Bylaugh Hall - Headquarters of 100 Group RAF
Text © Copyright Evelyn Simak, December 2014
Bylaugh (pronounced Beela) is small hamlet in the Breckland district of Norfolk, comprising a Saxon round-towered church, a couple of farms, cottages and lodges, and Bylaugh Hall and park. Bylaugh Hall is one of the first buildings in Europe to have been constructed with steel girders in its supporting structure, like the Victoria Tower of the Houses of Parliament designed by Sir Charles Barry, a method which eventually led to the building of skyscrapers. The hall was designed in 1848 by Sir Charles Barry Jr together with his father's former assistant, Robert Richardson Banks, for the trustees of Sir John Lombe who had died in 1817, although in 1822 the trustees had originally asked another noted architect, William Wilkins, to draw up a plan. Construction work, carried out by Messrs Piper of Bishopsgate Street (Norwich), started in 1949 and the hall was completed in 1852 at a cost of £29,389. The interior was decorated by a Mr Sang "and his German artists". (Norfolk Annals, Volume 2, page 15, dated 21 August 1852)
Bylaugh Hall is described as having fine architectural features including angled turrets, Corinthian style pillars, friezes depicting a Roman battle scene, domes and original panelling and a central tower of three storeys. Stone dragons mounted on plinths guard the entrance gate and there are many obelisks and turrets as well as ornate keystones and rustications. The grounds were designed by the landscape architect William Andrews Nesfield who also designed Kew Gardens in London. Upon completion of Bylaugh in 1852, the Norwich Mercury (newspaper) commented: "Neither Holkham nor Houghton, those Norfolk wonders, can compare with it for either appearance or comfort." In a similar vein the Norfolk Chronicle (on 7 August 1852) reported that "One of the wonders of the modern world may be seen near East Dereham, in Norfolk, in what a few years back was only a turnip field."
According to local rumour, the estate, then the third largest in Norfolk, had been acquired at some time in the 18th century by Sir John Lombe, Baronet, of Great Melton, from Sir Richard Lloyd, the then owner, as the result of a card game, when the Lloyd's butler allegedly drugged his master's wine. Sir John had made his fortune importing silk and the original Lombe's Mill in the city of Derby still exists and today houses the Derby Industrial Museum. Richard Lloyd, who lived at his wife's property at Bawdeswell Hall, was the grandson of Guy Lloyd, the chief Justice of Ireland. Related to this story is another rumour according to which Bylaugh Hall, when it was was built, had a curse put on it by the Lloyd's nursemaid to the effect that it would only stand for one hundred years. Whatever the truths involved in these tales, it is certainly the case that within one hundred years of its construction it was, as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner (a German-born British scholar of history of art) described it, "a conspicuous ruin".
Sir John died in 1817, unmarried and childless, well before his new house had been built, leaving the estate to his great nephew (according to other sources his half brother) Henry Evans, who assumed the name of Lombe on succeeding to the property. Sir John's will contained detailed instructions as to how he wished the new house (Bylaugh Hall) to be built: "And whereas it is my wish and intention that a mansion house and suitable offices fit for the residence of the owner of my estate shall be erected on some convenient spot in the parish of Bylaugh in the county of Norfolk either in my lifetime or after my death and that if I shall not erect the same in my lifetime then that my said trustees shall forthwith after my death erect the same according to such plan as I shall in my lifetime approve of or if I shall die before such plan shall be prepared and completed then according to such plan as the trustees or trustee for the time being under this my will with the consent of the person for the time being beneficially entitled to the immediate freehold of my said manors etc under this my will shall think proper to adopt adhering as closely as possible situation and other incidental circumstances being considered to the plan of the house now the residence of Robert Marsham esquire at Stratton Strawless in the said county of Norfolk." (Reports of Cases Decided in the High Court of Chancery, 30/31 July 1841, Volume 12, pp 304-316).
Instead of complying with his benefactor's wish, Henry Evans-Lombe argued with the trustees and resisted the construction of the mansion for many years - perhaps because the family already were the chief landowners in the area and as the lords of the manor of Swanton Morley and, since 1713 also of Great Melton, they certainly did not need another mansion. As a clause of the will directed "that so long as the house remained uncommenced the money should be invested and allowed to accumulate at compound interest", financial speculation might well have been another explanation for Henry's foot-dragging. Be that as it may, due to the long delay the fund had indeed increased to a considerable amount, leaving a surplus of £20,000 which in due time was claimed by the Lombes, declaring they had been deprived of the enjoyment of the house and were for this reason entitled to the fund by way of compensation, but the court ruled that the surplus must be considered as capital rather than income. (Norfolk Annals, Volume 2, pages 15 - 21 August 1852, and 65 - 4 July 1957, respectively). After the mansion had at long last been built, Henry Evans-Lombe moved in and lived at Bylaugh for the following three decades. Kelly's 1883 Directory for Cambridgeshire, Norfolk & Suffolk (on page 513) records that "Bylaugh Park is the seat of the Rev. Henry Evans-Lombe who is lord of the manor and owner of the chief part of the parish." The Reverend died at Bylaugh Park, aged 86, in October 1878. His eldest son, also called Henry, however, lived (and in 1897 died) at Melton Hall, and since his son and successor, Major Edward Henry Evans-Lombe, also appears not to have resided at Bylaugh but at Thickthorn Hall in Hethersett (South Norfolk), the estate would seem to have changed ownership after the Reverend's passing.
By the turn of the century, Bylaugh Hall was owned by William Knox D'Arcy. He was an adventurer and one of the principal founders of the oil and petrochemical industry in Persia (Iran), and in April 1909 was made a director of the newly founded Anglo-Persian Oil Company (APOC) which later became British Petroleum (BP). With a substantial fortune made in Australian mining, he and his family had moved back to England in 1889, where he had bought Stanmore Hall in Middlesex and Bylaugh Park as well as a house on Grosvenor Square. Knox D'Arcy died in May 1917. On Friday, 28 September 1917, the 8,150-acre estate was split up and initially advertised for sale by auction in 140 lots, but eventually sold whole for £120,000. The hall and the 736-acre park surrounding it were subsequently purchased by the Marsh family. Mrs Marsh, who originally came from Yorkshire, lived in the hall until 1935.
During WW2 Bylaugh Hall was used by the RAF (see below) and after its de-requisitioning in 1948 it was sold to a new owner who unsuccessfully planned to turn it into a nursing home. Sidney Abbs, a builder believed to have been associated with RG Carter & Sons, a national construction company based in Norwich, purchased it. Presumably in an attempt to avoid having to pay property tax, in June 1950 a 350-lot demolition sale was held and all the interior fittings, the fireplaces as well as the lead from the roofs were removed and sold off, leaving the building an empty shell.
As most of the RAF buildings were located out of sight they were left standing, with some being converted to agricultural use and still in place today. In a letter dated 19 January 1948, EE White, the then Assistant County Planning Officer, advised that Generally speaking, the Defence Works have been carefully sited under the trees so far as to provide natural cover and screening and therefore cause little or no interference to general amenities. The only exceptions are huts Nos 53, 54 and 55 and the siting of these in the foreground of the Hall have a disturbing effect upon the setting of the Hall when viewed from the road. Such interference could of course be classified as one of national importance, and in view of the recent instruction on the matter, it is presumed that the whole of the Defence Works must be categorised as "C". It is hoped however, that steps will be taken to remove the huts as soon as the economic situation permits. Source: Categorisation of Defence Works: Huts and installations. Reference C/P 8/1/184, Norwich Record Office. The three aforementioned buildings were the Officers' Mess, the Seargeants' dining rooms and the Institute. They were never removed and their ramshackle remains can still be seen today.
In the year 2000 the derelict house was purchased by the internationally renowned sculptor Steven Vince (he tried to build Britain's tallest sculpture off Ness Point in Suffolk to celebrate the Millennium), whose vision was to restore the hall to its former glory. He almost succeeded and for several years the Grade 2 listed building was popular as a wedding venue and a location for concerts and Latin American dance. However, the banks that helped financing the restoration work went into administration, and in the summer of 2009 the hall and its outbuildings were the subject of ongoing financial problems which eventually resulted in their complete repossession. In February 2013 Bylaugh Hall, described by property agents as "a 60 bedroom detached house" was on the market once again, and as of March 2014 has yet another owner.
Bylaugh Hall played an important part in WW2 but the first record of a military unit to have been based here dates from WW1, when the 2/1st London Mounted Brigade, formed in September 1914 as a second line for the 2/1st County of London Yeomanry (also known as the Middlesex Duke of Cambridge's Hussars), spent several months at Bylaugh Park. They arrived in March 1915, were placed under orders of the 2/2nd Mounted Division, and in October of the same year moved to Blickling Hall. Other sources mention an unnamed cavalry unit to have been stationed at Bylaugh between 1919 and 1921; there is however no documented evidence to confirm this.
There are many accounts and map references referring to defences and military features including road blocks and guard posts within Bylaugh Park and the surrounding area, all believed to date from 1940/41 when the estate was used by the 292 Company of the Royal Army Service Corps (RASC) as well as the Women's Royal Naval Service (WRNS), and as the headquarters for the 18th Division of the British Expeditionary Force. Aircrews from the nearby aerodrome at RAF Swanton Morley were accommodated at Bylaugh when the hall served as the headquarters for No. 2 Group RAF. One of the men stationed at Bylaugh in 1943 was Flight Navigator (later Air Commodore) Edward Barnes 'Daisy' Sismore who flew a number of times with Air Vice Marshal Basil Embry as his pilot.
When in December 1943 No. 2 Group RAF relinquished control over Swanton Morley aerodrome and transferred out of the area, Bylaugh Hall became the headquarters for the No. 100 (Bomber Support) Group, using the command centre for secret operations. On 18 January 1944, the commanding officer of 100 Group RAF, Air Vice Marshal Sir Edward Baker Addison and his staff, left their temporary headquarters at RAF West Raynham and moved into Bylaugh Hall. US President Dwight D Eisenhower, who commended the 100 Group for its contribution to the D-Day effort, is known to have paid a visit and was reputedly photographed outside the hall. The then Prime Minister, Winston Churchill, is believed to have visited Bylaugh on a number of occasions.
100 Group was responsible for a series of secret operations involving the development and testing of more than 32 different devices. The specially equipped aircraft of this group flew within the bomber stream, using electronic jamming devices to disrupt enemy radio communications and radar. These devices were referred to under exotic code-names such "Airborne Cigar" (involving German-speaking RAF operators who transmitted false and confusing directions to German fighter pilots), "Jostle" (radio transmissions from the bombers to drown out radio communications between German fighters and their controllers), "Mandrel" (airborne radio transmitters used to jam and swamp German ground radar), "Airborne Grocer", "Carpet", "Piperack" and "Window" (foil strips dropped from aircraft to swamp German radar with false signals). Other aircraft were fitted with so-called Homers which intercepted the German night fighters' radar and radio emissions and allowed the RAF fighters to home in onto the enemy aircraft, and shoot them down or at least disrupt their missions aimed against the allied bomber streams. 100 Group used a great number of aircraft types including fast twin-engined fighters such as the Mosquito as well as heavy four-engined bomber aircraft. The top flying ace with 100 Group was 85 Squadron's Wing Commander Branse Burbridge (85 Squadron was based at RAF Swannington). By the end of the war the group had played a huge part in reducing the effectiveness of the Luftwaffe night-fighters and ground defences. 100 Group was disbanded in December 1945 with the same commander as it has started out with (Air Vice Marshal Addison).
All of the eight aerodromes under the control of 100 Group were located in Norfolk. They were supported by the Bomber Support Development Unit (BSDU) based at RAF Swanton Morley (now Robertson Barracks) - Link.
RAF Foulsham - Link
RAF Great Massingham - Link
RAF Little Snoring - Link
RAF North Creake - Link
RAF Oulton - Link
RAF Sculthorpe - Link
RAF Swannington - Link
RAF West Raynham - Link
An article published by the Eastern Daily Press in a series titled "Hidden Norfolk", Fred Hoskins from the 18th Division, who was stationed at Bylaugh Hall in 1940, recalls: "We were the first ones to go to Bylaugh Hall at the beginning of 1940. We supplied all the provisions for the 18th Division. I have got the defence plans for Bylaugh Hall which shows the gun sites. I always tell people it was like a little Buckingham Palace. It was amazing. The hall was in good condition then. We had a canteen in the courtyard area, by the clock, and the cookhouse in the orangery. The ground floor had stone paving slabs, but the first floor had fitted blue carpet and from the first floor upwards was as it was when the forces came in." (Eastern Daily Press, February 2004. Hidden Norfolk: "Building Towards a Glorious Future")
Signaller Ron Greenslade, who was posted to Bylaugh Hall in the summer of 1944, remembers that it was not a particularly large camp. He mentions seven huts for airmen and eight huts for WAAFs (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) and recalls that perhaps about 150 airmen and women were based at the camp ("100 Group Bomber Support" by Martin Bowman). An aerial view taken by the RAF in 1946 however shows that the number of huts was in fact considerably higher, which is indeed confirmed by the official site plan. Clearly, Ron Greenslade was mistaken.
Nellie Kendall, who served in the WAAF (Women's Auxiliary Air Force) recalls that the accommodation huts were quite large and each new cohort seemed to have secured an area or corner where girls from similar parts of the country were grouped together. (Women of the Airforce, 2009; Comments and Stories, RAF Museum).
Peggy Pollard, who worked as a shorthand typist for Group Captain Porte, remembers that the WAAF site was a group of Nissen huts sheltered by tall fir trees, located about half a mile (actually only about 300 metres) away from the hall. She describes Bylaugh Hall as very isolated, with the nearest pub and village shop being in the small village of Bawdeswell, about three kilometres further to the north-east and involving a bicycle ride through Bylaugh Wood. She also recalls that the camp had no fenced-off boundaries and had several unofficial exits. A nearby farm supplied milk and eggs, and during harvest time many men and women from the camp helped out on local farms, as most farm labourers had been called up. During one winter the hut toilets and water in the wash house froze up and a third pair of shoes had to be issued to them because their own two issue pairs were ruined by snow. As there were no servicing facilities on the camp, repairs were carried out at RAF Foulsham. Every Tuesday night was designated "Domestic Night" and all WAAFs were confined to camp, spending the evening doing domestic chores such as cleaning their huts and mending their clothing. This restriction was much resented by the women, as no such ruling applied to the airmen. (Excerpts of a letter published in "Confound and Destroy", Spring 2012)
The Headquarter and Administrative offices were housed in the Hall, as were the Armoury, the SAA and Inflammables and other Stores and the Gas Defence Centre. There were also rooms for medical inspections. In the surrounding grounds there were a substantial number of temporary buildings, ranging from Nissen and Asbestos huts to single storey brick buildings and air raid and blast shelters. The total number of structures on the site, the majority of which were added when 100 Group RAF moved in, is recorded to have been more than one hundred and about half of these are still standing. A concreted road connected the camps with each other and also with the headquarters in the hall. The air raid shelters have long since been filled in but a number of brick-built blast shelters survive in good condition. Due to the greater durability of their (asbestos) roofs the accommodation huts, all of them so-called Asbestos huts, fared a lot better than the camp's communal buildings which were of Nissen-hut type. Asbestos huts look similar to Nissen huts but had a flatter curve and used prefabricated concrete foundation walls. Unlike Nissen huts they did not have sides of corrugated sheeting but of corrugated asbestos and they did not need a frame as they were self supporting. Asbestos huts were first introduced in 1942 and manufactured by Turners Asbestos Co Ltd of Trafford Park, Manchester.
The huts were clustered together and situated around the periphery of the main hall buildings, frequently concealed under trees in order to shelter the headquarters and its associated campsites from aerial attack and to hide the location from enemy reconnaissance, although one of the hutted camps depicted in an aerial view dating from 1946 was situated at Limelee Heights, an open area relatively close to the minor road skirting the park in the south. This was the WAAF campsite. Today, the garden surrounding Lime Lee House occupies most of the wartime campsite which consisted of approximately fifteen Nissen-type and brick-built structures. Four blast shelters can also be discerned.
The Officers' and Airmen's dispersed site was spread out along the northern and north-eastern edge of a wooded area adjacent to the Hall, with the Nissen-type huts representing the main communally used buildings. On the Communal site, two pairs of large Nissen huts aligned parallel to each other and interconnected, the other one aligned at right angles, stand side by side; a third, with a water tower/boiler room at one end, is located nearby. These were the Officers' mess and the Airmen's dining rooms. In the Airmen's dining hall the duty cook's small rest room with its own toilet can be identified, thanks to the original door still being in situ - anyone on late duty or a late arrival or visitor was able to get a meal here at any time, day or night. After the war, the walls were opened up at one end to make the structures more easily accessible for farm machinery which used to be stored here, leaving them open to the elements, and the corrugated iron sheeting forming the roofs and sides is now much deteriorated, with the ribs of the supporting frames exposed.
The brick-built blast shelters on this camp, some covered by pitched roofs and with sides constructed from wooden boards and seemingly used to house pigs, almost certainly after the war, are in good condition although overgrown. According to the official plan, each of the camp sites was equipped with four blast shelters. A small brick-built Standby set house (for housing the emergency generator) can also be found in the vicinity and a row of derelict car garages has survived opposite what would seem to be a modern bungalow, which is situated just east of building #61, the Ration Store, of which no trace remains. The former Officers' baths and ablutions block (building #101) located near the Officers' quarters has however survived and is now also a private dwelling. A short distance further along the road the concrete basin of the emergency water supply is also still in place.
A great number of the Officers' and Airmen's accommodation huts, interspersed by latrines and blast shelters, have survived. The airmen were housed in groups of ten or twelve men in open-plan huts with a small coal stove at its centre. Lucky the airman who had a bed near this stove. The officers each had a room of their own and were thus able to enjoy a little more privacy and also a little more warmth during the winter months. Four officers shared one hut, partitioned into four small rooms and heated with coal and wood-fired stoves. Many of the huts occupied by officers are still surrounded by a low cast iron fence; it would seem that the officers enjoyed their own miniature front gardens. All of the accommodation huts are Asbestos huts.
A group of three large interconnected Nissen-type huts with black painted corrugated iron roofs and large windows along each side adjoins the officers' and airmen's hutted camp. This complex of buildings housed the Grocery and Local Produce store (building #57) and the Social Club, where personnel would go to relax in front of an open fire when off duty. Snacks and drinks could be purchased over the counter in a tiny shop or snack bar housed in one of the interconnecting sections between two of the buildings aligned parallel to each other. The end walls of these buildings were left intact after the war and the structures are for this reason in a relatively better condition than the camp's dining halls, although seven decades of disuse have naturally taken their toll in that the windows have fallen out and large sections of corrugated sheeting are missing. This complex was adjoined by the Commanding Officer's living quarters (building #51) which has since been converted into a private dwelling. The WAAF officers' quarters and ablution block (buildings #62 and 63) were located on a small plot of their own a short distance further to the south-west.
Another small group of huts as well as the Sergeants' and Officers' showers and ablutions block (building #104) with its own water tower/boiler house at one end are still standing immediately to the west of the hall in an area which during the war was wooded but has since been cleared of most of the trees. Eight adjoining buildings, Asbestos huts and others built of brick, barrack huts and latrines, have survived here. Some of these buildings date from the time when the 292 Company of the RASC had occupied the site. The Signals block (building #2) stood on the other side of the road and has been demolished. Nearby, beside the track leading north to Bylaugh Wood and onwards to the village of Bawdeswell, there stands an ivy-clad brick building which would seem to have been a picket post.
The old electricity substation serving the headquarters has survived hidden amongst trees. The building still contains the original switching gear and a bank of fuses, all quite rusty after nearly seven decades of redundancy.
Norfolk Heritage mentions a small group of buildings to have stood a short distance further to the north near the camp's high level Braithwaite water tower which would seem to be the only structure to have survived at this location. Norfolk Heritage recorders also mention the existence of a square tower located to the north of the hall. What purpose it served has as yet to be established but some sources think it might have been used as an observation post. There would not seem to be any trace left of this mysterious structure.
Several sources mention the existence of an airstrip located not quite one kilometre distant from Bylaugh Hall. The landing strip is believed to have been used for communication duties by officers based at Bylaugh. Aircraft types documented to have been used were Tiger Moths, Magisters, Taylorcraft Auster III (British military liaison and observation aircraft) and Avro Tutors. Mr John Stubbington, the chairman of the 100 Group Association, has confirmed that there was indeed a landing strip. Its exact location is however no longer known. (Source: Richard Flagg, Airfield Information Exchange)
Please note that the Hall and the old RAF camps in its vicinity are located on private land and should be visited only by the respective owners' permission.
Update (June 2016): The current owners of Bylaugh Hall are at present converting the 74-bedroom, 73-bathroom mansion into a training centre for household staff, including butlers, bodyguards, chauffeurs and chalet girls.