Val Bourne discovers the toll that the Great War took on Waddesdon

It can’t have escaped you that it’s the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of The Great War this year.

Waddesdon, the National Trust property between Bicester and Aylesbury, has a new exhibition entitled Waddesdon at War. Among the photographs and other items is a series of letters between Miss Alice Rothschild (1847-1922) and her Head Gardener George Frederick Johnson (1875-1955) who worked at Waddesdon as man and boy between 1905 and 1954.

Alice’s letters provide a fascinating insight into how the war affected the great estates and their staff. They show a close relationship between Johnson and Miss Alice, as they discuss the progress of the war.

Johnson was obviously an intelligent man who read the broadsheets as avidly as Miss Alice. At first her letters are full of news about the impending war, with footnotes congratulating Johnson on the pears sent up to London. Gradually a discourse between the two emerges so that on November 3, 1914, Miss Alice writes “what you say is only too true, things look very black to me!”

Later in November, she writes that “I gave the article in the Daily Telegraph you mentioned to Mr Pulham’s son... I am sending you an article I have cut out of today’s Times”.

Alice is a kind employer. When Johnson’s wife gives birth to a boy, she writes “I am glad to hear that Mrs Johnson and your boy are going on well. I am enclosing a cheque to help you towards paying the expenses of the confinement”. She also writes to Johnson “Have you any toffee left? I can send you some more”, before telling him to send the next lot of asparagus to Mrs Watkin and Mrs Pearce. In another letter she suggests giving apples to the women at Waddesdon.

By February 1916, the gardening staff have been depleted by the war. “Could you engage a few men for the bothy? Neutrals or Englishmen — I do not think that young Tabard ought to sleep alone in the building, also I think I ought to allow Sawyer something whilst he is serving in the army, especially if he will return to Waddesdon if he is spared to do so.” The emphasis had already turned to growing food and on February 18, 1916, Alice writes: “You need not do any bedding out, nor use any flowers etc. Reduce work and labour as much as you can. I shall not expect any plants, or decorations or cut flowers in the house either. If you have any good flowers send them to Mrs Tuohy, but do not bother about too much packing.”

In April 1917, Miss Alice is distressed to hear of “another Waddesdon man dying at the front. I should like you to express my most heartfelt sympathy to his mother and to his widow — the war is indeed a very cruel war... perhaps you had better tell Sims to convey my sympathy to the two poor women; — that I leave to you”.”

Then in October 1917 she is “sorry to hear about poor young Brackley’s death. Please see his mother and tell her how grieved I am for her in her irreplaceable loss.”A month later two of Alice’s close family are killed, her cousins Neil Primrose and Evelyn Rothschild, and Johnson’s letter of sympathy is fully acknowledged by Miss Alice. The war took rich and poor alike.

By 1918, food dominated her letters completely. She advises Johnson “to grow as much food as possible, do not let people imagine that we waste labour on useless luxuries! Grow your tomatoes well in sight! Many people will be glad of them — grow too a good lot of potatoes and perhaps you might grow: Dutch brown beans as Gibbs has done; they make good ‘purées’... if you can send potatoes in the hampers we can do now without the sacks. You must move heaven and earth to be left at Waddesdon in charge of the kitchen garden.”

The Waddesdon at War exhibition runs until October 26. Call 01296 653226 or visit