Life at Chatsworth During the Second World War

By Chatsworth

B etween September 1939 and March 1946, Chatsworth was home to students from Penrhos College, a girls school in Colwyn Bay, Wales. Girls from the Penrhos Senior School (ages 13–19) were evacuated by the government to make way for the use of the college by the Ministry of Food, which was responsible for feeding the British people during the war. 

At Chatsworth, the Penrhos girls used the State Drawing Room as a dormitory, and while the usual furniture was replaced by rows of beds, dressers and a mirrored wardrobe, the Mortlake Tapestries remained on the walls. Artist Edward Halliday’s remarkable painting Chatsworth in Wartime shows the room as it was in 1939, the year the 10th Duke and Duchess welcomed the Penrhos students and staff to the house. 

For the exhibition Chatsworth in Wartime (4 April 2014–4 January 2015), the State Drawing Room was returned to its appearance as a dorm. A few days ahead of the exhibition opening, 48 former boarders visited the exhibition for a reunion that was also attended by the 12th Duke and Duchess of Devonshire. Letters, diaries, photographs and firsthand accounts such as those excerpted here, capture the fascinating details of life at Chatsworth during this unusual seven-year period.

Everyday Life at Penrhos College in Chatsworth

Age: the Junior School (ages 5–12) remained in Colwyn Bay. Only the Senior School (ages 13–19) came to Chatsworth.1

Arrival: the new term began on 26 September 1939. The girls arrived from all over the country, mainly by coaches which had met the trains and, for those who had petrol coupons, by car.2 Miss Smith (Principal 1938-1966) sent out a letter asking that girls should arrive with no more than the agreed amount of pocket money. ‘The limit is made to prevent competition and to produce equality: but if some girls receive money in letters, it fails of its purpose.’ Parents were also asked to send their daughters with no more than the regulation number of dresses. ‘If more than the right number are brought by any girl next Term, they will be sent back.’ Concerning sweets, Miss Smith wrote ‘I do not at all mind girls having a small amount of sweets bought for them when Parents come over, but I would ask that they should not bring in more than can be kept in a fairly small tin box. I ask this partly again for the sake of equality and partly because if this is not done we get mice in the rooms’.3  The railway made special arrangements for the girls’ luggage, which had to be sent several days in advance of the girls.4 Girls were sent a list of items to bring for the new term.5

Limits: almost every part of the house was used for classrooms and dormitories, with freedom given for the use of the garden, woods and park. Only the Library was out of bounds. To protect the contents of the house only dustless chalk was permitted, written work had to be done in pencil and inkwells were banned.6  

The Painted Hall: this was the centre of school life. Morning and evening chapel took place here, as did assembly. The choir sat on cushions on the grand staircase and the organ. Suitcases were stored to one side at the top of the staircase. Pam Halliwell recalls leaving a cheese in her suitcase after returning from a visit to her home. This resulted in a bad smell that lingered at the top of the staircase.7

Welcome: in November 1939, Miss Smith wrote to parents to explain how Penrhos functioned away from Colwyn Bay. She was aware that many parents were not able to visit their daughters. She began by stating that ‘We have been treated with the greatest kindness by the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire who have most graciously interested themselves in our welfare, and also by the people whom they have left in charge of Chatsworth. We are shown the treasure and given lantern lectures: we are helped with all matters relating to the fabric. I feel[?] we have not been just dumped here, but entertained.’8 

Teaching: the whole staff  was  taken to Chatsworth so that ‘all subjects can be properly taught. No girl has had to change her course of study’. Each form had a form room. Science teaching went on as usual so that there were separate rooms for Physics, Chemistry and Biology. Pianos and a small organ were brought, with the result that ‘Music teaching has not suffered unduly.’ Art was taught in the Orangery. Domestic Science was taught at various sites: laundry work was taught in the Laundry, cookery was taught in the Ironing Room and needlework was taught in the Airing Room.9

Gymnastics, sport and recreation in the grounds: gymnastics were taught in the Squash Court or the Theatre. The Chatsworth cricket pitch enabled two lacrosse games and two netball games to be played at once. Sometimes girls went for walks or bike rides instead of games. Freedom to explore the park seemed to be ‘much appreciated’ by the girls. ‘We have remade the timetable so as to give the girls most of their free time in the light. We now have six lessons in the morning, none in the afternoon and one after tea.’ Smith felt that the girls were gaining ‘knowledge of country things by their freedom to go all over the park and gardens.’ The four houses (Shackleton, Scott, Raleigh and Drake) competed against each other in sport. Bicycles were stored in the stables. The girls were allowed to go into the woods but only in groups of four or more.10 Joan Firth (née Drake) remembers that, during one of the particularly cold winters, the deer began to nibble the saddles of the girls’ bicycles because there was so little food around.11 According to Nancy Park, several girls received riding lessons for the first time. They rode horses from Darley Dale but the lessons were abandoned because of logistical difficulties.

Church: Penrhos had a Methodist background. The usual Sunday routine was for students to go to Edensor Parish Church in the morning and have a service at Chatsworth in the evening. Rev. George Allen from Cliff College took the evening services.12

Food: milk was provided by the Chatsworth Dairy Company and ‘most of the vegetables’ came from the Chatsworth kitchen gardens.13

Dormitories and washing arrangements: Penrhosians were not used to dormitories, a point that concerned Smith. She arranged for hanging wardrobes, towel rails and other fittings to be made. Extra basins were put in eighteen bathrooms. She did not dare to put basins into bedrooms that had painted ceilings underneath. She also arranged the installation of thirty new lavatories.14  

 Temperature: the school had the central heating switched on and fires put in all the form rooms and common rooms. They also made curtains for draughty places. Smith declared that she was ‘really satisfied with the temperature we can keep’ but nonetheless advised that ‘when mothers are buying new underclothes for their daughters, they should buy woollen ones’. Many girls slept in their dressing gowns and some even worse balaclavas. Many got chilblains.15

ARP arrangements: sirens were placed around the building. On these sounding, teachers (sometimes accompanied by prefects) went to each bedroom to ‘see that the children put on warm clothes and bring rugs and gas masks’ before going down to  ‘a wide stone built passage on the ground floor’. The children practiced doing this and were able to get their time down to four and a half minutes ‘from the time they were in bed to the time they were downstairs’. If there was a second warning, they would go down into the cellars.16


[1] Grafton Papers, CH11/1/17

[2] Keith Taylor, Aspects of Dales’ Life Through Peace and War, p. 375.

[3] Constance Smith to Parents, 31 July 1940, in possession of Penny Gildroy

[4] Travelling Instructions, in possession of Penny Gildroy

[5] Inventory of clothing brought to school, in possession of Penny Gildroy.

[6] Taylor, Dales’ Life, p. 375.

[7] Taylor, Dales’ Life, p. 375.

[8] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

[9] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

[10] Taylor, Dales’ Life, p. 380.

[11] See ‘Suzi Stembridge’ folder

[12] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

[13] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

[14] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

[15] Taylor, Dales’ Life, p. 379.

[16] Constance Smith to Parents, November 1939, donated by Mike Watson

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