Danbury Palace babies are still growing
PUBLISHED: 09:47 13 November 2008 | UPDATED: 15:35 20 February 2013
In September 2007, Essex Life told you the tale of the war-time babies born in the emergency maternity hospital at Danbury Palace. Thanks to that article more 'babies' have been reunited more than 60 years on. Nicky Adams reports
FAMILY memories are important to Marie Polley, and for Marie, learning of a new Danbury Palace baby is like meeting a completely new member of a close-knit family.
'The enthusiasm is overwhelming,' says Marie. 'People are just delighted that we are reuniting these babies who were born at Danbury Palace during the war and, thanks to the article in Essex Life, we're now able to share the memories of more of them.'
'Thanks to the article in Essex Life, we are now able to share
the memories of a fresh group of more Danbury Palace babies'
Marie's two elder sisters, Winifred and Isabel, worked at Danbury Palace during World War II, one as a Red Cross VAD nurse and the other as secretary to the owners, General and Mrs Wigan. Along with a team of nurses and domestic staff, they helped to transform Danbury Palace from a sedate red-brick country house into an emergency maternity hospital, providing vital care for expectant mothers from the bombed-out suburbs of east London and across the county of Essex.
Although she didn't work at the palace herself, Marie enjoyed hearing her sisters reminisce about their time at Danbury, the kindness of the owners and the gratitude of the mothers who gave birth there. When Winifred and Isabel died, it was no surprise that they bequeathed their wartime correspondence to Marie for safekeeping, and she immediately passed it to the Essex Record Office to make sure that Danbury Palace's important wartime role would be preserved for posterity. But, not content to let the story languish in the historical archives, Marie set about her search for vital pieces of information that would help to fill in the gaps in the tale.
'The best way to do this was to try to contact as many of the Danbury Palace mothers and babies as we could,' explains Marie. 'I managed to track down quite a few of the babies more or less straightaway and, by the time the article appeared in Essex Life last year, we had about a 100 on our register and had had four reunions.
'The article about the palace was published in September 2007 and as
a result, another 16 'babies' got in touch. It's absolutely marvellous.'
One of those 'babies' was Valerie Bunn, now of Panfield, whose mother was rushed by ambulance from her home in Harold Wood to Danbury Palace just in time. 'I was very nearly born on the way,' says Valerie. 'It was the winter of 1945 and there was thick snow. But I arrived safely
and my mum was well cared for at Danbury Palace.
She remembered it very fondly and kept a postcard and a clipping, with the words "Valerie born here" written on the top. I was very proud of it and told my friends at primary school that I was born in a palace, so I was a princess!'
Valerie's sister spotted the article in Essex Life and passed on Marie's contact details so that she could get in touch. 'I think it's wonderful that Marie has found so many "babies",' says Valerie. 'I'm only sorry that my mum's not here to be involved - she died a couple of years ago at the age of 92. She was very sharp and obviously knew all about it. She
would have loved it.'
Another was Michael Clarke, whose mother was driven all the way to Danbury from Chadwell St Mary to give birth to him because the local maternity hospital at Tilbury had been bombed. 'I was actually named Michael after the owner of the house, who my mother said was a nice man,' he says. 'She told me the palace was a lovely place and had a beautiful walled garden.'
'I told my friends at primary school that I was born
in a palace, so I was a princess'
It wasn't until seven years ago that Michael actually saw the building for himself though. 'I have always been very proud to tell people I was born there, and am very interested in the history of it. When I noticed that there was something about the palace in Essex Life last September
I bought the magazine and was amazed to find that the article was actually about the emergency maternity hospital. I got in touch
with Marie straightaway.'
Marie is still on the look-out for more Danbury Palace babies, so if you, or anyone you know, was born at this glorious Tudor mansion that took on the wartime role as a fully-functioning maternity hospital, she is waiting to hear from you.
Danbury Palace's wartime story
IN 1939, much to the surprise of its owners, General and Mrs Wigan, a coach load of expectant mothers from the East End of London arrived on the doorstep
of Danbury Palace, the Tudor mansion now known as Danbury Park in the Essex village of Danbury, outside Chelmsford.
However, the Wigans welcomed the mothers and nursing staff and after consultations with Essex County Council, arrangements were made for Danbury Palace to become an emergency maternity hospital. A matron, trained nurses and Red Cross VAD nurses, including Marie Polley's sister Winifred, were employed to help, while Dr Pirie from Great Baddow was put in charge of the mothers' medical care.
The Wigans showed extreme kindness to the mothers - their gardeners acted as porters and kitchen staff provided nutritious meals using produce from the palace gardens and milk from the Wigans' own Jersey herd. The ballroom was adapted as the main lying-in ward, still with paintings on the walls.
More than 2,000 babies were born at Danbury Palace between 1939 and 1945 and Queen Elizabeth
(the late Queen Mother) even paid a visit to Danbury Park in November 1945 to present
a layette to the 2,000th baby.
When peace was declared in 1945, Danbury Palace was decommissioned and the mothers stopped arriving. The Wigans moved out of the palace in 1946 and the house was taken over by Essex County Council for use as a Civil Defence Training Centre. In 1969 it became Mid-Essex Technical College,
then Danbury Park
Conference Centre from 1989. Most recently the park was used by Anglia Ruskin University, but the building now stands empty and ready for sale.General Wigan died in 1952 and, on the death of Mrs Wigan in 1973, Marie's sister Winifred wrote a letter to the Essex Chronicle telling of Mrs Wigan's kindness through the war years.
Winifred passed on to Marie, letters sent to the newspaper along with correspondence that had belonged to Mrs Wigan and been kept by Marie's elder sister Isabel, who had been the Wigans' secretary between 1943 and 1946. The letters are now at the Essex Record Office, with copies at Oaklands Museum.Marie's search for Danbury Palace's babies has resulted in the discovery of around 120, so far. Many are still in Essex, but some have settled in far-flung parts of the world, including the US, Canada and Australia. All have been delighted to add their names to Marie's register and many attend the regular reunions, helping to keep Danbury Palace's fascinating wartime history alive by sharing their memories
with other 'babies'.