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Government’s top secret plan to turn a Stratford theatre into its war-time parliament

IF you think you know everything about Warwickshire, then think again. A new book, Top Secret Warwickshire, by Michael Layton and Androulla Christou-Layton looks at the lesser-known aspects of the county, including its role during the Second World War and the ‘Cold War’ period that followed.

Lifting the veil of secrecy, the book also pays tribute to the Armed Services as well as volunteers such as the Royal Observer Corps and members of the community who lived or served in Warwickshire.

Here we print an extract from Top Secret Warwickshire’s look at how Stratford was going to be at the centre of government during the war.

IN the 1930s, in preparation for the upcoming war, the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was once named as an alternative location for housing Parliament.

In early 1939 preparations were made to move the Houses of Parliament to Stratford should London suffer bombing by Germany in the expected forthcoming war. The intention was for the theatre to become the debating chambers for the two Houses, with the Commons making use of the auditorium, and the Chamber of the House of Lords the conference hall.

The press gallery would be on the stage and three small rooms at the theatre would be divided into offices for the Lord Chancellor, the party leaders Black Rod, the whips and clerks. The museum and library would be partitioned for other administrative functions.

Preparations in 1939 were shrouded in secrecy with just a small circle of parliamentary officers and senior civil servants involved in planning. Due to the secrecy Stratford became known to them as ‘HK’.

An aeroplane in front of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1943.Inset, Top Secret Warwickshire.
An aeroplane in front of the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, 1943.Inset, Top Secret Warwickshire.

Having an alternative parliamentary location was one thing but housing the MPs and Lords and the much larger numbers of staff plus literally tons of equipment, documents, and publications, was quite another.

Local hotels, guest houses, and private houses were surveyed with a view to identifying accommodation within walking distance of the railway station. Others would be accommodated in large private houses reserved for named individuals.

On 7th September 1939, the Ministry of Works requisitioned several hotels and boarding house as a precursor to such a move. At The Shakespeare, 14 permanent guests were given just 24 hours to leave, where it was intended that private rooms for senior ministers would be provided. It was also earmarked for the Parliament Office and the Lord Chancellor’s Department.

Most of the accommodation identified was in the west of Stratford with private accommodation taking up to five persons. All were graded – A, B and C and allocated strictly according to seniority. The owners of the properties would be compensated but special arrangements were made with the Falcon Hotel, one of about six hotels identified where favourable rates were negotiated for Peers of the Realm to be lodged.

After the flurry of early preparations nothing happened, and The Shakespeare remained mothballed and empty.

The number of peers identified as moving to ‘HK’ was 58 – just 7.4 per cent of the House’s total of 783 peers because to move the entire House would have been impossible given the accommodation requirements. Administratively, a ‘skeleton’ staff was earmarked of just 76 people.

It is assumed that the percentage of MPs and their staff would have been similar, and it is believed that what is now the Welcombe Hotel would have housed other members of the government.

Plans were adopted for structural alterations of the theatre to be undertaken by the Office of Works which would have taken at least three or four weeks to complete but only after the evacuation had taken place from London.

Research conducted by retired archivist Mairi Macdonald for the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust’s archive reveals that a photocopy of an envelope exists which was surprisingly sent through the post to Viscount Samuel, who was a member of the planning committee, to his home address. It carried details of the plan and was clearly marked ‘Secret – Please Forward’.

Androulla Christou-Layton and Michael Layton QPM
Androulla Christou-Layton and Michael Layton QPM

Another secret document although referring to ‘HK’ referenced both the Falcon Hotel and the nearby Shakespeare Hotel and was entitled ‘Billeting at HK.’ – adjoined next to it in neat handwriting were the words ‘Stratford-on-Avon’!

London was of course subsequently bombed heavily by the Germans, with the House of Commons being severely damaged in 1940 but the plan was never put into action.

Hugh Farmer of the clerk’s department of the Commons recalled that they had ‘…lived with the nightmare possibility for over two years but by then the government had decided never to move’. By then it was generally felt that it was necessary for the seat of government to remain in London to illustrate their resolve to both the people and Germany.

During the war the population of Stratford increased by 50 per cent due in part to the increase in refugees, evacuees, and service personnel but the government continued to hold on to requisitioned accommodation.

The Secret book...
The Secret book...

At some point the Treasury was in fact transferred to the Welcombe Hotel but in 1941 they finally decided to release the accommodation it was holding for other use and most of the hotels were taken over by the armed services.

To provide preliminary RAF training, several Initial Training Wings were established in the country and on 14th June 1941 No. 9 ITW was established at Stratford. The commanding officer took over The Falcon, The Shakespeare, The William & Mary (Officers’ Mess), The Arden (Station HQ), The Firs and others. The theatre was used as the canteen. The Union Club was the sick quarters. Drill took place in the Old Town, Albany Road and Waterside. Holy Trinity Church was the unit church.

The wing was disbanded on 25th May 1944 having trained thousands of cadets who undertook an eight-week course before proceeding to flying training.

It was to be November 1946 before the first of 500 bedrooms still requisitioned in Stratford was finally returned to civilian use.

Top Secret Warwickshire is available from Brewin Books or from Amazon as well as some bookshops, priced £15.95.

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