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Castle Howard - Survival in Times of Crisis 1939 & 2020
Chris Ridgway
By Dr Chris Ridgway  //  Mon 30th March 2020
Curatorial, History, Collection
The last time Castle Howard was forced to close its doors in time of national emergency was in 1939. Within days of the outbreak of war the military had requisitioned part of the estate and visitors arriving by car were turned away at a checkpoint by the Obelisk. However Castle Howard proved unsuitable to the needs of the army who vacated the estate early in 1940 only to be replaced by new occupiers, pupils and staff from Queen Margaret’s School, evacuated from their premises in Scarborough.
Castle Howard was closed to the public for the duration of the war, as it had been during the 1914-18 conflict. The school eventually departed in 1949, at which point George Howard began to move back into the house, and gradually retrieve many of the items that had been stored away during the conflict. After a decade of institutional existence Castle Howard was coming back to life as a family home. Then in 1952 George Howard (born 100 years ago this year) made the momentous decision to open Castle Howard to the public. He was among a vanguard of owners who were taking advantage of a rise in domestic tourism driven by a keen public appetite to enjoy the built and natural heritage of Britain.

For the past sixty-eight years Castle Howard has opened it doors annually, with the season extending for longer each year, and it now includes the highly popular Christmas opening. Very occasionally the house has been temporarily closed for a special event, or for filming, and between January and March it remains shut for essential cleaning and maintenance prior to the new season. But Castle Howard has always been welcoming visitors ever since it was built in 1699: intrepid individuals in the 18th century, early railway excursionists, Queen Victoria, distinguished figures from overseas, as well as millions of everyday visitors who enjoy this place like no other. Castle Howard even remained open during the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001 when people could enjoy the expansive grounds whilst public footpaths were closed.

Analogies between the coronavirus crisis and the Second World War have been made frequently, and there are some similarities but also differences, not least of all because the threat to human health and safety is not the same as it was in 1939-45. Self-isolation presently means it is not possible to enjoy public spaces, cinemas, pubs, and restaurants in the same way as during the war. But there is a similar spirit of solidarity as people observe the new regulations, gather behind closed doors with loved ones, and keep an eye on neighbours and the elderly. People today also have one other enormous advantage over their predecessors from the war, the widespread availability of digital communication: the internet, email, social media, and skype all mean it is possible to stay in touch, to hear and see one another, to share thoughts, ideas and information; as well as supplying a vital facility for working from home. At a digital level the world has most definitely not shut down.

These technologies also mean that while it is difficult for people presently to come to Castle Howard it is not hard for Castle Howard to reach out to its many friends and supporters. No longer does anyone have to encounter a stern refusal from a uniformed guard at the Obelisk as in 1939. Castle Howard’s doors are open virtually, 24/7, to anyone in any time zone in any part of the globe.

Video imagery, stills photography, and a host of stories from Castle Howard’s long and varied history can reach any digital visitor. They can enjoy the architecture, the great treasures indoors (and close-up imaging means the tiniest details are easily visible), as well as the wide outdoors with its woodlands, lakes, walled garden, and astonishing assembly of 18th-century monuments.

In the coming weeks the Curatorial team will be delivering a series of posts and longer pieces online and through social media. We will keep in touch with you by continuing to tell you more of our fascinating history.