Hughenden, Disraeli, and World War 2 secrets

Hughenden Manor, home of Benjamin Disraeli

Hughenden Manor by Paul

Hughenden Manor  (near High Wycombe) is known as the home of Benjamin Disraeli, later Earl of Beaconsfield, who was one of Queen Victoria’s Prime Ministers. And reportedly her favourite, even more so than Lord Melbourne.

But Hughenden had a more recent, and secret, role for the British state.
Of which, more later.

Disraeli’s unsuccessful early years

Disraeli as a young man by Sir Francis Grant

Young Disraeli by Sir Francis Grant

I learned a lot of new stuff about Disraeli during my recent visit to Hughenden. First, that his father’s name was not Disraeli, but D’Israeli, with apostrophe. That had never occurred to me before. (Benjamin changed the spelling when he was about 18.)

Disraeli (1804-1881) is remembered as a very successful politician, but that wasn’t always the case, especially in his younger days.

He first stood for Parliament in a by-election for High Wycombe in 1832, before the Great Reform Act. There were 104 electors. He stood as a Radical.
He lost.

Then in the 1832 winter general election, he stood again as a Radical in High Wycombe. There were more than twice as many electors. He had a fancy chair made in expectation of being “chaired” in victory.
He came last.

Disraeli's specially commission victory chair (NOT used)

Disraeli’s specially commissioned victory chair (which was NOT used)

Disraeli and money

gold coinsDisraeli had money problems for most of his life. He had borrowed heavily to invest in the boom in shares in South American mining companies but that bubble burst in the mid-1820s. He began writing fiction about high society and was reasonably successful, though it didn’t endear him to high society. Nor did it clear his debts. Getting elected required cash and Disraeli didn’t have too much of that.

In the 1830s, Disraeli joined the Tory Party and, in 1837, won one of the two seats for Maidstone, alongside Wyndham Lewis. The two men got on well and Lewis financed Disraeli’s election expenses. However, the following year, Wyndham Lewis died. Without Wyndham Lewis to fund his expenses, Disraeli couldn’t afford to stand again in Maidstone. At the 1841 election, he stood instead in Shrewsbury and won.Anti-Disraeli election poster about debt

His opponents circulated this antisemitic and vicious poster listing all his debts. They amounted—his detractors alleged—to £22,036.2s.11d, which was a fortune then. Note that the poster used the old name with apostrophe, D’Israeli, and called him a “Child of Israel”. His family was Jewish, certainly, but had renounced the faith. Disraeli was baptised into the Church of England in 1817, aged 12.

(Shades of the Pedant Dame, here. The display at Hughenden says the poster dates from 1832 but that can’t be right. It refers to the voters of Shrewsbury not High Wycombe. It’s not only Wikipedia that gets things wrong, I fancy. National Trust does, too.)

Married life at Hughenden

Mary Ann, wife of DisraeliIn the meantime, Disraeli had married Wyndham Lewis’s widow, Mary Anne. She was 12 years older than Disraeli and a very wealthy woman. Apparently, he married her for her money but they soon became a devoted couple. Mary Anne herself admitted as much, it seems.

“Dizzy married me for my money. But, if he had the chance again, he would marry me for love.”

The couple lived at Hughenden from 1848 (after Disraeli borrowed money to buy this country gentleman’s seat). The previous owner had started “Gothicising” the interior of the house with features such as the arched doorways. The Disraelis continued the process inside and also changed the classic Georgian white stucco exterior into a Victorian redbrick one. Disraeli became a member of the landed gentry, as befitted an ambitious Tory politician. (This blog is about Disraeli and Hughenden. I’ll spare you the political history.)

The house is full of Mary Anne’s influence too. This is her silver dressing table set, complete with shoe horns, glove stretchers and button hooks:Mary Anne Disraeli's dressing table set

She loved the colour yellow/gold. It can be seen in the bed that the couple shared throughout their marriage and also in their drawing room. The portrait above the fireplace is of Mary Anne (and a close-up is shown above). The needlepoint on the chair was done by Mary Anne. The chiffonier (which I think is quite hideous) is Meissen, as are the over-ornate vases. Imagine trying to dust all that!

Drawing room, Hughenden Bedroom, Hughenden

Other parts of the house were more restrained and you can see its treasures here.

Hughenden, dining roomHughenden, dining room, Victoria portraitThis is the dining room with the small table laid for Queen Victoria’s visit in 1877. The Queen herself, in portrait form, gazes down imperiously from the wall. Sadly, Mary Anne had not lived to welcome the monarch to her home.

More money problems and a surprising solution

Bronze statuette of DisraeliDisraeli’s debt problems were helped by a Mrs Sarah Brydges Willyams who wrote to him, out of the blue, offering her support and to leave him money in her will provided that he agreed to bury her in his tomb.

Not surprisingly, he thought it was a hoax but it turned out to be a genuine offer.

The two corresponded for some years and she did leave him a lot of money when she died in 1865. Disraeli kept his promise to her. She is buried in the vault in the church on the Hughenden estate, along with Disraeli and Mary Anne.

Final years

Statue of Disraeli at HughendenIn 1868, Mary Anne was created Viscountess Beaconsfield in her own right while her husband remained a commoner. This had been done at Disraeli’s request when he refused the peerage that Victoria offered after the end of his first term as Prime Minister.

chair embroidered B for BeaconsfieldMary Anne felt hugely honoured to be ennobled. She worked the B on this chair to show her pride in her new title.

Mary Anne died in 1872 so never became Countess of Beaconsfield. The earldom was not bestowed on Disraeli until 1876, the year before the Queen’s visit to Hughenden.

The Queen visited again a few days after Disraeli’s death in 1881. She had not attended his funeral since it was not considered proper for a queen (or, indeed, any woman) to do so.

I was told that Victoria spent a considerable time alone in Disraeli’s study and also left primroses on his grave at the church. (Wikipedia says it was a wreath of china flowers: volunteers at Hughenden said she also left fresh primroses. Take your pick.)

20th century Hughenden

Entrance to Hughenden in 2023Hughenden had a new incarnation in the Second World War but it wasn’t made public until very recently. The National Trust had been running the house since 1947 but knew nothing about its top-secret role until a volunteer overheard a gentleman saying something about it to his grandson, back in 2004. Cue years of ferreting, plus getting permission from the Ministry of Defence to waive the Official Secrets Act, and Hughenden’s role as Hillside, the map-making centre for the Air Ministry, came to light.

A target map of Tours prepared at HillsideHow do you bomb strategic targets if you don’t know precisely where they are?
You need maps, very accurate maps. What’s more, they need to be maps that a crew can use in the confines of a Lancaster bomber in very subdued lighting. Easy, eh?

This is a finished map, of targets in Tours: the railway marshalling yard and an aircraft repair works.

The maps used only two colours of ink, black and magenta. They showed only those features that bomber crews needed to find and bomb their target. The target is in bright magenta (click to expand to see it) with concentric circles at 1-mile intervals from it.

Built-up areas are shown in dull magenta. The bright white is for waterways. Here it’s the River Loire. Black areas are woodland with hatched black for unconfirmed woodland. Black dots represent airfields. Dark lines are roads. Note that the map itself has no words on it to obscure anything, apart from A and B to mark the targets.

Making maps for WWII

cartoon of Hillside mapmaker with RAFMaking these maps was a difficult and time-consuming business based on existing maps, photographs and other information. It involved several hand-drawn transparent layers that had to be combined during printing.

The men and women who drew the layers had been artists, cartoonists and designers before the war. Hillside drawing officeThey were definitely creatives; and they enjoyed taking the mickey, often out of the RAF people they worked with (as shown above). How they actually worked is shown in this black-and-white photo from the time.

But Hillside needed vastly more people than the map makers as you can see from this satirical cross-section cartoon of the house. It shows many of the various trades that operated there (click to enlarge)Hillside cross section cartoon

Apart from mapmakers and admin, there were printers, camera operators, transport and despatch people, librarians, cleaners, a canteen…

What’s more, the Hillside people produced their own in-house newspaper, with lots of input from all those graphic experts. Sadly, there were only 13 editions. It was stopped because of paper shortage (ho yus?) and security concerns (yup, that I believe):

Hillside Herald and a stereo map viewer

Hillside Herald and a stereo map viewer

Working in total secrecy

The Hughenden exhibition about Hillside is very cleverly put together. Visitors can sit in a fairly stark reception room and be welcomed as if they were arriving to be workers at Hillside.  Visitors meet a rather offhand squadron leader who has clearly done his introductory speech many times before. He spends a lot of time stressing (a) how important the work is and (b) how it is top-secret:

Hughenden welcome to Hillside montage

Still from video of WWII welcome: “…and you will not talk about what we do.”

It’s fun to sit there as he makes faces about the horrible tea and to wonder what it would have been like to be a Hillside recruit, for real. Captured German target list including Hughenden

And it wasn’t necessarily safe, either. Hillside’s work was top-secret, but the Germans knew the place was important.

One of the exhibits is a captured German target list of barracks, command posts and training schools. Hughenden is right at the top, labelled as an offshoot of Fighter Command. That wasn’t right, but it didn’t make it less of a target.

And woe betide you if you didn’t have your Identity Card, or your ration book, or one of the many many other bits of bumph that you needed in wartime, just to be able to get through the days and all those checkpoints.Hillside wartime documents

What they did at Hillside was very important to the war effort. What amazes me, as with Bletchley Park, is that for decades after the end of the war, the people who had worked at Hillside/Hughenden kept everything secret, just as the squadron leader had told them to.

And if it hadn’t been for one slightly indiscreet grandfather, we might still have no inkling about what went on there. Fascinating, isn’t it?

Libertà co-founder Joanna Maitland


10 thoughts on “Hughenden, Disraeli, and World War 2 secrets

  1. lesley2cats

    Great blog, Joanna, thank you. I knew Hughenden when I lived in the north western reaches of London, and the late husband and I had many friends scattered over the home counties, but I never visited. And I eventually heard about Hillside after the Foyle’s War episode based on its activities. Not well enough known, but I suspect there are still other areas of activity that have been buried and might never come to light.

    1. Joanna Post author

      I thought exactly the same, Lesley, about other activities we know nothing about. And like you, I lived in High Wycombe back in the 70s and never visited Hughenden. Glad I did it now, though, and not just for blog material.

  2. Liz Fielding

    So interesting, Joanna. I used to live quite near High Wycombe but never went to Hughenden. I wish now that I had, although it was before the discovery of its secret wartime past. And like Lesley, I’m wondering just how many other secret locations have never been revealed.

  3. Sarah

    What a great blog, Joanna, thank you for relating everything in such detail! It’s interesting enough that it was Disraeli’s house, but the Hillside element makes it doubly fascinating.

    The fact that the railway marshalling yards were picked out as a target made me think of my own parents – Dad was a railwayman in Bristol and of necessity they lived very close to the railway yards there. I hadn’t realised just what an anxious time it must have been, at home and at work, when the sirens went off.

    1. Joanna Post author

      Yes railways were prime targets so it would have been scary. My parents lived in south Glasgow not far from the steel works known locally as Dixon’s Blazes (I have no idea what its real name was). Bombs fell around it so they would have been in danger like your parents.

  4. Sophie

    Fabulous blog. So interesting about the mapmakers.

    Isn’t there a story that Queen Victoria sent Disraeli a posy of primroses from her garden, after they had shared their mutual enthusiasm for the flowers? Presumably when he was Prime Minister, maybe from Buck House or Windsor. And when he wrote to say thank you, he said that at first he thought that she had sent him some honoured decoration, but then found that it was something much more precious. So then he got the gong as well, of course.

    1. Joanna Post author

      May well be true, Sophie, but I hadn’t heard it that way, only that primroses were “his favourite flower” and it was never clear whether she was referring to Albert or Disraeli. I read that he turned down the earldom, first time, because he didn’t want to leave the Commons where he knew how to make the system work. Dunno if that’s true, either, but it seems he did turn it down, first time. The top floor at Hughenden currently contains an exhibition of various gifts she sent him, including an amazing folio copy of Goethe’s Faust and a bronze of herself with a spinning wheel. I found myself thinking that she’d never used a spinning wheel in her life, but maybe not. You can see the bronze in the NT online collection

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