Monday 27 August 2018

Julie Summers' "Our Univited Guests" by Janie Hampton

Trainee agents on the rope bridge across the muddy River Cam 
at Audley End, Essex. ©Polish Underground Movement 
Oxford writer Julie Summers has written another extraordinary book about the realities of life in Britain during the Second World War. ‘Our Uninvited Guests’ focuses on the people who had to leave their homes and start new lives in places where Hitler's Blitz could not reach them. Oxfordshire coped with over 37,000 evacuees moved from more vulnerable areas of southern England. Nobody then had heard the rumour that Hitler would never bomb Oxford, when Blenheim Palace, about 12 miles up the road from Oxford, was colonised by schoolboys.
When in September 1939, Malvern College in Worcestershire was requisitioned for civil servants, the private school was moved into Blenheim Palace. They brought with them 55 van loads of books, iron bedsteads and musical instruments, including 20 pianos. The laundry was converted into physics and biology laboratories, while the riding school became the gymnasium. The windows of all 187 rooms had to be blacked out so that no chink of light could be seen by the Luftwaffe. The boys slept in the state rooms where valuable artworks were covered with board to protect them from stray darts and ink bombs.
Items transported from Malvern College, Worcestershire to Blenheim Palace, 
Oxford shire, included twenty pianos and 400 beds. © Country Life
Pregnant women from the East End of London were evacuated to Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire to give birth to their babies. Still a splendid house, it had been the home of Lord Melbourne, Queen Victoria’s favourite British Prime Minister. Lady Melbourne had decorated the principal rooms for her lover, the future George IV. Mothers recovering from childbirth slept in hospital beds in the lavish surroundings of the Prince Regent’s suite, stripped of its red and gold pagoda double bed, but not its beautiful Chinese wallpaper. The new born babies were bathed next to the wine cellar in the basement.
In Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire, mothers recover from childbirth in the Prince 
Regent’s suite, decorated in early 19th century Chinese wallpaper. 
© Imperial War Museum 
Summers toured round England and Scotland, finding out the role of Britain's stately homes and country houses. Using extensive research and interviews, she describes in rich detail, life in some of Britain’s greatest country houses which were occupied by people who would otherwise never have seen such opulent surroundings. People from all walks of life often found the splendour and opulence at odds with their needs. The Rothschilds’ magnificent French chateau-inspired Waddesdon Manor in Buckinghamshire, housed one hundred children under the age of five evacuated from London. They ate lobster, rabbit curry, and Woolton Pie - a vegetable recipe named after the Minister of Food, Lord Woolton. Over in Warwickshire, Lord Bearsted moved his bank ‘Samuel & Co’ from London to his country home Upton House. There his 23 employees were provided with wellington boots and ate rook pie.
Coleshill House in Oxfordshire was a 17th Century mansion with no heating, no electricity and water pumped by hand. Recruits to the ‘Auxillary Units’ – a secret band of saboteurs preparing for invasion by Germans - lived in the stables. They each received a crash course in unarmed combat, petrol bombs, booby traps and explosives to attack the invading army’s supplies and transport. At night they roamed the surrounding countryside to practice this art of ungentlemanly guerrilla warfare. Over 600 underground operation bases were constructed all over England for the stay-behind saboteurs to attack from behind. Their whereabouts was top secret. Had there been in invasion in 1940, the life expectancy of saboteurs was estimated to be about 15 days.
Operation bases for saboteurs were constructed
underground and their locations kept top secret. 
‘Our Uninvited Guests’ captures the spirit of upheaval when thousands of houses were requisitioned by the government for the armed forces, secret services and government offices as well as vulnerable children, the sick and the elderly, all of whom needed to be housed safely, or secretly. In Essex, Polish special agents were trained in the grounds of Audley End House, a royal palace in the 17th century. In the old nursery and the extensive woods, they learned the skills needed to make their way back into occupied Europe and carry out sabotage and subterfuge.
I have to confess that Summers and I are friends: we go on regular walks with our dogs on the Thames towpath. We support each other in the trials and tribulations of writing social history – the excitement of new discoveries; the brain exhaustion of writing it into a readable book; and the joy of publication. Our books cover similar periods in European history, so we often share ideas and swap contacts. Once we went to interview the same person together - an elderly woman who was both a WWII evacuee (Julie’s interest) and a Brownie Guide (mine). It was fascinating to witness how we extracted quite different stories from the same person. But I’m not the only person who has enjoyed this book, which has been well reviewed. Craig Brown wrote in The Mail On Sunday, 'Julie Summers has an amazing instinct for unearthing good stories and telling quotes.' 'Summers is a good and knowledgeable writer…powerful, emotional stuff' stated The Independent newspaper, while BBC History Magazine said the books is 'A poignant, lingering account. ' 
A student midwife bathes a new born baby next to the wine cellar
at Brocket Hall, Hertfordshire. © Imperial War Museum 
 Summers is a former History Girl blogger, and her most well-known book is ‘Jambusters’ a history of the Women’s Institute during the Second World War. This inspired the ITV television series ‘Home Fires’ which ran for two exciting seasons. Sadly, we were all left wondering who had died in the final scene of a plane crashing into a house. We had to content ourselves with the knowledge that the people inside were fictional, and not the real members of a rural Women’s Institute. Summers’ latest thought-provoking and evocative narrative captures a crucial period in the social history of Britain.
Our Uninvited Guests- the Secret lives of Britain’s country houses 1939-45',
 published by Simon & Schuster, 2018. 
                 Janie Hampton            Julie Summers

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Thank you, Janie! x