Beautiful countryside house in Buckinghamshire was only known as the home of Benjamin Disraeli until its secret came out in 2004. The aim of this learning scenario is to inform the participants about the most unlikely Victorian Prime Minister and the secret map making operation which took place at Hughenden Manor during the WW2.
Benjamin Disraeli was born in 1804 to Italian Jewish parents. Disraeli wrote twelve novels, but his main ambition was to become an MP (Member of Parliament). He had a huge amount of debt and members of parliament could not be imprisoned for debt. I am not sure what the rules are today, but that rule worked for Benjamin Disraeli!
First Jewish Prime Minister
At the time when Benjamin wanted to become and MP, Jews were not allowed to be in the parliament. When he was 13, his father Isaac had an argument with his synagogue community. Because of that, he decided to baptise all his children as Christians. This enabled Disraeli to become an MP in 1837. When Queen Victoria asked him what his religion was, he answered: “I am the blank page between the Old Testament and the new.” Shortly after becoming an MP, Disraeli married Mary Anne who was a wealthy widow of his joint MP Wyndham Lewis.
Purchase of Hughenden Manor
Disraeli bought Hughenden Manor in 1848 because he needed his own country house estate, just like aristocrats and other politicians of that time. He loved having peacocks in his beautiful gardens and planting trees at the Hughenden estate. His political rival Gladstone (Liberal MP) was so different than him in every possible way: Gladstone loved chopping trees!
Finally a Prime Minister!
Disraeli has achieved his dream of becoming a Prime Minister in 1868 when the previous PM Lord Derby retired. Disraeli then famously said: “I have climbed to the top of the greasy pole.” In 1874 he became a PM once again. As a reforming politician, he passed different social reform acts to give workers more rights. He also increased the number of men who could vote.
Disraeli was very interested in foreign policy. In 1875 he managed to buy shares of the newly built Suez Canal from the Egyptians. That way he stopped France controlling it. He met representatives of five other great powers at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. Britain afterwards praised him for his role in reorganising the Balkans after the war between Russia and the Ottoman Empire.
Friendship with Queen Victoria
Although Queen Victoria didn’t like Disraeli at the beginning of his political career, they later became great friends. She appreciated his support when her husband Prince Albert died. She loved that Disraeli proclaimed her as Empress of India. Queen Victoria made Disraeli Earl of Beaconsfield and later a Knight of the Garter. The latter one is the most senior order of knighthood in the British honours system. When Disraeli died in 1881, Queen Victoria came to Hughenden to mourn his death.
Hillside-secret operation from the WW2
In 2004, a room guide at the Hughenden Manor (which belongs to the National Trust from 1947) overheard an older gentleman telling his grandson: “It wasn’t like this when I was here, during the war.” That man’s name was Victor Gregory. He was 18 in 1941 when he went to Hughenden to work as a mapmaker. He (and about 100 other people who worked there then) had sworn that they would keep Hillside as a secret. Mr Gregory still kept the secret even in 2004!
Why was Hughenden chosen for Hillside?
Hughenden Manor was chosen for the strategic map making of the Nazi infrastructure because of its location in the woodland and proximity to three RAF sites (Benson, Medmenham and Bomber Command HQ). In 1941 the Manor was owned by the Disraelian Society. When the Manor became Hillside, all the historic items had to be stored in the basement. They used nearly every room for map drawing. The books in the library got locked in their shelves and it became “The Intelligence Section”.
The production and distribution of the maps
People who drew maps at Hughenden had been artists, graphic designers, cartoonists and printers before the war. They often did not know where they were going to ensure Hillside stays a top-secret. The map makers at Hughenden drew maps by hands and printed them in the basement of the Manor. Afterwards they distributed them together with its intelligence documents to the Bomber Command HQ (which sent them to air bases across southeast England).
In the beginning, the Royal Air Forces only targeted factories and the infrastructure in Germany, but later targeted the residential areas too. The morality of those strategic bombings by Allies is still questioned today. Kathleen Hudson, one of the Hillside mapmakers said: “With our paintbrushes we had helped to kill people we did not know.”
When the war finished, people who knew about the strategic mapmaking removed everything that could reveal the secret. In 1947 Hughenden Manor became a National Trust property. The National Trust is Europe’s largest conservation charity which protects historic houses and countryside for future generations.
Hughenden’s story continues…
Hughenden Manor’s famous owner Benjamin Disraeli is still the most quoted Prime Minister. His former home is often called “the modest manor that changed the world”.
The author of this blog volunteers at Hughenden Manor as a room guide.
This “manor with two stories” welcomes over 100 000 visitors each year. Maybe after reading this blog you would like to visit it too?!
Would you like to know more about this learning scenario? You can download it below:
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