Southwick Walk and Museum Visit

Tuesday 18 June 2019

The words have entered the oft-repeated history of World War II: “OK, let’s go!” But standing in the very room in Southwick House where they were said by General Dwight D Eisenhower on 5 June 1944 was a thrilling experience. It was even more significant because the 24 members of HAT who were lucky enough to go on the visit had just been given a masterly talk on D-Day by Richard Callagahan, Curator of the Royal Military Police Museum, which is nearby.  To set the scene, he reminded the group that they were visiting on 18 June, an anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo.

Most people in the room had a passing knowledge of the planning and execution of D-Day and its enormous significance in defeating the Nazis, but Richard exposed some myths and also provided some new information that had only just emerged. Southwick House was, of course, extremely important in Operation Overlord, but the invasion was not planned, nor was it controlled from Southwick. And the huge operations map that covers one wall had not, as thought, been made by the toy maker Chad Valley, but by the International Model Aircraft Company, better known for the trademarks Dinky, Meccano and Triang.

A key factor in the success of D-Day was the weather forecasting of Group Captain James Stagg, who correctly forecast a lull in the weather that enabled the invasion to proceed. Members looked in awe at his surface pressure charts, which adorned the wall. Ingenious deceptions of all kinds were essential for security and even the carpenter who had fixed the Ops Map to the wall at Southwick had to be kept under house arrest for several months as he knew where the landings were to take place!

Southwick House is not only unusual for its military associations; it is virtually the only property in the village of Southwick not owned by the Thistlethwayte family. Guide Andrew Negus, who took the group on a tour, explained that, with the exception of the vicarage, every house owned by the family has a maroon door!  It is an ownership that has endured from the dissolution of Southwick Priory in 1538, with descent through the male line of the families Whyte, Norton, and Thistlethwayte.  He showed the surviving north wall of the priory; to its south a grand mansion was built by John Whyte, but it burnt down in 1750 and a successor was built elsewhere on the current site of Southwick House – it too burnt down in 1838 and the present house followed it. Also extant are the remains of the fish ponds of the priory and a large 18th century ornamental lake, with waters that eventually drain into the river Wallington and Fareham Creek. 

The church is a peculiar with the owners of Southwick House holding the advowson. It is obviously an estate church, with sumptuous squire’s pews, John Whyte’s huge tomb and a wall of family memorials of men who mostly served the Empire and their wives. In 1628 Charles I was staying at Southwick House and worshipping in the church when he received news that his close friend, George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, had been stabbed to death in Portsmouth by a soldier with a grudge. One of the owners, “Idle” Dick Norton (1615-1691) was an associate of Oliver Cromwell and an influential figure both nationally and in the county (but the claim that he was a regicide seems wrong; it is not mentioned in the ODNB). Outside the east end of the church is the tombstone of William Lewis, allegedly a local poacher who was banned from the village, but in death came back. On the stone is a verse with the words: “Here’s Lewis the brave/That ne’er was a Slave…”

Despite the sort of weather that might have led to the cancellation of a D-Day, the group had had a rewarding and fascinating day in a unique setting.