Life on the Chatsworth Estate during the First and Second World Wars

PUBLISHED: 16:38 23 May 2014 | UPDATED: 20:14 23 October 2015

Adele Astaire (the sister of Fred Astaire) married Charles Cavendish (the second son of the 9th Duke) in 1932. She worked at the famous Rainbow Club in London during the war, entertaining American soldiers. This picture shows her helping to harvest crops as part of the war effort

Adele Astaire (the sister of Fred Astaire) married Charles Cavendish (the second son of the 9th Duke) in 1932. She worked at the famous Rainbow Club in London during the war, entertaining American soldiers. This picture shows her helping to harvest crops as part of the war effort

Chatsworth House

Pat Ashworth talks to the Duke of Devonshire and curator Hannah Obee about the stately home’s latest fascinating exhibition - ‘Chatsworth in Wartime’

Penrhos College girls skating on Canal Pond. Chatsworth experienced at least one very cold winter during the Second World WarPenrhos College girls skating on Canal Pond. Chatsworth experienced at least one very cold winter during the Second World War

There is such a wealth of material in the archive that choosing what to feature in the Chatsworth in Wartime exhibition presented its curator, Hannah Obee, with quite a dilemma. ‘It’s been very hard and my mind is kind of exploding,’ she says. ‘We have four rooms in the exhibition, plus the lobby, and we could have multiplied that by 10. One of the hardest things has been deciding whose stories to tell and whether you are omitting things that should be in there because they are so important.’

Chatsworth assigned a full-time researcher to the task of following up discoveries and lines of enquiry from her initial research into how the house, garden, land and buildings were used in the two World Wars. ‘We are not telling stories of the war: there are better places than us who can do that,’ Hannah suggests. ‘We are talking about the people who matter to us either because they were here or because there are people here now whose families they were.’

Chatsworth Library was used for storage during the Second WorldChatsworth Library was used for storage during the Second World

So diaries, letters, pamphlets, estate accounts and photographs have all yielded up their treasures, along with some fascinating oral history. The 25 men from the estate who lost their lives in World War One are all remembered, along with the 63 people from Edensor who died in World War Two. ‘There must have been a terrible sense of loss and unfairness if your husband or son was killed and your neighbour’s was all right – of course, everybody understood but it must have been really hard for the people to deal with at that time,’ the Duke observes.

‘There was no such thing as counselling. And when you think of the trauma of battle for five years, following 20 years after another four years of battering and all the awful things that happened in battle – killed by mistake, killed in action, being brave, not being brave, people making decisions that they knew would result in friends being killed... and no discussion. No wonder many of that generation were very buttoned up.’

Tragedy hit the Devonshires early in October 1914, when the Ninth Duke, Victor and the Duchess, Evie, both lost a brother, respectively Charles Mercer Nairne and Lord John Spencer Cavendish. Their son, Edward, took part in the Gallipoli campaign and was invalided back, later to be present at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Hannah and her team discovered that men living on the estate or working at Chatsworth had also been at Gallipoli. ‘The men from the villages were often fighting on the same front as the family so I chose their stories. That was one way of deciding which to tell of the many that deserve to be told,’ she says.

Fascinating exhibits from World War One include a letter from the Duchess to the Duke regarding their daughter, Maud, who insisted on helping farmers on the land as part of the war effort. ‘It is going to be the end of Maud’s complexion, but she is very keen to do it,’ writes the Duchess, later to be evacuated to Canada with the family, to return in 1922. ‘In the Second World War, you have Adele Cavendish helping on the land and still finding resistance to filling in for the men,’ reflects Hannah Obee, who has unearthed plenty of information too about the Land Girls, schoolmistresses and pupils who helped to ‘dig for victory’ in the kitchen gardens. This theme continues in the farmyard too this summer, where Margaret Norris and her team will be further demonstrating how the land was used.

New stories are being told, some arising out of familiar sources such as the work of Francis Thompson, librarian at Chatsworth and author of its history. ‘He had compiled a confidential list for Eddie, who had recently become the Tenth Duke, of all the important paintings that were going to be moved out of London in the event of the outbreak of war. It’s a complicated story but these paintings did eventually come to Chatsworth – but not to the house,’ Hannah says. ‘Half were hidden in the old estate office, now the Edensor stables, and people can remember bars being put on the windows and someone having to sleep there while it was being done.

‘The other half went into the cottage of the head of the Duke’s household, Mr Shinwell, and I had visions of him sitting there smoking his pipe, surrounded by all these Van Dyck’s – but then we found a one-line reference to say that he had moved into the House during the war. It’s absolutely intriguing. The surprising thing was that nobody seemed to know the pictures were there.’ Many of these paintings have been brought together for the exhibition, where pictures of the interiors of the houses from which they came are also displayed.

Simple conversations have yielded treasure in the form of memories. A chance encounter with a former estate worker [name tbc] when the Duke was visiting the Chatsworth shop proved particularly fruitful: his family had been tenants of Home Farm and had supplied the house, estate and school with milk. As a boy, he remembered playing in the lane with other boys when a German plane flew overhead and strafed the area with bullets. ‘He was able to give us some really good remembrances. Luckily, all was well, and the children probably thought it was very exciting,’ the Duke says.

For Hannah Obee, the most wonderful thing about mounting this particular exhibition – ‘moving into the 20th century and suddenly thinking of that as history’ – is that everyone has relatives who were involved in the two wars. ‘We have amazing stories from members of staff who would just start talking in the corridors and say, ‘Oh, yes – my mother was fuelling the aircraft that did the Dambusters raids...’ So we have included as part of the exhibition what the families of those working here today did in both wars, and they have lent things as well.’

A highlight of the exhibition is the recreation of a school dormitory next to the State Dining Room. The main buildings of Penrhos College in Colwyn Bay were taken over by the Ministry of Food and the school had just 18 days to move its entire contents, staff and students to Chatsworth. While the Ministry of Works was loading the vans in Wales, Chatsworth was simultaneously clearing up after a coming-of-age party and emptying the house of the most important works to be put into storage.

‘What they achieved was absolutely humbling,’ Hannah says. ‘We think we work hard, but that was a superhuman effort. And things didn’t get damaged, either.’ The school took up residence on 26th September 1939 and did not return until 21st March 1946. Although cold and chilblains were the order of the day, having the school here must have brought some light, the Duke observes, and putting a dormitory back exactly as it was has resulted in something very moving indeed.

For reels of film were discovered in the archive which proved to be fleeting scenes of life at Chatsworth for the Penrhos girls. It is haunting film that, silently running on the dormitory wall above the yellow-counterpaned beds, brings a lump to the throat. Long crocodiles of girls in gabardines and hats stream out of the mist, stretching as far as they eye can see. Girl Guides with lanyards and whistles pour out of church and are proudly inspected by the Duke. Chatsworth in heavy snow brings skating and a lone and awkward child in knickerbockers attempting to ski. Summer brings swimmers in white bathing caps to a derelict fountain. Lacrosse players scoop up the ball, with a background of hills and a sense of freedom.

‘It can all sound romantic but in fact it was pretty tough, especially with fuel rationing,’ Hannah confirms. ‘They had the kitchens cooking of course but if there was a fire going in a classroom, they would come and do some cooking on that as well. A girl remembers someone coming in right in the middle of their lesson and stirring a big pot of semolina.’

Seeing the Duke, Victor, in film rather than photograph has been moving for all at Chatsworth. ‘We are so used to seeing him in a static image, but to see him so tall and walking around and smiling, which he doesn’t generally do, brings it all home to you,’ Hannah says. The present Duke hopes the exhibition, which he emphasises is ‘just a tiny part in the national reminder’, will enable a younger generation in particular to realise what a big thing war was, what a leveller it was and how it affected everybody in the country.

‘We see wars all the time but they are distant and they are someone else’s problem,’ he reflects, expressing the personal hope that after shining a light into this particular corner during 2014 – ‘with remembrance and respect, but not celebration’ – the world will be able to move on. The timeline of the exhibition starts in 1914 and ends in 1959, when the family moved back into the house for the first time. It is not to be missed.

Chatsworth in Wartime is on show until 23rd December.

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