War in Wiltshire: Frances Partridge and Ham Spray House during the Second World War

Ham Spray House, on the eastern border of Wiltshire where it meets Berkshire, is well known as one of the hubs of Bloomsbury creativity in the early 20th century. The writer Lytton Strachey, artist Dora Carrington and her husband Ralph Partridge moved to Ham Spray in 1924, an example of  Bloomsbury’s tendency towards ‘loving in triangles’ (as the subtitle of a group biography pithily puts it). But what became of this haven of bohemian arts and letters after the death of Lytton Strachey and Dora Carrington in 1932? In fact the house was bought in Ralph Partridge’s name, and in 1926 he had met and fallen in love with Frances Marshall. They married in 1933 and had a son together in 1935. Their ties to the Bloomsbury set remained strong; Ralph had worked for Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press and Frances spent many years indexing James and Alix Strachey’s translation of the works of Freud – as well as writing her extraordinarily evocative diaries which were later published. 

On the eve of the Second World War both Ralph and Frances (pictured above) were convinced pacifists. Ralph had served with distinction in the First World War – he attained the rank of Major aged 23 and received a Military Cross – but like many of his contemporaries was thoroughly disillusioned by his experiences which had proved war to be far from glorious.  Frances developed her pacifist beliefs as a schoolgirl during those years. In 1921 her sister Rachel (known as Ray) had married David ‘Bunny’ Garnett who had spent the First World War as a conscientious objector, working on farms in Suffolk and then near Charleston in Sussex, together with Duncan Grant.  But as Frances began her war diaries, published as ‘A Pacifist’s War’ in 1978, her sister was dying of cancer. (Unbeknownst to her, Bunny was already involved with Angelica Bell, who would shortly become his second wife). Bunny and his two sons are among the first visitors to Ham Spray House in 1940.

James and Alix Strachey come to stay in the spring of 1940, talking of psychoanalysis and declaring ‘that Chamberlain could not be wicked because he had a passion for Beethoven’s last quartets’. Also present was Anthony West, son of the writers Rebecca West and HG Wells; at only 26 he was in greater danger of being called up and Frances recalls his decision, as a conscientious objector, to take a non-combatant role by enlisting on a minesweeper. Critic and literary editor Raymond Mortimer and Clive Bell are present when news comes through of the fall of Paris. The sense of combined panic and depression at this point in the war, when defeat seemed inevitable to many, comes through powerfully in the diaries.  Frances makes clear that she was not alone in trying to procure a suicide pill, while various friends suggest that she sends her son to America as soon as possible (she doesn’t).

Other friends make or receive regular visits – among them the critic Desmond MacCarthy and his wife Molly, the biographer David Cecil, and Ralph’s old friend the writer Gerald Brenan whom he first met in an officer’s mess early in 1915 (pictured left). Gerald had lived in Spain from 1919 until 1936 when it became too dangerous to stay any longer; when he reached England he and his wife Gamel Woolsey relied on Frances and Ralph’s hospitality at Ham Spray, before settling at Bell Court in Aldbourne in 1938. Gerald was fiercely critical of pacifism, considering it as good as being on the side of the Fascists, yet he continued to visit Ham Spray regardless. Until, that is, in 1941 – as Hitler invaded Russia – he wrote Ralph a particularly aggressive letter, condemning him as one of the ‘pacifist isolationists’ who ‘by their folly and shortsightedness have helped to produce this war.’ After that they did not meet again until after the war was over.

Marjorie Strachey comes to stay for a weekend and, despite both Lytton and James Strachey having been COs in the last war, she suddenly declares that ‘all conscientious objectors ought to be dropped by parachute in Germany since they wish to be ruled by the Nazis.’ Clearly emotions were running high at this point in the war, but Frances felt justifiably indignant that so many who disapproved of their pacifism still came to take advantage of their hospitality. She herself stuck to her ‘absolute conviction that progress can never be achieved by force or violence, only by reason and persuasion.’

At the beginning of December 1941 men aged 40-51 were required to register for military service, forcing Ralph to testify formally as a conscientious objector. Julia Strachey’s partner, the artist Lawrence Gowing (pictured together right), had already registered as such, but like many others decided that he would accept civil defence work if required. They receive news of the philosopher Bertrand Russell who, formally a pacifist had recanted on having reached the safety of the USA (Ralph’s comment: ‘Bad Form’). Frances too was now summoned to register for National Service, but with a seven year old child was never given a job.

She had enough to do at home.  Like many other households, Ham Spray House was left without any domestic help as young girls preferred the comradeship and patriotism of working in factories.  So for the first time Frances had to take on all the cooking and cleaning.  They were almost self-sufficient, growing fruit and vegetables, producing their own honey and slaughtering their two pigs. When Ralph’s application to be registered as a CO was finally accepted on appeal, he stated that he ‘felt he was more use to the community producing and distributing food in the remote part of Wiltshire where he lived’. This is what he did. A young friend stationed in Cairo reported that Ham Spray was considered ‘the only civilised house in England.’ It was also well-informed, thanks to a network of friends in high places. Saxon Sydney-Turner and JM Keynes – those economists at the heart of the Bloomsbury set – were working for the Treasury and the Bank of England (and as government financial and monetary advisor) respectively. Bunny Garnett was working for the air ministry, while Roy Harrod was on the Economic Advisory Committee – part of Churchill’s S-branch – which, Frances writes gloomily, ‘controls our food and fates.’

In March 1943 a ‘Major in the Guards’ turned up at Ham Spray to ask if there was anywhere his men could stay for a night or two while on manoeuvres. Ralph and Frances offered them the nursery to sleep in and the music room as an office.  The men turned up and took possession of the rooms in the dead of night, then, after two days of tapping typewriters and despatch riders, they left again as swiftly as they had appeared. Frances grew almost fond of them but nevertheless thought ‘their activities seem as mad and meaningless as those of ants in an anthill.’

Ralph’s formal recognition as a conscientious objector in 1943 made their pacifism much more widely known, and Frances found herself aware of local disapproval.  One ‘Queen among the gentry’ declared to a friend “I’m going to have nothing more to do with them myself… I’m going to boycott them absolutely.” But even those friends who did support the war found themselves caught up in the paranoia and xenophobia that it had bred. Gerald, a member of the Home Guard, was caught using a flashlight at night and accused of signalling to the enemy. Raymond Mortimer and Eardley Knollys, who was working for the National Trust, recounted how, while photographing a building in Bristol for the Trust, they were reported to the police by a woman describing them as “an obvious Italian with a blond German-looking man”.

Frances’ diary speeds up during the final years of the war as she finds herself busier than ever domestically and with less time to devote to writing – but this pace also lends momentum to the events.  From March 1944 they are expecting the launch of the ‘Second Front’ at any minute; when it is finally announced in early June Frances writes: ‘[this] is what we have expected and waited for with such a horrible mixture of dread and longing, for months.’ The initial anxiety and hope with which they listened to news of progress in France was overtaken in the following few days by a danger closer to home – the pilotless flying bombs known as ‘doodlebugs’. Frances is struck by the differing reactions of everyone she speaks to, from horror to humour, and even flippancy – “and then I looked up and there was another chap coming along…” One consequence was a fresh influx of evacuees from London, with whom the Partridges discussed what should be done with the Germans after the war and what peace would be like. At the end of 1944 Frances quotes one of her guests, the Russian artist Boris Anrep: “so low is our moral disintegration in this sixth year of the war that I hardly can get up from my bed in the morning… Somehow I float in idle contemplation of the world, waiting, waiting…”

In April, as blackout restrictions are lifted, ‘the pressure has let off, the prison bars are being raised, but we don’t know how to get used to freedom’. Hitler’s death is reported on the wireless on 1st May 1945, then ‘waiting, waiting for the end’ – which, when it comes, is a damp squib: a neighbour calls to say “it’s just come through – tomorrow will be V-day. Churchill will announce the end of the war in Europe at 3pm. It’s all very flat… we’ve just been drinking a little weak gin.” But at least the announcement did bring a sense of peace, a relief from the relentless tension. And on that strangely quiet but momentous evening, Frances ‘thought of the night nearly six years ago when the war began and how I had [looked up at the stars], wondering what was in store for us all, and gazed on by those same impersonal eyes.’

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