The amazing story of how a Morecambe milkman’s daughter became a countess

Doris Capell, Countess of Essex, with her husband Bob the 10th Earl of Essex.
Doris Capell, Countess of Essex, with her husband Bob the 10th Earl of Essex.

It is not every day that you discover you’re the Countess of Essex.

But that is exactly what happened to milkman’s daughter Doris Capell when her late husband Bob found out he was descended from 12th Century noblemen.

Doris Tomlinson as a young woman (right) with sisters Jean and Mary.

Doris Tomlinson as a young woman (right) with sisters Jean and Mary.

Fifty years ago, the Capells’ lives changed forever when a newspaper article landed on their doormat telling them that dairy boss Bob could lay claim to a peerage.

This led the Capells on an incredible journey from their home in Torrisholme to the House of Lords.

Bob traced his heritage during a painstaking 20-year odyssey and eventually laid claim to the title 10th Earl of Essex, making his wife Doris the countess.

Doris, who died recently aged 94, herself came from humble beginnings and a well-known Morecambe family name.

She was born Doris Tomlinson at the Priory farm in Hornby, near Lancaster, one of eight children.

Her father George Frederick Tomlinson moved his family to the resort when Doris was young and founded two shops on Albert Road in the West End, a butcher’s and a dairy. The Tomlinsons name remains on Albert Road today through the sandwich shop in the same premises, although it is no longer run by Doris’ family.

The Tomlinson family put down strong roots in the local farming, catering and produce industries.

Doris’ father, who used his middle name Frederick, had the first motorised milk round in Morecambe.

Her sister Mary married Frank Lupton and they opened the Apple Blossom Cafe on Albert Road.

Another sister, Jean, married farmer John Hoggarth of Slyne. Jean is Doris’ only surviving sibling.

Doris’ brother, Freddie Tomlinson, helped run the dairy and was also renowned as a dancer.

When Dame Thora Hird filmed a TV show at the Midland Hotel, she insisted that Freddie dance with her.

Doris met and married Bob Capell while he was stationed in Morecambe during World War Two.

Bob served during the war as an RAF physical training instructor ranked as a flight sergeant, then afterwards worked for the Post Office then went in to partnership with Freddie Tomlinson in the Morecambe dairy.

Bob was aware of his claim to the peerage from his youth, but never gave it much thought until a friend who lived in Yorkshire sent him a report in a local newspaper about the ninth earl looking for his heir.

This stated that unless he claimed his rightful title, it would pass to a distant relative in America.

Encouraged by his wife and their only son Paul, he spent the next two decades trying to prove his claim on the peerage.

Bob traced all his ancestors, collected 80 signed documents, spent a great deal of money, and eventually proved his claim was stronger than the American rival.

After the ninth Earl died in 1981, the editor of the Burke’s Peerage genealogy books, Patrick Montague-Smith, declared that Bob, as a third cousin once removed, was the rightful successor through descent from the fourth Earl of Essex.But it took another eight years before the Crown Office officially accepted that Bob Capell was the 10th Earl of Essex.

He also gained the titles of Viscount Malden and Baron Capell.

Bob then duly took his seat in the House of Lords and became a regular attender.

The new Earl inherited nothing of value, although the widow of the eighth Earl did give him some family silver.

He was also inundated with national press attention at the time and even spoke to Sir Robin Day for The World At One.

But the down to earth Baron still insisted that everybody call him ‘Bob’.

He died in 2005 aged 85, passing his title down to Paul.

The 11th and current Earl of Essex now lives in Brookhouse, near Lancaster.

During his career Paul Capell was deputy head teacher and acting head teacher at Skerton Primary School where his colleagues and pupils had little idea of his aristocratic connection.

Paul has no children so after his death the title will pass to a distant cousin in California.William Jennings Capell of Yuba City, California, is the son of the American whose claim started the 10th Earl on his quest for the title.

Doris, Countess of Essex, passed away aged 94 last month at Dolphinlee House home in Lancaster.Her funeral took place at Lancaster Crematorium on January 25 and donations in her memory are going to Dolphinlee House.