THE HISTORY of Dudley, and much of the area around the town, is so bound up with the endeavours and the fortunes of the Earls of Dudley that it is impossible to talk in any depth about one without the other. The Dudley family at one time owned enormous tracts of land in and around the town, and of course the wealth of minerals beneath. Once the Industrial Revolution was under way, the Viscounts and Earls made money from the extraction of coal, ironstone and limestone on a grand scale, and fed their own factories with the stuff, churning out iron and steel on a grand scale.
During the twentieth century, with those natural resources beginning to dwindle, land and business was sold off piece by piece, until even their historic homes, Dudley Castle and Himley Hall, finally became the property of the town itself.
Though the line of the Dudleys continues to this day, the family no longer have any close ties to the town. But there was one member who will have been familiar to us all, a screen celebrity who married the heir to the earldom fifty years ago, and died just a few months ago, in November last year.
The Countess of Dudley was originally better known to cinema-goers as Maureen Swanson, a screen actress whose darkhaired, full-lipped, greeneyed good looks and svelte figure brought her comparisons with Rita Hayworth, Jane Russell and Vivien Leigh when she first came to the public's attention in the early 1950s.
Maureen was born in Glasgow in November 1932, educated at a convent school, and then trained in ballet at a Paris dance school. Such were her talents that she soon moved to Sadler's Wells Ballet School, and firstperformed with the company at the Theatre Royal in Drury Lane at the age of 19.
It was this role that brought her to the attention of director John Huston, who gave her a minor part in the original cinema production of Moulin Rouge in 1952, alongside Zsa Zsa Gabor, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.
She was signed up by the British film giant the Rank Organisation, whose barechested gong-beater presaged countless films for decades. Throughout her twenties Maureen increased her profile with appearances in the international hit Knights of the Round Table, alongside Robert Taylor and Ava Gardner; the likes of The Spanish Gardener with Dirk Bogarde; A Town Like Alice with Peter Finch and Virginia McKenna, for which she was highly praised; and alongside Norman Wisdom in the comedy Up in the World. She also took on roles in the theatre, notably The Happiest Millionaire and Who's Your Father, alongside Donald Sinden.
Despite her lack of major roles, the young actress, helped in no small way by her striking appearance, caught the attention of the US film makers, appearing on the cover of American film magazines and, rumour has it, attracting the attention of Walt Disney and Errol Flynn. Her contract with Rank, however, prevented her from making any move across the Atlantic.
This could well have held her back from going on to greater success, but Maureen Swanson retired from screen and stage when she began an entirely new life as a member of the aristocracy. In a prescient reflection of modern times, the young actress began to draw as much attention for her personal life as her career.
The press became fascinated with who she might or might not be romantically linked with, and men rumoured to be chasing her included a host of Dukes, Earls, Lords, and Marquesses, as well as the King of Jordan. Clearly the girl from Glasgow had begun to move in the highest circles, and before long she was having to dodge questions about William Ward, Viscount Ednam, married son of the Earl of Dudley.
In 1961, Ednam divorced his wife, and married Maureen Swanson, thirteen years his junior, just days later. His father, the Third Earl of Dudley, chose not to attend. The new Viscountess chose to give up her career from that day and devote herself to her new life and a family.
Tragically her first son died at just a few hours old, but she and Viscount Ednam, who became the 4th Earl of Dudley on his father's death in 1969, went on to have five daughters and another son.
The Countess faded from the public eye with the end of her career, though she did briefly make the news some decades later when she was wrongly associated with the Profumo affair.
Maureen Swanson had, as a teenager, been the girlfriend of Stephen Ward, one of the figures at the centre of the infamous political scandal, but around ten years before the Profumo situation had even arisen.
The Countess of Dudley died of cancer on November 16th last year, aged 78, and is survived by her husband, the 4th Earl.