We visited Upton House in March 2015, just as the team was getting ready to kick off their ‘banking for victory’ season. Now over one year on, we returned to see the exhibition in full swing!
And mighty fine it was too! The whole manor has been re-arranged to show how it would have looked during WWII when Lord Bearsted, moved his merchant bank, M Samuel and Co. from the City of London to Upton House.
The whole bank moved to Warwickshire where the bank, assets and staff were protected from the air raids during the Blitz. Staff families were also evacuated from their East London homes on the first day of the war and were stationed in local nearby villages with single staff members sleeping in dorms created in the grand rooms of the manor.
The exhibition is split into three parts – the economic war, the family’s war and saving Upton’s art. But the tour kicks off with a short film that’s streamed on the ceiling of Upton’s dining room. With lights low, we sat listening to the crackly recording of Neville Chamberlain’s broadcast from Sept 3rd 1939 to the nation declaring that Britain was now at war with Germany. It certainly set the mood.
House entry is timed and naturally, the National Trust are very particular about footfall through the house – however, we were exceedingly grateful to be squeezed in on one tour, as the rain came lashing down. After the initial talk, you are free to make your way around the house exploring the new set up.
Part 1: The economic war
The Long Gallery played host to the staff of the bank and they ran the day to day business of the company from this room, in the shadow of fine paintings on the walls. The staff here were deemed so important to the war effort that they were granted the status of ‘Reserved Occupation’ and barred from being called up.
“Their struggle was wholly economic but without their work, we, as a nation, wouldn’t have been able to continue manufacturing weapons or feeding the nation. The bank was keeping the wheels of British commerce moving… they granted the Government loans to buy vital supplies like eggs from Hungary or silk for air craft parachutes and even beer for the troops in NAAFI canteens. They were banking for victory!” – National Trust
We all had a go at pretending to be 1940s banking clerks….
During the evenings, the staff observed the compulsory blackouts and special frames were made for all of the manor’s windows, making sure not a chink of light could escape.
The best part of the exhibition was the individual stories of the staff brought to life – most of which was recounted first hand or by their children – it felt very much like ‘living history.’
Harold Astley worked for Lord and Lady Bearsted as an odd job man and rabbit catcher. Weak of heart, he did not serve with the forces but played a pivotal role as a courier escorting important documents, telegrams, correspondence between the bank’s Upton outpost and the London HQ. He would travel to London each day with latest papers straight off the clerks’ desks. During the blackout driving became even more dangerous and only the intrepid would venture out!
Part 2: The Family’s War
The family motto is ‘deeds not words’, something that Lord and Lady Bearsted took to heart, both playing their own parts during the war. As prominent Jews, the couple were heavily engaged in helping their fellow Jews across Europe and were certainly high up on the Nazi’s black list. Lord Bearsted worked for the Secret Intelligence Service and we know now was referred to as Agent K. Lady Bearsted was instrumental in the running and finance of mobile canteens across East London.
Part 3: Saving Upton’s art
Lord Bearsted had a passion for art and was a trustee of the National Gallery. Originally when war broke out, Lord Bearsted felt his art collection would be safe at Upton House but the RAF got a green light to build an airfield just a few miles away, causing Lord Bearsted to rethink the situation.
He was the man in the know and wrote to National Gallery director, Kenneth Clark, asking if he could slip in his ‘smaller paintings’ into the National collection which was being shipped to Blaenau Ffestiniog slate quarry in Wales for safe-keeping. Luckily Kenneth said yes! As you wander around the house, many of the paintings are tagged up to show which made it to the safety of slate quarry.
Digging for victory
Despite the rain, we also had a mooch around Upton’s gardens which have grown special vegetable borders to show how the public was encouraged to embrace grow-your-own.
Barney Adler was a bank clerk stationed at Upton House for 6 years and wrote in his memoirs ‘it was a bit like a holiday camp, but a bit more austere.’ As staff used the garden and grounds as their playground – cycling and foraging for wild food and swimming before work in the 1930s outdoor pool.
The whole house has been painstakingly been restored to bring the ‘Country Bank’ alive and is well worth the visit to learn more about ‘banking for victory’!