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Project X

As described in the previous chapter, The London, Midland & Scottish Railway (LMS), through its subsidiary company, Lineside Estates, had acquired The Grove for use as its headquarters in the event of war. Large undertakings in towns and cities were actively seeking alternative accommodation for their staff at the request of the Government. With this in mind the LMS felt it would be wise to evacuate their London based headquarters organisation. For security purposes any purchase had to be kept 'Top Secret'.

LMS as in 1945
LMS as in 1945 - Click for larger image

An interesting letter was sent by Mr Beebee to Mr Grant-Ross, of The British Rail Property Board. Mr Beebee served at The Grove from 1939 until 1948, and much of this chapter is taken from notes supplied by him. The book 'LMS At War' published by the LMS refers to the story as follows;

"One of the biggest and speediest moves was accomplished by the LMS itself, when it transferred its headquarters out of London. Following Italy's invasion of Albania, during the Easter week-end of 1939, the company took over a large vacant country home in Hertfordshire. This was made ready as offices, and a number of huts built in the surrounding park. On Friday September 1st, it was decided to move in, and the transfer was completed before war was declared on the Sunday at 11 a.m. In a few hours Euston had temporarily ceased to be the headquarters of the company, and on the Monday, 3,000 of the staff were at work in their new establishment".

According to Mr. Beebee, things were not quite so organised as the official history would have us believe! For many, their first contact with 'PROJECT X' came on the Friday, when the staff were given personal printed notices, which read something on the following lines;



On Monday, you should make your own way to Watford Junction Station, where transport will be provided to convey you to 'X'. You should bring with you food for the day and an unbreakable drinking vessel, together with your gas mask. On arrival at 'X', you should proceed to Hutment No —, which has been allocated to your department.


Site preparation
Site preparation (Imperial War Museum)

The Grove has in its archives a copy of a film from the Imperial War Museum. This clearly shows what The Grove was like during the wartime occupation, with the temporary huts being constructed, and the camouflage being applied. Some forty years later, a few of the huts remain, as part of the Management and Civil Engineers Training Centres. Internally, much has been done to them, but the exteriors remain much the same as they appear in the film. According to Mr Beebee, "not enough huts had been completed by the time the staff arrived, and a large percentage of them (who were quite happy with the arrangement!), went on a three day week".

Hut construction
Hut construction (Imperial War Museum)

Many of the staff on evacuation questioned how they would be able to cope with their new accommodation. They suddenly found themselves miles from anywhere, with no shops, nowhere to eat, and a mile from the nearest public house! There were however, six or so coke boilers in each hut, and these were soon utilised for tea making and for cooking snacks. The stoves were usually lit by the 'early turn'. Although the company provided the coke, kindling had to be collected by the occupants of the hut. There was always plenty of wood lying around as branches were always falling from trees, with or without persuasion!

Constructing a brick built outbuilding
Constructing a brick built outbuilding (Imperial War Museum)

As time went on a very large building was constructed to serve as a staff canteen. A small section of this was reserved as a 'junior mess'. The canteen was run by Mr Jack Hilton, who had run the Euston canteen in peacetime. This resulted in the new canteen building being known as 'Hiltons Hash Foundry'. The canteen had to make do with the best available ingredients, and a whole range of non meat dishes was served. The most famous of these was 'Grove Pie'. This consisted of a mixture of rare vegetables of unknown origin, but nevertheless most filling.

Applying camouflage
Applying camouflage (Imperial War Museum)

For safety reasons the huts were well spread around the estate. To reach many of them meant crossing grassland. During the first winter this rapidly turned into a sea of mud, and the LMS found itself having to issue staff with Wellington boots at low cost. As time progressed concrete paths were installed. Staff also cultivated the ground around the huts, and an annual flower show was held. Allotments, using land adjoining the canal, were let to staff at one shilling (5p) per pole. Allotment tenants, were given special permits so that they could enter and leave the grounds outside office hours. At the request of the Ministry Of Food staff collected horse chestnuts each autumn for animal feeding purposes. The walled garden became a vegetable garden, and the greenhouses used for growing tomatoes. The produce was then sold to staff by members of the Estate's Department.

Mixed cricket in the lunchtime break
Mixed cricket in the lunchtime break (Imperial War Museum)

One of the stables, at the rear of the house, was converted into a gentlemans barbers and ladies hairdressers. These were full time establishments, staffed by professional hairdressers from London. Another facility provided was a large General Store, staffed by members of the Euston Co-operative Society. One of the staff was a Miss Bat, who rented a farm cottage on the estate, which bore a printed nameplate 'THE BELFRY'. In the Summer, 'mixed cricket' was played regularly, and is well featured on the Archive film. Leslie Beebee, however, refers to Winter sports in his notes. "Ice skating took place on the lake (now filled in), which became frozen for some fourteen days". Another story concerns boating on the lake and relates to a surveyor named Joe, who decided to find out how deep the lake was. He set out in an ancient punt with rods and chains, and on reaching the middle, promptly lost the punt pole! At this point the crowd of onlookers all vanished, leaving Joe to shout for assistance. Eventually, he was rescued by one of the resident firemen. Joe was by then most unhappy, especially as it had been raining for a good hour.

The canteen, Stable block behind
The canteen, Stable block behind (Imperial War Museum)

A unit of the Local Defence Volunteers (LDV), was formed, eventually becoming the Home Guard. This was quite a large contingent, its main function being the protection of The Grove, and dealing with anyone or anything which might fallout of the sky. The Grove, surrounding roads, and railway installations in the Watford area, were patrolled from dusk to dawn. The wooded oval hole on the Mill House side of the house, was infested by some rather large rats. This area was converted into a .22 rifle range, which considerably reduced the rat population. According to Mr. Beebee, this was more likely caused by fright, than as a result of accurate shooting! The Home Guard was likewise, instructed to reduce the number of crows in the locality. After much preparation a grand shoot was arranged. The Commanding Officer, dressed in Wellington boots, denim trousers and jacket, ARP tin hat and carrying an extending naval telescope (there was no uniform at the time, and little equipment), fired the first shot. Immediately, 1,000 or so crows, took to the air and departed for the next parish. Within an hour they were back, and so no further action was taken!

Wartime life at The Grove
Wartime life at The Grove (Imperial War Museum)

Another of the stable buildings was converted into a Guard Room and dormitory block for the Home Guard. After Dunkirk, when an invasion seemed most likely, the Home Guard patrolled with loaded rifles. The safety catch was left on, and one round was left in the barrel. Early one morning, a guard returning from duty laid his rifle rather heavily on the Guard Room table. The safety catch slipped, a mighty bang followed and a .303 bullet disappeared through the wall. Within seconds there was an uproar from the bedroom on the other side, where one of the HQ messengers had been asleep. He emerged from the room most annoyed, and had more than a few words to say on the subject!

Walking to work
Walking to work (Imperial War Museum)

As time progressed the War Agricultural Executive Committee commandeered the estate to grow wheat and other crops. The Women's Land Army moved in to assist. Several members of the Estate Department were sent on a concentrated farming course at Oaklands Agricultural College, St Albans. On returning they were appointed farm managers. After some time the Womens Land Army was withdrawn, and its place taken by German and Italian prisoners of war. They were good workers, caused no trouble and got on well with the staff. They were always willing to pass the time of day to all who spoke to them. Haymaking was another event with which most of the railway staff assisted.

Air raid practice
Air raid practice (note LMS issue Wellingtons) (Imperial War Museum)

Concrete underground air raid shelters were built. The archive film shows the staff leaving and entering them, as well as their construction. Some shelters have recently been demolished, but others remain. It is known that bombs were dropped on the estate but little, if any, damage was caused.

As wartime HQ of the LMS The Grove required good communications with the rest of the system. The Railway Executive had its own wartime HQ in Down Street Underground Station, and had total control of the four mainline railway companies (LMS, Great Western, Southern and London & North Eastern Railway), together with the London Transport system. An efficient telegraph office was installed, with direct lines to Down Street, main railway locations and various ministries. Lord Stamp, President and Chairman of the LMS, had his office in the room above the sun lounge. He was, unfortunately, killed in 1941 when his own home was hit during enemy action.

Gerald Hyde Villiers, cousin of the 6th Earl of Clarendon, recalled in an article 'Glories Of The Grove', published in 'The Twelfth Issue Of The Saturday Book', that "in the Spring of 1942, my sister, the late Mrs Graham, had occasion to go to Watford. She suggested that I should take the afternoon off and accompany her. The intention was that, when she had finished her business, we would go to The Grove. The stucco lodges on the London Road looked unchanged. The park looked likewise, except that there were no deer browsing under the trees. The drive sloped as steeply as before, down to the little hump backed bridges over the river and the canal (only the latter remains), leading up to the red brick house. We entered through an open French window into what was once a library. Office chairs and office desks, empty bookshelves, peeling paint, general squalor and dilapidation met our eyes. We found it inexpressingly painful and wished we had not ventured near. We stayed a few minutes, and left in silence. There were tears in our eyes".

Signs of the times
Signs of the times (Imperial War Museum)

The Grove was certainly different from what it had been, but times had changed and the days of austerity were with us. There was no time to look after buildings, or maintain them.

The debt the country owed to its railways was tremendous. They moved vital supplies under great pressure, and under constant attack from enemy aircraft. The greatest honours went to the staff. The LMS had 250,000 staff at the outbreak of war. They worked long hours in order to serve their country, but it is (according to "LMS at War") "not as individuals that the staff will wish to be remembered. Rather it is as a team - a team gigantic in its conception and in its manifold interests, but for all that essentially single minded in its purpose - to see that the 'lines behind the lines' were loyally served as served they were. That is the story of the LMS at war!"

The Grove December 1941

The Grove December 1941


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