Home   News   Article

Subscribe Now

Second World War evacuee revisits Highclere Castle more than 80 years later





A Second World War evacuee has revisited Highclere Castle, more than 80 years after she stayed there.

Gwen Otey, now 86, flew over from her home in Virginia and met with Lady Carnarvon to relive some of her memories of her stay at the castle.

In September 1940, four-year-old Gwen Thompson was sent to North Hampshire from London to escape the bombs.

She was a pupil at Curzon Crescent Nursery School in Willesden at the time and both Lady Carnarvon and Hampshire county council archivist David Rymill confirmed that pupils from the school had been evacuated to the castle.

Lady Carnarvon and Gwendoline Otey, who was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War
Lady Carnarvon and Gwendoline Otey, who was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War

Mrs Otey said: "My father had been widowed and had three young children to look after [she had two younger brothers] so he sent me to my grandmother in north London. I don't know where my brothers were sent."

Having arrived in North London, it wasn't long before the then Gwen Thompson found herself bound for Highclere.

Lady Carnarvon confirmed that a 'Gwen Thompson' is registered in the castle archives, but there is no record of how long she was there and Mrs Otey can not recall.

Lady Carnarvon said: "We had so many children sent here during the war it was impossible to keep records of them all and we just don't know who was here and for how long."

She also said that the children went to the Highclere School, now a private home, to give them some kind of routine.

Mrs Otey remembers walking to the school and hiding in the rhodendrons – she also remembers one of the children being hit by a bullet when they were strafed by a German fighter plane.

Some of the evacuees at Highclere Castle during the Second World War watching the Earl of Carnarvon on his horse
Some of the evacuees at Highclere Castle during the Second World War watching the Earl of Carnarvon on his horse
Gwen Otey (Thompson) during her stay at Highclere
Gwen Otey (Thompson) during her stay at Highclere

Mrs Otey said: "I do know that I was a bit of a 'wanderer' and, in order to keep tabs on me, they eventually sent me to live with a family in the castle grounds, so that I wouldn't keep disappearing – I just liked to explore a lot!"

After the war Mrs Otey's father remarried and she went to live with him and his stepmother in Swindon, along with two half brothers who came along in the succeeding years. She later met and married an American serviceman stationed at RAF Fairford.

"We moved back to the US and I lost touch with my brothers."

Lady Carnarvon and Gwendoline Otey, who was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War
Lady Carnarvon and Gwendoline Otey, who was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War

Just over 20 years ago, Mrs Otey's daughter Vanessa put an advertisement in the local paper in Wimborne where she knew many of the family lived and Mrs Otey was able to get back in touch with some of her relatives.

During a six week tour of the UK to catch up with her surviving brothers and cousins, Mrs Otey wanted to visit the place she called home as a child.

She told Lady Carnarvon that she remembered Robert Beard, the butler, and how he played Father Christmas. She also said she remembered the Christmas tree lit up with candles.

"I was given a toy iron and a toy mangle," she recalled.

Gwendoline Otey, 86, was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War
Gwendoline Otey, 86, was evacuated to Highclere Castle during the Second World War

When the German planes flew over the castle they were sent to a "dungeon", an underground cellar, and Mrs Otey said "sweeties were passed around in Mackintosh tins to stop us being frightened".

She also remembered the drone of the planes and seeing searchlights in the distance.

On other occasions, she said, she climbed up one of the towers and watched children dancing on the lawn outside. She also contracted chicken pox while she was staying at the castle and she remembers Lord Carnarvon, the sixth earl, coming to visit them in the nursery.

"I particularly remember his red coat," she said.

Lady Carnarvon also confirmed that the monkey puzzle tree, which Mrs Otey recalls sitting under to eat sandwiches with her father when he visited at weekends, is still outside the library.

Second World War evacuee Gwendoline Otey with Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle
Second World War evacuee Gwendoline Otey with Lady Carnarvon at Highclere Castle

Although she was here more than 80 years ago, Mrs Otey has many vivid memories of her time at the castle and her recent visit brought some of her adventures to life again.

Lady Carnarvon said: "It is so important to the history of the castle that we hear all these first hand accounts. There are so many things we are still discovering and Gwen's experiences have added to the story of Highclere Castle."



This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies - Learn More