east of Melbourne. Her godmothers were Lady Stanley, wife of the Governor of Victoria, and Lady Susan Fitz-Clarence; the Governor-General of Australia, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, and Lord Richard Nevill were her godfathers. At the ceremony, John Lemmone played the flute and Nellie Melba, with her pupils combining to form a choir, sang Mendelssohn’s O for the Wings of a Dove.
An only child (her brother, Frederick, died a day after his birth in November 1920), Pamela brought great joy to her grandmother’s last years. The diva even took it in good part when Pamela’s nurse, Mackay, refused to allow the child’s pram to remain on the veranda while Dame Nellie was practising “that screeching”.
The family often accompanied Dame Nellie Melba on tour, and when they did not, frequent letters arrived at Coombe from “Madre” (as Melba signed herself to her daughter-in-law). Aged two, in London, Pamela was presented to George V and Queen Mary by her beaming grandmother.
In her vivid tribute Melba: A Family Memoir, published in 1996, Pamela Vestey recalled her first concert — at the Albert Hall in 1922: the orchestra tuning, the red plush and gold seats in their box, and “the extra excitement of seeing the figure of my granny far below, looking up at me from her circle of light”.
Pamela was 12 when Dame Nellie Melba died in Sydney, in February 1931. Thereafter the papers referred to her as “Melba’s heiress”. A year later, when she travelled to England to attend Westonbirt School, Adelaide’s Advertiser carried the headline “MELBA’S HEIRESS GOING TO LONDON — Has No Voice, Mother Says”.
In September 1939, only weeks after war was declared, Pamela married Captain William Howarth Vestey, only son of the heir to the 1st Lord Vestey . The young couple married in Victoria, Canada, and had two sons, Sam and Mark. William Vestey joined the Scots Guards, and on June 25 1944 was killed in action in Italy.
The young widow sent her sons to Eton, and at 13 Sam succeeded to the peerage on the death of his grandfather. In recognition of her husband’s death in action, Pamela was granted the rank of a baron’s widow, becoming Pamela, Lady Vestey.
After living for some years in England, in 1973 Pamela returned to Australia, and to Coombe. Her father died in 1971, her mother in 1973.
A shy, private woman, Lady Vestey became the guardian of her grandmother’s legacy and the chatelaine of Coombe, where she would spend most of the rest of her life.
Lacking both the temperament and the inclination for the role of grande dame, she quietly honoured her grandmother’s memory and gave generously to institutions that did the same. In 1998 she gave hundreds of Nellie Melba’s costumes, documents and photographs to the local museum at Lilydale, near Melbourne. She also gave 80 stage costumes, accessories and photographs to the Victorian State Arts Centre. In 2008 she endowed the Melba Opera Trust with 150,000 Australian dollars.
The gardens were occasionally opened to benefit local causes — but not the house, which is hidden by a large hedge of cypresses and secured by great iron gates, and which inside remains much as it did in her grandmother’s day.
Pamela Vestey’s two sons survive her.
'Armstrong, Pamela Helen (1918–2011)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/armstrong-pamela-helen-18712/text30315, accessed 25 March 2017.