Prepared to do her duty  

The lady of the house, Margaret the Marchioness of Crewe, did not sit idly during the war. She worked tirelessly to help others and support refugees who were arriving in Britain. Margaret Crewe, also known affectionately as Peggy, was born in 1881. She married the Earl of Crewe in 1899, and was beautiful, intelligent and had grown up in the world of politics – her father had been the Prime Minister. She was a political hostess with many connections – having hosted King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. In the First World War, she had been the chairwoman of the Central Committee on Women’s Employment and in 1919 she became one of the first women to become a justice of the peace in London. In 1921, she became president of the Mary Macarthur Holiday Home for Working Women. In 1922, the now Marquess of Crewe became the British Ambassador to France and the family, which included her daughter Mary, moved to Paris for six years. During this time, they made connections in France, and were absorbed in the language and the culture. When they returned, the Marquess brought West Horsley Place. 

In January 1939, the Marchioness attended a showing of the film a Stolen Life which was raising money for the ‘Lord Baldwin Fund for Refugees and the Women’s Appeal Committee for German and Austrian Jewish Women and Children’. On 23 February 1939, The Guardian reported that Queen Mary was opening a Mary Macarthur holiday home for working women in Essex – the organisation which the Marchioness presided over.

Then war broke out. After hosting the evacuees and attending their Christmas party at West Horsley Place, the Marquess and Marchioness spent most of their time in their London home. From here, the Marchioness watched in June 1940 as British and French soldiers arrived from Dunkirk. The story that we tell of Dunkirk in Britain is one of success and hope. The British soldiers were home. However, the French soldiers who were evacuated from the beaches alongside them were stranded in a foreign country, as their homeland fell to the invading German forces. Seeing this, with her experience in organising committees, providing support for working women, and her six years spent in France, the Marchioness established the French in Great Britain Fund.

On 8 August 1940 an appeal was made in The Times by the Marchioness:

‘a fund is being raised with a branch in every county, for the purpose of showing practical sympathy with the many French men and women who have lately come to this country and are cut off from their own resources.’

A remarkable document in the National Archive, an appeal to American donors written by the Marchioness herself, gives us a detailed insight into the inner workings of the fund:

‘The French who found themselves in Great Britain in June, 1940, were in a plight which no one could have foreseen. Cut off from their own people, they were faced with the difficult choice between the policy of surrender urged by leaders they had trusted and the continued resistance of sworn allies in whose country they were helpless guests. They felt humiliated and it was our duty to take our part in removing their embarrassment, to aid them materially, to free those who wished to go home and to adopt those who chose to stay and help us… Without news from home, not knowing whether their wives and mothers are safe, whether an expected child has been born, whether their brothers have been drafted for work in German factories, they are thrown on the resources of a land which, however friendly it may seem, has strange customs. It means much to them to hear their own language and to relax in their own clubs.’

However, raising funds for the French cause was not easy. On 31 October 1940, a letter was sent to the Marchioness from New York explaining that ‘there is absolutely no interest in France to be found in this country and I don’t believe any appeal to help the French people who have come over to England would have any sort of success.’ One woman had ‘got up a party to get funds for the French and when it was announced received over a hundred telegrams from her personal friends abusing her for the attempt.’

As France fell, the Marchioness was also called upon to trace people in France as the country fell during the Nazi invasion. One must assume that she was calling on her contacts from the Marquess’ time as the British ambassador in Paris. One note, marked ‘LADY CREWE IMPORTANT’ in red letters, noted that ‘Lieutenant Scellieur, who is with General de Gaulle, rang up… He wondered if you could possibly know if his cousin Jacques Meillon, who with his father he says you also met in Paris, has returned to France.’

 On 23 July 1940, she received a letter stating that ‘another wounded Frenchman… asked me if it would be at all possible to have news of his wife and his little girl aged 4… The reason why he is particularly anxious to have news of them is that someone in the hospital has told home that Rennes suffered badly when the German entered it… Alphonse Ivanno is hoping that you will be successful in tracing his wife, and I told him you were doing all you could.’

As French civilians fled their homes and arrived on British soil, the Marchioness of Crewe knew that she had much work to do.

The French in Great Britain Fund

The French in Great Britain Fund, created and presided over by the Marchioness of Crewe, fundraised extensively as the war drew on and the organisation began to turn their words into actions. They had a supply depot at 2 Albert Gate which looked out over Hyde Park and the ‘great rooms which were the setting for famous receptions in Edwardian days [were] now filled with woollens, clothing, games, French books, comforts of every description’. They had supplied ‘5,721 French books, 3,533 pairs of socks, 3,310 sweaters… 84 pyjama suits, 60 dressing gowns, 62 pairs of bedroom slippers… 76 football outfits, 96 packs of playing cards, 3 billiard tables, 200 sets of assorted games, 20 gramophones, [and] 6 wireless sets’ amongst other things. French refugees also sent requests – one man was sent an accordion. 

They opened a Convalescent Home, ‘a fine house with large grounds not forty miles from London. It [had] a capacity for over fifty patients and since its opening there [had] never been an empty bed. It… [had] a staff of French doctors, French-speaking nurses, French Chef, and everything possible [was] done to provide a homelike atmosphere’. This was a place where men injured escaping from France could rest and recover.

The Queen visited one such home in Beaconsfield and noted that “I like the homely atmosphere”. This home was used by the men of the Free French Naval Forces and Merchant Service who were suffering with mental and physical disorders, such as PTSD, ‘severe wounds’ from the evacuation of Dunkirk and tuberculosis. British and French doctors worked together, and the local Girl Guides unit did the washing up at the weekends. One French patient had shell shock and a local singer visited every week to help him find his singing voice again. There was also a garden, tended to by the staff and patients, that grew food for the home.

They also established a club in London which provided accommodation for 40 members of the Free French military and navy. Here, they could also attend English lessons, lectures and entertainment provided in French. However, the club was damaged by bombing during the Blitz, and in one instance a sailor was cut by the ‘flying glass’ as a neighbouring building was demolished by a bomb. While the Marchioness admitted that the club was ‘run at a loss to the Fund’, it was the reason why General de Gaulle ‘gave his patronage to the French in Great Britain Fund’. General de Gaulle was the leader of the Free French forces. The club was also visited by his royal highness the Duke of Kent. In October 1941, The Times reported that the house was visited by Queen Elizabeth accompanied by the Marchioness. One sailor described the Queen as ‘so charming and she speaks French perfectly’.

Their second club was for French sailors where they could access ‘rest and reading rooms’ and the club served ‘about eighty lunches per day’. The third club was in Scotland for those who served on French submarines and provided ‘light meals, baths and recreation’. It was staffed by volunteers who spoke French. 

On 13 January 1941, General de Gaulle wrote to the Marchioness. He said:

‘I have received your letter of January 10, 1941, and have perused with much interest the report on the activity of the French in Great Britain Fund. I gladly take this opportunity to tell you how greatly I appreciate the important work that has already been accomplished by your committee, and beg you to be good enough to express my gratitude to all who are helping in this excellent undertaking.’

With the approval of the leader of the Free French, the French in Great Britain Fund continued their important work – but this did not come without challenges.

A look through newspapers reveals how the French in Great Britain Fund raised money to provide for the French refugees. On 19 March 1941, there was a ‘Cocktail Cabaret in aid of welfare activities of the fund, [at] the Dorchester [Hotel]’ at 5:30pm. On 14 April 1943, they were holding a ‘Reading by Famous Poets’ at the Aeolian Hall which was attended by the future Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Margaret. The Daily Sketch photographed the Marchioness of Crewe and General de Gaulle talking at a concert at the Dorchester Hotel in London, which was raising money for the Fund. It was reported that the ‘second autumn concert… was very well attended… The Marchioness of Crewe was in the hall to greet her friends’. The Queen attended the third concert which saw performances from Solomon, Leon Goossens and Gerald Moore.

On 16 December 1943, an auction was held to raise money for the French in Great Britain Fund. In total the auction raised £5174 or around £200,000 in today’s money. The sale also included items donated from the Queen such as ‘a Fabergé Parasol Handle’, a ‘jade carving’ from the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester and ‘a Louis XV Agate Box’ from the Duchess of Kent. There was also a sale of Christmas presents that raised £1623. 

In 1944, Francoise Rosay gave seven performances at the Haymarket Theatre – one of which was attended by Clementine Churchill. The matinee of ‘Perchance to Dream’ at the Hippodrome in London, featuring the entertainer Ivor Novello on 16 November 1945, raised £1506 for the Fund. 

However, there were tensions. In December 1943, The Evening Telegraph reported that £2000 raised for the French in Great Britain Fund in Scotland had only funded the English clubs and homes. Furthermore, the minutes from their meetings, chaired by their President the Marchioness of Crewe, reveal the financial pressure which the clubs and Convalescent Homes placed on the organisation. In January 1942 it was agreed by their finance committee that they could not send £1000 per year to Beaconsfield Convalescent Home. The Committee agreed that they should not attempt to manage or run any more clubs – as these were being run ‘at a loss’.

Despite these challenges, many were thankful for their work. Georges Thierry d'Argenlieu, head of the Free French Navy in Great Britain, gave the Marchioness a signed photograph of himself on 22 May 1944 as a grateful tribute from the French Navy In Great Britain. She also received Christmas cards from their Navy. 

The French in Great Britain Fund was not the only war work that the Marchioness of Crewe undertook.

In February 1940, the Anglo-French Solidarity Committee, of which the Marchioness was a member, sent 33,000 blankets to France and was seeking ‘old and new clothing for women and children’. The Guardian noted that they needed ‘blankets, clothing - especially children’s – knitted quilts, shoes, and all kinds of comforts’ as the refugees were ‘suffering considerable hardship’.

In September 1941, another committee chaired by the Marchioness held a concert at the Royal Albert Hall to ‘raise money for welfare work in the Eastern Command and London District’. At that point, £25,000 had been raised to help the soldiers based there.

To celebrate Bastille Day in 1942, it was noted in The Telegraph that the Marchioness of Crewe was organising ‘a ball for Fighting French sailors at Clapham.’

The Marchioness became a Sympathiser-Member of the France British Liaison Committee on 16 February 1944 whose aims were ‘to continue the war at the side of the British Government and of our Allies, to co-operate with General de Gaulle’s Free French Forces, to unite all French people [and] to consolidate the Entente Cordiale.’ She was also a member of the Committee of the Association of Friends of the French Volunteers. 

In the Marchioness of Crewe’s papers is an extensive report on the inner workings of the Ravensbruck concentration camp from the middle of 1944 to the start of 1945, detailing the location and conditions, the forms of discipline and punishment, and the names of the doctors and the hygiene levels within the camp. This report was sent from France to thirty-five individuals, of which the Marchioness was one. Evidently, her work for the French cause made her a significant figure, important enough to receive detailed information of Nazi Germany’s crimes against humanity.

The Marchioness of Crewe was deeply involved in the French cause in Britain and worked with numerous organisations to improve French nationals’ welfare whilst they were based here.

Her legacy 

When the Marquess of Crewe died on 20 June 1945 at 87 years old, the Marchioness was inundated with letters of condolence. These letters reveal the deep connection that both had with the French in Great Britain during the war. Letters came from the Naval Forces in Great Britain who expressed their sorrow at his death as ‘we all know what splendid work the Marquess did during his lifetime… he never spared himself in his work, and in this yourself have given us the same example, in the way in which you devoted yourself to the cause of the Free French in England.’ A telegram was sent from Commander of the French Female Auxiliaries and French resistance fighter Hélène Terré, as well as Commander Boury of the Mutal Aid to the French committee. 

This deep connection to significant French figures can also be found in the library at West Horsley Place. The Marchioness had a copy of Gilbert Renault’s books, who coordinated campaigns of French resistance under the alias Colonel Remy. He inscribed one his books for the Marchioness, who had shown him and his wife kindness during the war. He also mentions a place called “Clewborough” which was possibly a house in Camberly owned by Lady Carew Pole. Camberly was the sight of the 1st Free French training camp and the British spymaster’s headquarters, so West Horsley Place and the Marchioness of Crewe hovered on the edge of a significant area of the Home Front during the war, filled with Free French soldiers, resistance fighters, and spies. 

After the war, the Marchioness received letters from the ‘Association Nationale Des Anciennes Deportees Et Internees De La Resistance’ or ADIR. ADIR was created at the end of the war to connect and support women that had been imprisoned by Nazi Germany, and the Marchioness appears to have made donations to this organisation. One letter noted that ‘all the wonderful clothes you gave this week… arrived safely… and caused great joy – we were sorely in need of warm clothes, especially since the cold spell… after all [our deportees] sufferings. The fur coat was really wonderful – it was given to [a woman] who worked very well in the resistance, and who was admired by all her companions at Ravensbruck in Germany for her courage.’

The Marchioness’ post-war welfare work did not end there. In the years after the war, the British Emergency Council for Help to France - which had been established by the Marchioness - invited 200 French children to a holiday home in Brighton for 3 and a half months. They were aged between 8 and 14 and The Daily Telegraph noted that ‘these children have been selected from families who were bombed out during the war or whose parents were arrested by the Germans for Resistance activities’. Evidently, the Marchioness understood that the impact of the war did not end when peace was declared, and that the children who had grown up during the conflict would continue to need her support.

For her steadfast commitment to supporting French citizens during the war, in June 1946 the Marchioness of Crewe was awarded the highest French order of merit – the Royal Order of the Legion of Honour. The Marchioness of Crewe was awarded the rank of Knight (Chevalier) on 11 June 1946 and was presented with her certificate on 16 August 1949 in Paris. Other British citizens afforded the same honour include D-Day veterans, MPs, and fighters in the French Foreign Legion. 

We do not have an insight into how the Marchioness coped with all her war work, the evacuees in her home, the bombing of West Horsley Place, and the death of her husband just under three months before the war ended. But from the records that remain in West Horsley Place, we can see how her war work became her life during those years and that she worked tirelessly to help her own country’s evacuees and French refugees.