Pressed into service
Everyone had to do his or her bit during wartime. Men joined the army or stayed at home to do essential jobs such as farming or engineering and joined the Home Guard; women went to work in the factories or farms; children collected scrap for recycling. Many landowners turned their parks over for growing food and their country houses into hospitals or army barracks.
The Astors, who owned Cliveden House, asked the British Red Cross to build a hospital to treat the wounded of the First World War in 1914. This request was referred to the Canadian Red Cross, which built the hospital in the covered tennis court, racquets court and bowling alley of Cliveden House. An artesian well was dug to supply the hospital with water. In 1915, after the first casualties were brought in, it became clear that a bigger hospital was needed and this was built to the south of the tennis court. Houses for the staff, a recreation room and a chapel were also built. After the end of the First World War the hospital was taken down and rebuilt in Birmingham and only the newly built houses and well remained.
Viscount Astor offered the Canadian Red Cross Society the use of the land again when the Second World War was looming. A new hospital was built, equipped for 600 beds, by June 1940. It was built in a series of H-shapes, with an air-raid shelter between each ward. There were 15 wards, an operating theatre and offices and accommodation for the staff. The air-raid shelters had space for 20 bed-ridden soldiers as well as all other patients. Queen Elizabeth and her daughters Princesses Elizabeth (now Queen Elizabeth II) and Princess Margaret visited in August 1940. During the war 25,000 men were treated there.
In 1945 the hospital was converted from a military hospital into a general hospital. The NHS took it over when that was founded in 1948. It was closed in 1985 and has since suffered from fire damage and neglect.
Alfred Rothschild built Halton House in the 1880s. It was pressed into service in the First World War when Lord Kitchener asked for volunteers to join the army. Rothschild volunteered the use of his house as a training ground. The house was turned into an officer’s mess and an army training camp was set up in the grounds. At first the troops were housed in tents but later in purpose-built buildings. The Royal Flying Corps transferred here in 1916. An airfield was established by 1917. After the end of the First World War the Rothschilds sold the house and grounds to the newly formed RAF, who would use it as a training base.
By the time of the Second World War there were aircraft hangars, workshops for repairing aeroplanes, runways, parade grounds, barracks for the airmen to sleep, storage buildings and a hospital. The airfield was used for training mechanics on redundant aircraft that was brought in, and housed the planes that were used to fly officers from bomber High Command at High Wycombe. The camp is still in use, though the hospital was demolished in the 1990s.
Chequers is the country residence of the Prime Minister and so would have been used by him during the Second World War, but Winston Churchill turned it from a place to get away from politics to the centre of the war strategy. It was where he wrote and broadcast his great speeches and where most decisions were made. He would often work well into the night, watching films in the evening and then discussing the Africa campaign until 3am, for instance.
It was more remote than Churchill’s home in Kent and so was thought to be safer from bombing. However, it was between two prominent landmarks, Coombe Hill and Beacon Hill, and it was suggested that it should be protected by anti-aircraft guns. Churchill refused, however, saying that the house had a good air-raid shelter for the staff and ordered the carriage drive to be turfed over so it wasn’t so conspicuous. After France had been occupied a company of soldiers were billeted in Nissen huts in the grounds and an anti-aircraft gun was mounted at nearby Beacon Hill. There was also a firewatcher’s observation box installed above Churchill’s bedroom, to look out for any enemy attacks.
Ambassadors from overseas could be housed with safety at Chequers as well, such as Harry Hopkins from America. A Russian delegation led by the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov was accommodated at Chequers in 1942 during discussions held in London.
Hall Barn, Beaconsfield
The Wallace Collection and part of the collection of the Tower of London was evacuated to Hall Barn in Beaconsfield. Henry VIII’s 1540 suite of armour, and the executioners block and axe were some of the things from the Tower that came to Beaconsfield during the Second World War. The ceiling of the Banqueting House in Whitehall was also brought here. It features paintings by Rubens. It is 100 feet long and 50 feet wide, and weighs 17 tons, so was very difficult to transport and store. Most of the rest of the collections were transported here in coal lorries.
- See if you can find any more country houses that were used for the war effort during the Second World War on Buckinghamshire’s Heritage Portal.
- Imagine you are the owner of one of these houses. You give it up to do your bit for the war and it is taken over by soldiers and offices or nurses, doctors and wards. Write a letter to a friend about how you feel that you should do something to help out but that you’re worried about the house and furniture being damaged.
Go back to find out more about Buckinghamshire in the wars.