18-27 April 1940
Two doctors were already at the castle; a third, Lord Dawson, Physician to King George VI, was expected. It was mid-morning on Thursday 18 April 1940 and they were gathered at the entrance to a suite of rooms. The door leading into them was made of polished steel; the colour of gunmetal, it was the type used to secure a walk-in safe.
The door was firmly closed.
The light from the dim bulbs along the windowless passage cast pools of inky shadows around the waiting figures. Piles of cardboard boxes were stacked against the bare stone walls. Marked ‘Secret - Property of His Majesty's Government', they were secured with steel binding.
The doctors - Dr Jauch, a GP from Grantham, and Mr Macpherson, an eminent chest specialist - had been in and out of the rooms since dawn.
Shortly before eleven o'clock, the first footman, dressed in an azure tailcoat and navy-blue breeches, escorted Lord Dawson across the Guard Room. A coldly sumptuous hall, it was the first point of entry to the 356-room castle. Rows of muskets, taller than a man, and hundreds of swords, their blades sharp-edged and glinting, lined its walls. From the vaulted roof hung the tattered remnants of regimental colours, captured in battle. Directly in front of them, a magnificent staircase swept to the state rooms on the upper floors; and yet, as the footman led the King's doctor across the hall, he veered to the right, heading for its farthest corner. There, he ushered him through a discreet swing door. It marked the border between master and servant. They had stepped into the ‘invisible world'.
Behind the Guard Room, the entire ground floor was devoted to the smooth running of the Duke's household. A gloomy hinterland of fifty rooms, some cavernous, some no larger than a priest's hole, it was where the servants lived and worked. From here, a network of passages coursed through the castle: hidden routes, which spiralled up the narrow turrets and towers to the splendid rooms above, enabling the servants to carry out their duties unobserved.
It was through this labyrinth of passages, deep in the servants' quarters, that the footman conducted Lord Dawson, arriving at the steel door where the other doctors stood waiting.
They were at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Built in the Gothic style and situated on a ridge eight miles from Grantham, it belonged to John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland. Aged fifty-three, he was one of the richest men in Britain. Three years earlier, he had carried the Sovereign's Sceptre at the coronation. His family had lived at Belvoir since the eleventh century. Looking south from the castle's Flag Tower, he owned the land as far as the eye could see.
Earlier that morning, the Duke's wife, Kakoo, had telephoned Lord Dawson. Her husband was desperately ill. He must come to the castle immediately.
Up in the Flag Tower, the clock struck eleven. Ten minutes had passed since Lord Dawson's arrival, but he had yet to be admitted to see the Duke. The sounds of distant industry drifted along the passageway: shouted orders; the banging of tools; the clatter of footsteps approaching on bare stone.
The sight of the King's doctor in the passage immediately caught the servants' attention.
‘If there was something serious going on, the housekeeper and the butler would try and keep it quiet,' George Waudby, the third footman, recalled. ‘They might talk together, but they'd be tight-lipped in front of us lower ranks. We were their inferiors. We were the lowest of the low. We were never told anything. Everything we knew depended on what we saw or overheard.'
‘We all talked. We weren't meant to, but we did,' said Dorothy Plowright, the daughter of the boiler stoker. ‘Every rank had its gossip: the upstairs maids, the kitchen staff, the footmen, they all had their grapevines.'
Until that morning, the servants' grapevine had had nothing to report. They had seen and heard very little. ‘We knew the Duke was unwell. He had been ill for a week. But we didn't realize it was serious,' said George Waudby. ‘We rarely saw the Duke. He spent all his time in his rooms. Every day, all day, he was in there. That had been the case for months. We knew this because they were in our quarters. Of course we had no idea what went on in there. Those rooms were absolutely secret. But we were told it was where the Duke worked. Nothing struck us as unusual. His routine hadn't changed. He had carried on working as normal.'
The servants had had no reason to believe the Duke's illness was life-threatening. Only two days previously, after spending the night at Belvoir, Lord Dawson had returned to London, satisfied that the
Duke was on the mend. Before leaving the castle, he had issued a short statement to the press:
The Duke of Rutland is suffering from pneumonia at his home, Belvoir Castle, and is now stated to be making satisfactory progress. The Duke, who is 53 and succeeded his father in 1925, was taken ill during last weekend.
That morning, however, the servants had reason to suspect that the Duke's condition had deteriorated. Shortly after breakfast, three mysterious-looking packages were delivered to the castle. From that moment, they were on tenterhooks.
The porter was on duty when the packages arrived at the lodge. Marked ‘Urgent', they were addressed to Mr Speed, the Duke's valet. Two of the boxes were long and bulky; one was very heavy. The labels gave away their contents; they had come from Bartlett's of Jermyn Street, Suppliers of Oxygen Tents.
The castle's odd-job men were summoned to take the packages to the entrance of the Duke's room, where Mr Speed was in attendance. ‘Besides the butler and the housekeeper, Mr Speed was the only ser- vant the Duke allowed in his rooms,' George Waudby remembered. ‘The rest of us were forbidden to go in there.'