Hampton Court Palace during the First World War

Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday give us annual pause to think about the immense sacrifice made by men and women from around the world during the First World War. Curator Polly Putnam has been researching the role of Hampton Court Palace during that terrible conflict.

The Standing With Giants installation at Hampton Court Palace pays tribute to those who lost their lives during both World Wars and modern-day conflicts. The silhouettes of 125 British and Indian soldiers stand in the East Front Gardens throughout November © Historic Royal Palaces

It’s wonderful that we are commemorating the contribution of nearly a million South Asians who fought for Great Britain during the First World war by telling the story of their encampment at Hampton Court in 1919. It therefore seems like a good moment to talk about what was happening at the Palace during the war.

Hampton Court Palace on the Eve of War

Hampton Court Palace had been closed for much of 1913 due to a series of attacks by suffragettes on art galleries and museums. In April 1913, Lillian Forrester, Annie Briggs and Evelyn Manester attacked 13 paintings at Manchester Art Gallery which prompted the palace to close. Hampton Court had stubbornly remained open after Leonora Cohen’s attack on the Crown Jewels in 1911 which prompted closures of Kensington, Kew and the Tower of London.

The Palace reopened shortly before the outbreak of war in May 1914. Visitor numbers remained strong thanks to blockbuster exhibitions with exciting titles such as “Valuable Tapestries in the Haunted Gallery” which attracted nearly 15,000 people over a single weekend.

Red Cross Nurses

Many of the palace staff and residents contributed directly to the war effort. I was pleased to discover recently that 21 women who lived in the palace volunteered as Red Cross nurses. This is thanks to the digitisation of their records by the Red Cross. They mainly served in local hospitals in Isleworth and Hampton Court Hospital, on a site that is now the Rotary Club on Palace Green. Ivy House, which is adjacent to Flowerpot Gate, was given over to nurses’ accommodation and housed an additional twenty nurses. Some women went further afield to France and to the Balkans. The Oak Room in the Palace itself was used sometimes for the nurses to practise dressings. The grounds must have been filled with the colourful site of nurses in their blue, red and white uniforms.

Henry Woods, Nurses at Hampton Court © IWM ART 5250

Staff and Residents Enlist

Other palace staff and residents enlisted to fight in the war. 16 palace residents who fought and died have a memorial in the Chapel Royal. At the time, there was much fanfare in national newspapers about the 17 palace gardeners who enlisted in 1915. Very chillingly, the next mention of them is in 1917 reporting on the fact that 5 of the gardeners had died.

Partly due to a depleted work force and partly as a contribution to the war, 30 of the flower beds were turned to growing wheat, beetroot and, potatoes. This provoked much anger from visitors to the palaces. After the war, there were even questions in parliament as to how quickly the gardens should be returned, despite the great expense.

Lady Wolseley Campaigns

One resident, Lady Wolseley, who was the widow of a famous Field Marshal Garnet Joseph Wolseley, first Viscount Wolseley, lived in Apartment 39. Throughout the war, she campaigned and raised funds for soldiers. She also campaigned for basic wages and housing for female agricultural workers.

In September 1917, she purchased the entire crop of 210lbs of grapes from the Great Vine at Hampton Court for £500 which she had distributed to wounded soldiers at local hospitals.

After the battle of the Somme in 1916, she arranged for there to be tours of Hampton Court Palace for soldiers who had fought in one of the most brutal battles.

Julian Story, Louisa, Dowager Viscountess Wolseley, 1884, oil on canvas © Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Rest and Respite

Overall, it seems that the palace was a place of rest, enjoyment and respite from the horrors of the First World War. I think we can see this in the views painted by the artist William George Storm: a Canadian Soldier in the Artists’ rifles who fought on the Somme and, sometime in 1916, painted views of the palace gardens which are now in our collections. These were amongst his last works before he died in battle in 1917.

William George Storm, East Front, Hampton Court Palace, c.1916, oil on board © Historic Royal Palaces

Lest We Forget

Perhaps Hampton Court’s most poignant contribution to the war was the wood that was used to make the coffin for the Unknown Warrior. The wood came from an oak tree in Home Park and was made into a coffin by J. Nodes and Sons.

The Unknown Warrior is a single soldier who is buried alongside the tombs of Kings and Queens in Westminster Abbey. Many of the war dead remained unknown and unclaimed on the battlefields. One body was chosen at random to represent all who died and as a proxy place for anyone who lost a loved one without a grave. The words on his grave remind me of the significance of the Standing With Giants display. We have begun research which lets us tell the stories of South Asians and, particularly at Hampton Court, of women who contributed to the war through their work as nurses. We are further researching the work of the undertakers who made the coffin from a Hampton Court Palace tree and piecing together the names of the gardeners who fought and died. It is through this accumulation of new knowledge and in its telling, that,


Polly Putnam
Curator, Collections
Historic Royal Palaces

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