Hinton Ampner: The war years

In the summer of 1939, Ralph Dutton was offered the choice of accommodating 40 children who had been evacuated from London, or giving Hinton Ampner house to the Portsmouth Day School for Girls. He chose the latter.

With 48 hours' notice he and the staff again cleared the principal rooms of furniture and carpets - only just arranged to his liking after three years of renovations - in order to make way for 100 camp beds.

" On the last day of the month, the house was as clear of its more valuable contents as it could be made in so short a time, and I awaited invasion."
- Ralph Dutton

The Robert Adam ceiling

Just before the war, Ralph had agreed to purchase a Robert Adam plaster ceiling from 38 Berkeley Square, Lord Rosebery's house. While the Angelica Kauffmmann-painted roundels were mounted on paper and could be easily removed, a mould (or 'squeeze') was taken of the plasterwork so that it could be recreated in Ralph's dining room. In the summer of 1940, the contractors contacted Ralph - by now working in the Foreign Office in London - to advise that the ceiling needed to be put up now or the mould would have to be destroyed.
So it was that during the August school holidays, with no children in the house, Ralph and a selection of able-bodied men did their best to install the ceiling.

The Robert Adam ceiling in the Dining Room at Hinton Ampner
Robert Adam ceiling in the Dining Room at Hinton Ampner, Hampshire
The Robert Adam ceiling in the Dining Room at Hinton Ampner

In the spring of 1945 with the war in its final stages, the girls' school advised that they would not be returning to Hinton after the Easter holidays, thereby returning the house to Ralph's possession.

The Royal Observatory calls

However, the joy he no doubt felt on hearing this news was short-lived. He received a letter from the Astronomer Royal announcing that they would be inspecting Hinton with a view to compulsorily purchasing it as the new Royal Observatory.
The party arrived at the house on 16th April and Ralph - perhaps unusually in these circumstances - met them at the door and led them into the house, while giving an emotional speech on how he would rather lose an arm or a leg than be separated again from his home. This appeared to do the trick, as ten days later - ten days Ralph described as filled with "terrible anxiety" - he received a rather casual note to say the Admiralty had made other arrangements.

Ralph resumes his work

Finally, Hinton was his again, and Ralph left his job at the Foreign Office to finish work on the house.

" I had anticipated finding the walls covered with graffiti which might have formed an interesting study of child psychology, but I was disappointed."
- Ralph Dutton

In fact, the house was left in surprisingly good condition, with damage mostly confined to that done by moths to items stored within the library.

Decorating restarted, but rationing meant that a permit was required to use paper and paint, with consent usually only granted for one room at a time. In the end, Ralph discovered a company that was willing to overlook this formality, although this required a rather clandestine approach with work often carrying on long into the night.