Newby Hall History
When war broke out, even the upmarket residents of some of Yorkshire’s grandest stately homes had to do their bit. Sarah Freeman goes behind the scenes of a new project opening once top secret information to the public
The file which contained the carefully laid plans for evacuating the Royal Family in case of German invasion during the Second World War doesn’t look particularly important. It’s brown, slightly dog-eared, but on a large white label there is a small red stamp. It reads “Most Secret”.
During the early 1940s, Major James Coats was put in charge of devising a contingency plan to transfer the royals to a safe haven.
By then, thousands of children had already been evacuated and it was suggested Princesses Margaret and Elizabeth should follow suit. The Queen had resisted, telling the Government she would not leave without the King and he would never abandon London. However, as it became clear Buckingham Palace security would not withstand a German attack, a plan B was vital.
Selecting a hand-picked detachment of five officers and 124 men from the Coldstream Guards, Major Coats began scouting the country for suitable locations and over a series of weeks his blueprint for a safe evacuation was refined.
The contents of the file, which laid out in some detail the four potential houses, were shared with only a handful of key people. Among them, the owners of Newby Hall, near Ripon. The property was already well-known to the Royals who had stayed there or at nearby Studley Royal between the wars and as the Coats Mission got underway, its owner, Edward Compton, was sworn to secrecy.
“Four houses were chosen, but Croome Court in Worcestershire was taken off the list when it was compromised by the arrival of packing cases labelled ‘Buckingham Palace’,” says local historian David Winpenny, who has been researching Newby’s wartime history as part of a new exhibition, Duty Calls, involving eight properties across Yorkshire.
“Security was paramount, but not being able to tell people what was happening didn’t make it very easy for Edward. During the war, lots of properties were requisitioned as military hospitals or as temporary accommodation for military personnel and the fact Newby Hall was lying empty did cause a few eyebrows to be raised.
“The West Riding branch of the British Red Cross was particularly persistent and despite being told the Hall was off limits, the charity’s county director Colonel Sheepshanks insisted he come to inspect the property.
“We found one letter in the archives from Sir Ulrick Alexander, Keeper of the Privy Purse, who was responding to correspondence from Edward’s wife Sylvia asking for the family to be given an official notice which they could show to anyone who asked why Newby was not available. They were told that would not be possible as they didn’t want it widely known that the estate had been earmarked as a safe house. Instead they were told to refer all queries to the Commander-in-Chief, Home Forces General Sir John Dill.”
The first indication that Newby was to be reserved for the royals had come at the end of June 1940 when Edward wrote to his agent Mr Dale. Wary of what might happen should the letter ever fall into the wrong hands, it was worded carefully. Not once was any member of the Royal Family referred to by name.
“You will no doubt have heard from Mrs Compton about the possibility of housing and accommodating a high government official under certain circumstances,” it began. “It is all rather in the air and if I get any more news I will put you wise.”
Two days later, Dale reported back.
“I have met Major Coates and other officers here today and have made all the necessary arrangements for the visit of your guests...all the requirements in the Hall are being got on with according to Mrs Compton’s instructions.”
Newby was told that should the house be needed they would have just six hours to prepare for the arrival of the Royals and their inevitable entourage, which as well as six servants would also include a detective, a valet and a chauffeur. This might have been war, but the royals still needed someone to drive them and there was to be no skimping on provisions. An order immediately went in for two bottles of sherry, a couple of bottles of whisky and 12 bottles of Hock.
“You might have thought ordering a German wine might not have been the wisest of moves, but they didn’t seem too concerned,” says David, who as well as using the Hall’s own considerable archives also trawled documents in the West Yorkshire Archive Service.
As the Comptons played a waiting game, they also watched as their property geared up for their VIP guests. While secrecy had to be maintained, the house also had to be defended and according to one of the Coats Mission officers “a series of slit trenches were placed at strategic points around the perimeter of the house and grounds” so they could not be seen from outside and a machine gun was installed in the garden on the steps below the house’s south side at the top of the herbaceous border.
Meticulous planning may have gone into the Coats Mission, but ultimately it came to nothing. The Royals never arrived and by June 1941 as Hitler’s armies began the invasion of Russia under Operation Barbarossa, the threat of imminent invasion had passed. However, it wasn’t until December the following year that it was considered safe to disband the Coats Mission.
The order was given for the defence works to be removed and all secret papers and documents to be returned to HQ London District where most of them were later destroyed.
“Newby Hall ended the war in a much better state than many other country houses that had been requisitioned for military use, which were often very badly damaged by their temporary guests,” says the property’s administrator Stuart Gill. “We were lucky, but the work that David has done provides a real insight into what might have been.”