Who would have thought when the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre was reopened in the 1930s that it might one day be considered an alternative seat of national government? But that was the case. Recently discovered documents in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust's Archive, compiled by retired archivist Mairi Macdonald about twenty years ago, give an insight of early-1939 preparations to move the Houses of Parliament to Stratford-upon-Avon should London suffer bombing by Germany in the (expected) forthcoming war. The theatre would become the debating chambers for the two Houses: the Commons making use of the auditorium, and the Lords the Conference Hall.
Parliament had been moved out of London before, notably during the 1665 plague when Charles II removed to Oxford, but the population knew about this at the time. No one was going to be allowed to know about such a change in 1939 if the parliamentary officers and senior civil servants had their ways: due to secrecy Stratford-upon-Avon became known, to the small circle of those involved in planning, as ‘H.K.’ (Perhaps the Germans, if discovering the ruse, were anticipated to think the government was decamping to Hong Kong!)
Having an alternative parliamentary location is one thing, housing the MPs and Lords and the much large numbers of staff (‘…the Press, Doorkeepers, Reporters, Minute Room and Printed paper Office [personnel]’ et al), and (literally) tons of equipment, documents, and publications, quite another. Billeting and feeding arrangements had to be reconnoitred locally: hotels, guest houses, and private houses were canvassed. (The majority of documents relate to the House of Lords, but it can be assumed that the arrangement for the House of Commons was very similar.) Most ‘evacuees’ would be billeted ‘…within walking distance of the Railway Station…’; others would be accommodated in ‘… large private houses … but these houses should be reserved for special individuals as the comfort is much greater than at the hotel [sic] where the standard is low.’ The majority of billets were in the west of H.K., each accommodating between one and five persons, the hotels obviously more. All were graded – A, B and C (one described as ‘very dirty’) – and apportioned strictly by seniority. The owners of the properties would, of course, be compensated but special arrangements were made with the Falcon Hotel (one of about six hotels identified) where ‘… charges would be … at a very low rate…’.
The number of peers moving to H.K. was 58 - just 7.4% of the House’s total of 783 (including 18 peeresses, not at the time included with their males equals); but to move the entire House would have been impossible given the accommodation requirements (and considering the same commitment for the House of Commons). Administratively, a skeleton staff was earmarked: just 76 persons. It is assumed that the percentage of MPs and their staffs would have been similar. (Local lore has it that what is now the Welcombe Hotel would have housed ‘the government’.) ‘H.K.’ would have become a very different place, life would change for Stratfordians.
We know that London was devastated by German bombs, with even the House of Commons being severely damaged in 1940. And yet the plan was never put into action. Hugh Farmer of the Clerk’s Department of the Commons, recalled that they had ‘…lived with the nightmare possibility for over two years but by then the government had decided never to move’. The reason for this is probably the government’s resolve to stay put, assuredly spurred on by Churchill, to show the enemy and the population that it was unmovable.
However, a cynic could be forgiven for wondering if the plan was not an elaborate hoax. We know that Church House, in Dean’s Yard, Westminster was used successfully (albeit uncomfortably) as a parliamentary home after bomb damage.
A photocopy of an envelope sent through the post to Viscount Samuel (a member of the planning committee) at his home address carried details of the plan and was clearly marked ‘Secret – Please Forward’[!]. Although Stratford-upon-Avon was given the alias of H.K., another secret document contained further information:
‘ …[in] addition to the Falcon [Hotel] … the Shakespeare Hotel, which is just across the road …’[!].
Any German schoolboy would have known to flick through a Baedeker guide and find which town had those two named hotels in the same street. That last document, as secret as it was, is entitled ‘Billeting at H.K.’ – adjoined, in neat handwriting is ‘Stratford-on-Avon’[!]. Plans were adopted for structural alterations of the theatre to be undertaken by the Office of Works which would take ‘…at least 3 or 4 weeks to complete …’, but only after evacuation from London. What of the one month hiatus? Hmm….