Knole at war – Lord Sackville went to fight in World War One and his wife fought to keep some of the staff at home
With many local events planned in the Sevenoaks area over the coming months to commemorate 100 years since the end of World War One, genealogist and author Matthew Ball gives a fascinating insight into how Knole House, and the staff that worked there, were involved in the conflict
KNOLE, the imposing Sevenoaks seat of the Sackville family, has long played a role in the life of the town and part of its history is also interwoven with the First World War. Lord Sackville served with the Army, seeing action in Gallipoli, Palestine, Egypt and France, while his wife was an ardent fundraiser for wartime charities.
Their daughter Vita had worked with one of the local Voluntary Aid Detachments which provided hospitals during the war to care for Belgian refugees and wounded servicemen. The estate also played a role as a military camp and training ground from 1914-1918.
Lord Sackville, a colonel in the West Kent Yeomanry, hurried away to join his men at camp in Canterbury once war had been declared. Jack Dinham, his coachman and groom at Knole, served with him, in a new capacity as his corporal groom.
Almost immediately, Knole was offered as an annex to the local hospitals and the Great Hall was turned into a convalescent home. Lord Sackville gave up his car for the use of the Yeomanry and his wife gave hers for the use of the Red Cross Society.
Gradually the thriving community of Knole dwindled as the men of the estate enlisted and left for training and abroad. More would be summoned by conscription.
The future 6th Lord Sackville, son of the then Lord’s brother, Hon. Betrand Sackville West, wrote as a small boy to King George V during the conflict, to ask plaintively: “When will the War be over? I miss my daddy and having sugar on my porridge”, to which the King replied personally, “I hope the War will be over soon and that your daddy will come back. I too miss having sugar on my porridge.”
Lady Sackville, the boy’s aunt, was not above writing her own letters to complain of the privations, as she saw them, inflicted by the war. She wrote, first to Lord Kitchener: “I think perhaps you do not realise Lord K, that we employ five carpenters and four painters and two blacksmiths and two footmen and you are taking them all from us! I do not complain about the footmen, although I must say that I never thought I would see parlour maids at Knole.”
Three of the men on the Sevenoaks War Memorial were employed at Knole before they enlisted. According to his obituary, William Robert Copper (1883-1917), a bombardier with 24th Siege Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery, worked at Knole for six years before joining the army. He was a keen cricketer and played regularly for nearby Godden Green, where many of the workers from the estate lived and where he is also remembered on the village war memorial.
Thomas Edmund Pattenden (1877-1918), a sergeant with 1/5th Battalion Royal West Kents, worked as a wicket porter at Knole, living on site with his wife, Florence, and their two children Doris and John. Thomas spent most of the war in India, where he died and was buried in Jubbulpore Cantonment Cemetery in 1918. His widow continued in the role as wicket porter at Knole until the 1930s.
Oliver Older (1878-1916) was born in Sevenoaks and, after working in London for some years, had returned home and was working as a groom at Knole before serving with the 6th Battalion, Royal West Kents. Oliver died of his wounds in October 1916 and is buried at Heilly Station Cemetery, Mericourt-L´Abbe, France.
A fourth man on the memorial, William Goss Hicks (1882-1917), was headmaster at the Lady Boswell School, and son of the butler at Knole, William Hicks senior.
In 1916, the Kent Messenger reported that before the war there had been 71 employees on the estate, now reduced to 52. On 1 July 1916, in an article entitled The National Importance of Knole, the Kent Messenger reported the case of Adin Clifton Jeffery (1878-1940), works foreman at Knole, before the West Kent Appeal Tribunal, which heard the cases of men who were appealing against the decisions of their local tribunal. George Saer represented the Knole Estate for Lord Sackville with Mr Knocker, of well-known Sevenoaks solicitors, Knocker & Knocker.
According to the report, Jeffery had been in post for five years and his father had held it for 30 years before him. The Tribunal heard that he had tried to attest under the Derby Scheme but had been rejected because of an enlarged heart. Jeffery’s solicitor stated that he had attempted to go before a Medical Board but had been unable to get an appointment.
The tribunal heard that Knole contained 365 rooms and its roof covered approximately 7 acres, with, as Jeffery testified, 17 baths and 40 lavatories, as well as several sets of heating apparatus, all of which had to be kept in working order. Further evidence was given of the scale of Knole and the work required to maintain the estate
The evidence stated that some part of the roof of Knole had to receive attention every day, and the antiquated drainage system required constant attention. In addition to the house, there were nine farms on the estate, two being in hand. Fifty tons of firewood per week were being cut for the troops, and about 7,000 fir trees had been cut for the Government during the past 18 months.
The case was made that no replacement would know the workings of the estate like the defendant. The tribunal heard: ‘It would not be possible for anyone to pick up in a few months the ramifications of the drainage system, of which the only plan was 150 to 200 years old, and that was useless, as there had been additions from time to time.’
Mr Knocker emphasised the national importance of Knole and said that the appeal was not in Lady Sackville’s interest, but for the nation.
Colonel Atkinson, military representative at the tribunal, suggested that the medical board were overworked and although he noted that it was only by a small majority that Jeffery had been allowed to appeal his case to this hearing, he was prepared to agree that Jeffery was doing essential work and, in view of his age, would not press for him to serve. Atkinson expressed his opinion that all the employees at Knole had done splendidly.
The court ordered that the case should stand over under regulations until Jeffery was called up when he would have seven days to appeal again.
Adin Jeffery continued to work at Knole until his death, aged 62 in 1940, when he was working as steward. The Sevenoaks Chronicle noted in his obituary that he had been a keen member of the town Choral Society and sang in the choir of the Vine Baptist Church for nearly 40 years. He had died suddenly, collapsing in his chair, while going about his normal duties.
His obituary said: “It was fitting to say that he loved the great house of Knole. It was a joy to him that he dwelt under its roof, and he found continual happiness in serving it, and the members of the family residing there, whom he honoured. Often, he said that he hoped to end his days at Knole, and it was given unto him to continue his service to the last moment of his life within its walls.”
In a mark of the esteem in which he was held, Lord and Lady Sackville, Eddy and Bertram Sackville West all attended his funeral and sent flowers, as did Vita Sackville West.
The case of another Knole employee, Edwin Thomas Harding, aged 45, of Upper Park Lodge, Knole, who had been employed for two years, came before the Sevenoaks Tribunal in 1918. Again, supported by Lady Sackville, on behalf of her husband, he appealed on the grounds of the risk to the house from fire breaking out. It was explained that with the exception of the butler, who was 68 years of age, he was the only man about the house during the day who understood the fire appliances.
This case divided the tribunal panel. The Chairman and one other felt that they had taken other men from Knole and that considering the treasures that were in the house they ought to give consideration to the appeal. However, another panel member, Mr White, took the view that it would be a public scandal if they exempted him, because there were plenty of men engaged outside the house if they were wanted in case of fire and the local fire brigade could attend within five minutes.
Harding himself testified that he did everything that was necessary in the house when a man’s work was required and spent his whole time in the house, being the only one who understood the fire appliances and able to attend to them if he should be required.
A query as to whether there had been any attempt to replace him was met with the reply that there were now no men in the garden excepting very old men and boys. The gardeners now, in common with other head gardeners, had to dig instead of supervising.
It was proposed that two months exemption be given but an amendment was moved by Mr White and a fellow panel member that no exemption be given but that he should not be called for 56 days. This was carried by three votes to two, leaving Mr White to remark that: ‘…he recognised that Knole was a sort of national treasure-house, but it was the larger national interests they had to study and that was the Army’.
The risk of fire in the house was a real one, as demonstrated in December 1918 when Lord Sackville’s son-in-law, Harold Nicholson, was awakened by smoke and managed to raise the alarm and put out the blaze with the help of the night watchmen and tradesmen. It was thought the fire was thought to have been caused by an overheated hearth and a report afterwards said: ‘There is no doubt that Lord Sackville as well as his son-in-law had narrow escapes, the beam (that had caught fire) being the main support of his Lordship’s bedroom floor’.
Harding’s son, Leonard Edwin (1899-1991), had served with the Royal Fusiliers from March 1917 but in May 1918 it was reported that he had been missing since 24 April. However, Leonard Harding survived the war and long after, living to be ninety-one.
The Kent Messenger carried news in March 1917 of how one former Knole gardener had been injured on service at home. Driver William Smith of the Royal West Kents, son of Mrs Smith of Godden Green, had been badly injured by a kick in the face from a mule at Kennington, near Ashford. According to the paper, his teeth were knocked out and his face so badly cut that it had to be sewn up.
Later that year, in September 1917, it was reported in the ‘Our Boys’ column of the Sevenoaks Chronicle that Private John W Potter had made a surprise visit to his parents. Potter had worked with his father for five years in the Blacksmiths Forge at Knole and had joined the army in November 1916 aged 19. Putting his training to good use, he had been selected for ‘flying machines repair work’ and was employed in the Royal Naval Flying Corps workshops.
Charles Tye of Godden Green was another member of the Knole staff, who had been employed as a tradesman before joining the Royal West Kents. According to the Kent Messenger in August 1918, Private Tye had been in France for about 15 months and his wife had just received word that he had sustained serious injuries to his shoulders, thigh and one of his legs, and was being treated in hospital.
Charles Tye recovered and survived the war. He had started working at Knole as a 15 year old and rose to head painter, clocking up more than 50 years’ service on the estate. He died in 1972 while Alice, his wife lived on until 1982, when she died aged 96. Five generations of his family worked at Knole.
Men from all parts of the Knole estate served during the war, some paying the ultimate price. The tribunal records also offer a fascinating glimpse of how Knole, its owners and their remaining staff were perceived. They, like others in the town and across the country, were required to make sacrifices.
Though the War Office had taken many of the men from Knole, it was overreaching itself when William Reynolds of Back Lane, Godden Green, received his enlistment papers. Reynolds had been in the army in his younger days and had seen service in India. However, aged 67, the Sevenoaks Chronicle reported that ‘He treats the matter quite as a joke’.
Matthew Ball is a local historian and genealogist. You can follow him on @7oaksww1 and at sevenoaksww1.org
He can also be contacted by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org