Doncaster’s Country Houses 1914-18 exhibition reveals Doncaster’s Homefront Heroes

A new free exhibition opening on 16 July at Cusworth Hall in Doncaster will reveal how the women of Doncaster’s country houses played a crucial part in the First World War, by turning their grand residences into home front battlegrounds while heirs and workers of the great estates fought on the front line.

The exhibition – Estate of War: Doncaster’s Country Houses 1914-18 – has involved volunteers in over 156 hours of research, and takes a major step forward in understanding Doncaster’s Home Front, which is in danger of becoming ‘lost history’ as it passes out of living memory.  It tells the forgotten stories of families and workers on the region’s country estates, bringing together treasured letters, photographs and souvenirs for the first time.  Students from Doncaster University College have also developed a ‘listening post’ in the exhibition, recreating extraordinarily personal moments from wartime letters, both humorous and horrific.  It is all part of Doncaster 1914-18, a four-year project supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, marking the centenary of the First World War.

“It’s difficult to imagine how important country estates were in the early 20 th century as so few survive today,” explains Jude Holland, Project Manager for Doncaster 1914-18.  “Country houses were the lifeblood of their local areas, and thousands of people relied on them for employment, education – and even entertainment.  During the First World War, they continued to play a pivotal role, thanks to their home-front heroes – the women who made a significant contribution to the war effort.”

The Estate of War exhibition shows how Mistresses became Matrons during the First World War, turning their entire homes into hospitals, like Julia Warde-Aldam of Hooton Pagnell Hall and Sophia Flora Skipwith of Loversal Hall.  Both Julia and Flora helped hundreds of soldiers, keeping in touch with many of them when they returned to the Front, and winning an MBE and OBE respectively in recognition of their wartime service.  One anonymous soldier-poet wrote of Loversal Hall: “The stately homes of Britain… Where many a high-born beauty Her gracious warfare raged, Men at the call of duty, Lie Broken, maimed and aged, And many a man is living, Who for his death has prayed, Thanks to his Maker giving That He the woman made.”

Elsewhere, concerned by wartime food shortages, Mrs Peake of Bawtry Hall and her husband opened a training centre to teach women farming skills, including ploughing, sheep shearing, hedging and milking.   Country houses across the area also became centres for war working parties, which raised money for the war effort, and brought together teams of women and girls to create essential food and clothing parcels for the soldiers on the frontline.

“Many women signed up to be nurses and treated thousands of soldiers from all over the world in these home front hospitals,” adds Lynsey Slater, Project Researcher for Doncaster 1914-18.  “Others took on traditional male roles, working on the land.  And as gender boundaries were being broken down by the war, so were age-old class boundaries.  Workers and masters fought alongside each other at the front, and mistresses and their nurses served alongside each other on the home front, forging friendships that lasted for the rest of their lives.”

The efforts of the women were deeply appreciated, with letters and gifts sent to them by hundreds of soldiers serving across Europe, from German prisoner-of-war camps to sailors aboard Royal Navy vessels, who were very grateful for warm, knitted socks in wet, stormy weather.  The women also provided an essential lifeline for the men at war – a reminder of home.  Amy Tyreman, a young girl knitting socks in Brodsworth Hall’s war party, received heartfelt thanks from sailor J.H. Norman, who couldn’t help wishing, “that I had been with my people for… this is the first Christmas I have been away from home, so with my best regards and every good luck for being so kind to help the soldiers.”  Many of these letters are on display at Cusworth Hall during the Estate of War exhibition, alongside photographs, souvenirs, personal memorabilia, and even paintings by patients and nurses of the country house hospitals.

The First World War turned the world upside down and for some, it was never the same again. Many estates lost sons and workers to the conflict.  Within the Estate of War exhibition – which follows the country house from its Edwardian Golden Age familiar to fans of Downton Abbey, to its post-war decline – visitors can trace the beginning of the huge social upheaval that was to be the final downfall of many country houses.  The fate of Sprotbrough Hall is a common tale: its heir Redvers Bewicke-Copley was killed in action on 21 December 1916, and by the late 1920s the Hall had been pulled apart and demolished. Other halls survived, but few remain as private residences today.

Estate of War: Doncaster’s Country Houses 1914-18 is just one of a series of events and exhibitions taking place in 2016, thanks to support from National Lottery players.  People across South Yorkshire are also encouraged to share their own family stories and wartime memorabilia to help build a picture of life in the area between 1914 and 1918.  For a full event listing or for more details, visit www.doncaster1914-18.org.uk .