Secrets of the Royal refuge

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

Stuart Gill in the library at Newby hall with old photograph album with images from WWII at Newby Hall.
Stuart Gill in the library at Newby hall with old photograph album with images from WWII at Newby Hall.

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.

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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 [sic] 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.”

The secret history of Newby is just one half of the exhibition organised by the Yorkshire Country House Partnership. Running until October next year, when the country will mark the centenary of the First World War, Newby has also recorded the wartime memories of those who live on or close to the estate.

“When the First and Second World 
Wars came to an end, the reaction of very many people was to draw a line under the past,” says community archaeologist Kevin Cale.

“Their memories were often painful 
and it was often easier not to talk about what happened. However, I do think it’s really important that we preserve what 
we can of those times and remember 
the impact war has on the lives of 
ordinary people.

“The communities around Newby Hall have been incredibly helpful and we have some wonderful items now for the exhibition, including many personal letters which give a unique insight into 
the war.

“There is one set written by a heavy machine gunner from the front during 
the First World War to his family who were
living back in York. He’d been 
promoted in the tank corps and the conditions must have been horrific. You were basically living in a tin can from which you couldn’t escape, but his letters are written in complete awe of the technology.

“They are full of jargon his family would never have understood, but there is also a very human side. At one point he says how he has been feeling sick, but he’s not sure whether it’s the result of the exhaust fumes or the apples he stole from a nearby farmyard.”

Closer to home, Kevin has also recorded memories of the many air crashes which happened close to Newby Hall.

“The area was home to many airfields and planes were often falling out of the sky whether because of human or mechanical error.

“There is one story of a group of Canadian pilots who were learning to adapt from the two-engine planes in which they had learned to fly to four engines. They took off from Dishforth and did a regular circuit when one of their engines failed.”

The plane plummeted to the ground 
and Kevin managed to speak to one eyewitness who was just a small boy at the time, but who clearly remembered watching the disaster rom his bedroom window.

“The following morning he got 
dressed and went outside to find the wreckage. It was pretty traumatic because when he got to the site he could hear the men screaming from inside the plane. Often when planes came down the area would be guarded to prevent people scrambling on board to remove the weapons. Aircraft fuel was obviously highly flammable, but for small boys stumbling across aircraft wreckage did seem like a great adventure.”

For Kevin, himself an aircraft enthusiast, the whole project has revealed a treasure trove of memories about how people lived through and survived the war. “There’s a lovely tale of the local Home Guard which was staffed by both poachers and the gamekeeper,” says Kevin. “I suspect both eyed each other with suspicion, but you can’t help thinking it reads like an episode of Dad’s Army.”

Newby Hall’s Duty Calls exhibition opens on March 29.

Grand houses and their wartime roles

Beningbrough Hall, York

Requisitioned as a billet and mess for the Royal Canadian Air Force, the property will showcase the stories of the men and women who stayed there during the Second World War.

Brodsworth Hall, Doncaster

Exploring life on the estate in both world wars, the exhibition includes letters from men in the trenches thanking a local schoolgirl for knitting them garments.

Castle Howard, North Yorkshire

Generations of Howard sons went to fight overseas, but the Belgian refugees, enemy prisoners evacuees and crashed aircraft meant the impact of war was often more powerfully felt at home.

Fairfax House, York

Focuses on the Jacobite rebellions of 1715 and 1745 in an exhibition which also marks the 250th anniversary of the Georgian property.

Kiplin Hall, Richmond

Highlights the life and times of Bridget Talbot who served with the Red Cross in the First World War and who invented a torch for life-jackets that saved many lives in the Second World War.

Lotherton Hall, Leeds

Traces the long history of Lotherton Hall and the Gascoigne family, from the American War of Independence to the Second World War, via Lotherton’s use as a military hospital in the First World War.

Nostell Priory, Wakefield

Looks at the impact of war on both the rich landowners and poor farmworkers.

Sewerby Hall, Bridlington

Contrasts the experiences of the Lloyd Graeme family and their estate workers during the First and Second World Wars.

For full details go to