Tragic tales of war from stately home

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But Chatsworth House in Derbyshire was - like every aspect of British society - hugely affected during the 1914-18 conflict.

Now a new exhibition beginning at the venue this month will look at life there during both World War One and World War Two.

Objects, archives, photographs and stories from the period will record the domestic impact of these devastating world events.

The items will be used to show how both members of the aristocratic Cavendish family and estate workers fought and died in Europe, as well as illustrating how life on the home front and the role of women changed. From 1939, Chatsworth housed a girls’ boarding school, Penrhos College, and the State Drawing Room will be returned to its appearance as a dormitory complete with original furniture, stored at the house since the girls left in 1946.

The exhibition - the flagship display of the house’s spring calendar - marks the centenary of World War One and the 75th anniversary of World War Two.

“This has been a fascinating exhibition to curate with many new stories coming to light,” says Hannah Obee, curator. “I’m sure our visitors will be as interested as I have been to delve into the role Chatsworth and its people played both on the front line and at home.

“Research has been conducted amongst a very varied body of source material. We have mainly used the archives here at Chatsworth but have also used material held at local and national archives. This has yielded many fascinating diaries, letters, pamphlets, estate accounts, photographs and other documents. We have conducted a number of oral history interviews with people in the local area.”

Key among the stories which will be told are that of Charles Mercer Nairne (Duchess Evelyn’s brother) and Lord John Spencer Cavendish (the 9th Duke’s brother) who were both killed in the early stages of World War One. Edward Cavendish (later the 10th Duke) will also be remembered for his part in the Gallipoli campaign and later being a member of the British delegation to the Paris Peace Conference of 1919. Visitors will also be able to learn about World War Two hero William Cavendish, Marquess of Hartington and heir to the estate, who was killed in action in 1944 shortly after marrying Kathleen Kennedy.

“But the exhibition will cover the many estate workers who served in the armed forces during both wars, including those who were killed in action,” says Hannah. “This will involve looking at the Sherwood Foresters and the Derbyshire Yeomanry. We are also looking into the family histories of current staff to uncover stories about their family members who served.”

The many ways in which the house and the estate helped the war victory will also be told. That included growing food (Chatsworth embraced the spirit of the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign), training troops (soldiers were billeted in the area) and providing a place for wounded soldiers to recover (the building that now houses the estate office was used as a convalescent hospital during World War One).

A 1942 German air raid on the house will also be focused on.

The exhibition will cover the contribution made by women at Chatsworth during the two conflicts.

“Duchess Evelyn, for example, was heavily involved with the Red Cross during both conflicts,” says Hannah. “Duchess Mary headed the Derbyshire section of the Women’s Land Army and the Derbyshire Home Produce Council during the Second World War. We will also be looking into ‘Land Girls’ on the estate.”

There will be a mock up of the Cenotaph with remembrance board for visitors to leave their family histories, and activities in the garden, with staff dressed as land girls.

“It’s a fitting way to mark both the centenary of World War One and the 75th anniversary of World War Two,” says Hannah.