War and the Cornish House


20131010-163926.jpgWhen I was asked to do this talk I was conscious that it wouldn’t be an easy subject to talk about. My reservations were based on a single conceit – namely that in my research I hadn’t encountered much primary source material about the role of the Cornish country house during the Second World War. Also lacking are living memories of wartime requisitioning of the country house and published sources, indeed John Martin Robinson’s landmark book The Country House at War, barely mentions Cornwall. With that in mind, I have extended the remit of this talk beyond the country house to encompass the wider country estate, thereby charting its decline and subsequent rise during the 20th century.

For the purposes of this paper my story starts in 1902 when King Edward VII ascended to the throne. The Edwardian era was an unsettling time for the Cornish gentry. Government budgets of 1894 and 1909 crippled the rich, tax rates rising from 6% and 8% Super Tax to 12% and 16% by November 1914 and 30% and 50% by the time hostilities had ceased. An example of the financial burden on the gentry can be seen in the Super Tax bill of Viscount Clifden of Lanhydrock who paid a staggering £6,553, 12s, 10d during the tax year 1916/17, the equivalent being some £300,000 today. If this wasn’t enough the decline of agriculture and tin extraction meant that diversification into china clay, finance, food processing, horticulture, manufacture and eventually tourism became inevitable. On top of this there were other taxes to consider as well as lost incomes from share dividends during the war when railways were requisitioned by the state.

The consequence of all this was mass land distribution, indeed the best estimates are that between 1918 and 1921 a quarter of all acreage in Britain changed hands. Again, using Viscount Clifden as an example, huge tracts of the Lanhydrock estates, many that were acquired as far back as the 16th century, were sold during a series of land auctions during first twenty years of the 20th century.

Consequently, as the gentry’ classes faded so their country seat fell into decline.

Glynn House, for example, at the time of the First World War had no electricity and had been unoccupied for some time. It was described by Daphne Vivian as ‘shabby’ although Ms Vivian adds ‘even the shabbiness had a charm for me’. The estate was considered ‘derelict’.

At Tehidy, the fine Palladian mansion built by Thomas Edwards of Greenwich, along with 250 acres of land was sold to the County Council in 1916 for a modest £10,000. Two years later it passed onto the Cornwall Sanatorium Committee in memory of those who died during the Great War. In February 1919, a month after the first residents moved in, the bulk of the building and many important family portraits held in store were destroyed in a fire. The mansion itself was rebuilt by 1922 at a cost of £35,000 and continued in use until 1988 when it the claim that the hospital was costing £1.75 million per annum to run forced its closure.

An eighteenth century watercolour of The East Front of Trerice, in the Gallery, Cornwall

Painting at Trerice – an eighteenth century watercolour of The East Front of Trerice, in the Gallery.

In 1915 Sir Charles Thomas Acland sold the 1,830 acres of the Trerice estate while in 1919 517 acres of the Home Farm were sold to Cornwall County Council under the ‘Homes for Heroes’ scheme whereby soldiers returning from the Great War were rewarded with agricultural land and housing. The Elizabethan manor house itself along with 16 acres was sold in 1920 and changed hands several times until the National Trust acquired in in 1953. During the Second World War the outbuildings housed a unit of the Local Defence Volunteers who remained ever ready to face the head-on the ever-increasing threat of Nazism.

Lanhydrock was more fortunate. In 1885, after four years of refurbishment after a fire, the Agar-Robartes family moved back into their beloved house. Costing the equivalent of some £6 million today, the refurbishment boasted the latest developments in fashion, modern technologies and country house planning. Between 1885 and 1914, the house and estate became the very happy home to Lord and Lady Robartes, their large family and retinue. But the First World War was to end this zenith. In 1915 Tommy Agar-Robartes (1880-1915) was killed at the Battle of Loos. The loss to the family was immeasurable. First, he was the son and heir of the Viscount Clifden title and the vast estates and impressive seats at Lanhydrock and Wimpole in Cambridgeshire. Tommy was dashing, good-looking, a real Edwardian playboy often being seen in Monte Carlo or sailing around the Mediterranean with his debonair friends. As an MP he was popular, well-respected, a good speaker, a man with a very bright future. Second, he was nominated for a posthumous Victoria Cross but never got it because he ventured into no-mans-land to rescue an inferior officer – not an act of heroism it would seem. Predictably Lady Robartes wrote in 1915 ‘we do not know how to bear our grief’ and wrestled with the fact that three more of her sons were still in France. It is of note that Viscount Clifden allowed the use of his property in Bodmin to house Belgium refugees, a letter in the collection dated 27 May 1915 from the Bodmin and District Belgium Refugee Relief Committee records the arrangement which was ‘rent free’.

Tommy was not the only member of the Cornish gentry to serve his country. Frederick, 6th Baron Rendlesham of Bosloe, near Falmouth, and his siblings Percy and Hugh Thellusson, served with distinction, Hugh receiving the DSO in 1915. Another to receive a DSO was George Vivian of Glynn. John Eliot, 6th Earl of St Germans of Port Eliot, was one of five brothers who served, receiving a MC himself in 1917 while two of his siblings received military OBEs. The St Aubyn family of St Michael’s Mount and the Boscowans of Tregothnan each sent four brothers to war −Piers St Aubyn died in 1914 during heavy fighting in Flanders and John drowned in the Eastern Mediterranean in 1915 while Vere Boscowan died at Ypres serving with the Coldstream Guards and his elder brother George died in a German Military Hospital in 1918.

Arguably gentry’ losses were slight and of course the main death toll was amongst the working classes, many from the mining industry who could adapt their skills to tunnel and burrow beneath enemy lines. This large scale loss had huge ramifications for the post war future of the country house. Fewer young males created labour shortages and with less supply came a reluctance to work long hours for little pay – a situation that became known as, the ‘servant problem’. Coupled with this modern technology, the financial depression of the 1930s, the delights of city residences, taxation and death duties only exacerbated the problems and put an end to the hedonistic delights of the country house forever.

This conference has shown that Cornwall played a major role in the Second World War. Air fields scattered the county from Predannick on the Lizard to Davidstow on the north coast; anti-aircraft training was carried out at Bude and communications were established at Porthcurno all vital roles in the war machine yet it was in 1944 when Cornwall took centre stage in proceedings with the embarkation for the D-Day landings.

The Americans were located in Cornwall, Devon, Dorset and South Wales, while the British and Commonwealth troops occupied a swathe of land from Hampshire to Sussex. Embarkation points for thousands of American troop, armour, equipment and supplies were sited at Mount Edgcumbe and the Helford River. At Trebah, garden maintenance was reduced to a minimum when the beach was used to dispatch a regiment of 7,500 men of the 29th US Infantry Division for the assault landing on Omaha beach. Surviving features include concrete vehicle storage road, features partial survival of concrete apron, mooring rings and concrete slipway. The concrete biscuits have since been taken from the beach and used to form a pathway within the gardens leading to the beach

The military requisitioning of country houses in part to facilitate the D-Day preparations is a sorry tale. It is fair to say that when hostilities recommenced in 1939 many Cornish stately piles were no longer primary residences and consequently some were in a poor condition.  It is also a truism that the military hardly constituted the perfect heritage custodian, less so during the uncertainty of war. Stories resonate of chandeliers being shot at, doors being used for bayonet practice, panelling and antique furniture used for open fires and grand master paintings used for dartboards – so it is hardly surprising that damage and loss is still evident in many of the examples featured below.

With the influx of soldiers came the need for encampment. American soldiers could be found in the grounds of many country estates including Trelowarren the ancestral home of the Vyvyvans;  Treriefe, the ancestral home of the Le Grice family; Boconnoc, near Lostwithiel, and Lanhydrock, the latter two having significant ammunition dumps located in the dense woodland. While the lower ranks were encamped in the grounds the officers eeked out more comfortable existence. Between October 1942 and April 1944 Prideaux place in Padstow was requisitioned by Company B of the U.S. Army’s 121st Engineer Combat Battalion. The wonderful Elizabethan house was severely damaged and still has only 6 habitable bedrooms, indeed one room still carries the notice ‘Lance Sergeants’ Mess’. Heligan was requisitioned; a property already decimated by the loss of 16 of its 22 gardening staff during the First World War whilst in 1944 Ince Castle near Saltash became the base for the Auxiliary Territorial Service.

Place House, on the Roseland Peninsula was requisitioned by the War Office and an anti-aircraft battery was placed nearby. The Spry family moved out onto the estate. After a spell with the War Agricultural Committee the house was severely damaged as a result and in 1949 it became a holiday business and later a hotel. Enys House, meanwhile, became the shore headquarters for the Royal Dutch Navy.

Trebartha, near Launceston, was sold in 1940, requisitioned soon after. Being such a huge house it was used as a prisoner of war camp and was demolished in 1948. Pencalenick, a Victorian pile by J.P St Aubyn, now a school on the outskirts of Truro, was also used as a prisoner-of-war camp after earlier deployment as a training camp and hospital. Again, the house was left ruinous and was bought by Cornwall Council in 1948. Luxstowe House in Liskeard, a Gothic house built in 1831 by George Wightwick for the Devonport merchant and banker, William Glencross, was requisitioned by the war Department and held troops in the build up to D-Day and afterwards Italian prisoners of war. Trewan, near St Columb, was requisitioned by the air ministry and used as billets. After the war the house was set up as the headquarters of the Coastal Command and later the United States Air Force. It is now a holiday park with the house being restored with the proceeds.

The whole Penrose estate, now National Trust, was transformed in the 1940s into a military zone. The 2½-mile shore bristled with anti-invasion defences and was guarded by pillboxes at Bar Lodge and Gunwalloe; Royal Naval aircraft used the Loe Pool for rocket-practice; and a camp was built for 2,000 German and Italian prisoners at Higher Nansloe. Penrose House was commandeered first for British Army use, and in 1943 to billet American GIs from F Company, 175th Regiment, 29th Infantry before they embarked from Trebah for the Normandy D-Day landings in June 1944. Loe Bar was mined and booms prevented enemy seaplanes landing.  Lower Pentire (now holiday rental) was a centre for torpedo research. There were many wartime tragedies: on 20 October 1941, a Luftwaffe pilot ditched his plane into the sea at Gunwalloe Fishing Cove, only to drown within site of the Mullion Home Guard, and two boys, Harry Dale and Robert Munting, were blown up by a landmine on the same beach three years later.

Only one house was damaged by enemy action that being Mount Edgcumbe which was hit by a stray incendiary bomb meant for Devonport. Along with parts of the house perished portraits by Joshua Reynolds, although one Reynolds and three seascapes by William van de Velde survived. The 5th Earl, Lord Piers, died soon after and with him the direct male line died out. The house remained a shell until 1958 when the War Damage Commission supported by the Ancient Monuments Department commissioned the architect Adrian Gilbert Scott to rebuild the house along the old plan although somewhat reduced. Scott deployed the Georgian style, introducing the main staircase in the hall surmounted by a first floor continuous Gallery around the top-lit hall. The family moved back in 1960 after spending a reported £100,000 on its restoration.

Returning to Lanhydrock the death of Tommy Agar-Robartes was undoubtedly the catalyst that brought about a stark decline to the family’s fortunes. Of the surviving eight children only two married and only one had a child of their own. During the Second World the house became home to three waves of evacuees. Indeed the story goes that the Misses Eva and Violet Agar-Robartes went to the village hall to collect two evacuees only to bring back 17 because they ‘were so endeared by their cherubic faces’.  By the 1950s Viscount Clifden was desperate to secure of future of a home that had remained in the same family since 1621. The property was accepted by the National Trust in 1953.

Two stories to finish are, it is fair to say, based on less solid provenance. Treverbyn Vean, nestled deep into the Glynn Valley near Liskeard, was acquired by Lord Beaverbrook and it is said that Winston Churchill and Field Marshall Montgomery discussed war strategy at the house. Beaverbrook sold the house to his daughter Mrs Janet Kidd in 1947. Tregenna castle, near St Ives, once a country seat of the Stephens family became a hotel in 1878. Amongst its guests between the wars was Herr von Ribbentrop and it was believed that the property had been promised to him by Hitler himself when England was finally conquered. However, the same story has been told about St Michael’s Mount, a property that was fortified during the invasion crisis.

In conclusion, it is fair to say that the 20th century, in particular the economic slump and the First World War, saw an end to the building of the country house in Cornwall. That’s why Cornwall has very few stately examples of architecture in the prevailing styles of Queen Anne revival, Arts and Crafts or Aesthetic movements. One notable exception of course is the Arts and crafts inspired Porth-an-Alls, near Prussia Cove. Built by the architectural maverick Philip Tilden of whom The Times said had ‘a talent for the restoration of old buildings, though of somewhat lush and luxurious taste’. The house was never completed due to the outbreak of war in 1914.

The Second World War saw houses mistreated, some beyond economic repair a situation caused by high post war taxation imposed by a socialist government, 75% death duties imposed in 1946, high running costs and  shortages of building materials leading to a national trend of country house demolition. At its worse two and a half country house were demolished every week during the 1950s – the biggest destruction of our heritage since the dissolution of the monasteries. Heritage and tourism came to the rescue of the Cornish house.  But that is a paper for another day.

I end with a request.  If you have any details of other country house activity during the Second World War or want to delve a bit deeper on the topic please let me know – I would really welcome your input on this little researched topic.

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About paul holden

Architectural historian working as a House and Collections Manager for the National Trust at Lanhydrock House in Cornwall. Author of 'The Lanhydrock Atlas' (Cornwall Editions,2010) and 'The London Letters of Samuel Molyneux, 1712-13' (London Topographical Society, 2011). Contributor to many scholarly journals and Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
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