Country house life during the First World War
The country house had a huge part to play in the First World War. Although the fighting was done many miles away, houses such as Belton House, Morden Hall Park and Gibside were transformed into training camps, hospitals and accommodation for land girls to help the war effort.
As more and more men joined up the impact on the daily running of country estates grew ever greater, and the part played by those left behind became more important.
The Country House at War by Simon Greaves explores the First World War through the experiences of people who lived and worked at places which we now look after. We’ve chosen a few of the stories from the book which reflect war-time life on the home front.
Construction of Castle Drogo began in 1911 but building works were interrupted by the war. Within days of its outbreak 29 men working on the site had enlisted and owner Julius Drewe subsequently refused to employ anyone of military age. The castle was eventually completed in 1930.
Trench warfare proved the deadly necessity of machine guns and a training ground was established in the grounds of Belton House. Troops lived in huts and were fed by twelve cookhouses. There were also a couple of churches and a YMCA (pictured). Of the 170,000 men who passed through the camp twelve thousand were killed in action.
Many country houses were turned into convalescent hospitals during the war offering injured servicemen the chance to recuperate in unique surroundings. Morden Hall, where patients enjoyed boating on the lake, was maintained as a hospital after the war by the Salvation Army until it was given to us in 1941.
Land girls were housed at Gibside Hall (now derelict). After finding their rooms in the servants’ quarters too draughty and cold they were eventually moved into the main part of the hall. Beatrix Potter wrote to The Times in March 1916 about the shortage of female agricultural labourers because of the competition of munition work.
Photographers did excellent business photographing soldiers during the war, often turning the pictures into postcards which the soldiers send to loved ones. The postcard of Clandon Park, which features the ward established in the ornate Marble Hall (top left), would have been sent by patients recuperating in the hospital there.
Many of the gardeners at Chirk Castle in Wrexham didn’t return from the war. Albert Unwin was one of the lucky ones. Despite suffering a substantial leg wound he wasn’t disabled and returned to work at the castle. He only retired when Lord Howard de Walden’s lease expired in 1946.
It’s likely this victory pageant at Shipbourne in Kent was one of many celebratory pageants held across the country in 1919. Betty Coyler-Fergusson of Ightham Mote is pictured fourth from left, middle row.
E.K. Blyth began work on the Whipsnade Tree Cathedral in 1932. It was inspired by the death of three friends, including two killed during the First World War. When Blyth returned from service in the Second World War, he found it had become overgrown with thorns. ‘Wild areas’ are now cut back twice a year.
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