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By the time the soldiers came, the villagers had gone. They had moved, under a blanket of secrecy, to new homes while they waited for the war to end and the troops to leave; while they waited patiently to return to whatever was left of their homes. But they never went back, not one of them. Their homes are still there, though; inevitably ravaged by the military and the passing years.
This is the story of Tyneham, an ancient community in a seemingly idyllic valley on the Isle of Purbeck, on England’s south coast. Like many places hereabouts, it had been lived in and worked on for a very long time. The nearby Iron Age hillfort of Flower’s Barrow was one of those stormed by Vespasian’s disciplined warriors as they swept west in around 43AD. Saxon invaders settled and farmed the area, the Conqueror’s Domesday surveyors came and scratched in their ledgers; and the medieval manor rose to dominate local life. Tyneham House, at the centre of the manorial estate, was finished in 1583. In 1683, it was bought by a wealthy lawyer, Nathaniel Bond, who became Member of Parliament for nearby Corfe Castle. The Bond family were still there as the 20th century dawned. Most of the villagers worked for the family, most on the land; some were independent fishermen out of nearby Worbarrow Bay, where there was also a coastguard station. Tyneham had a schoolmaster, a vicar, a postmaster. It was a fairly typical rural village; hard work was compulsory, but it was a close-knit community where the cycle of life went on, as it had for generations. And, like many communities, they thought it would never end.
1943 was Britain’s fourth year at war. The tide had turned, the Allies had a foothold in Italy and preparations were underway for launching the long-awaited ‘Second Front’, the liberation of occupied Western Europe. By the spring of 1944, Britain – and southern England in particular – would become an enormous armed camp. Meanwhile, the military planners needed more and more places to train thousands and thousands of men, including appropriate coastal areas. Purbeck already had an established military presence. There had been a gunnery school at Lulworth since the Great War and nearby Bovington was (and still is) the home of the tank. So the War Cabinet took the decision to evacuate the entire Tyneham valley for the duration, to be used as a realistic battle training ground for British and US troops. Notices dated 16th November 1943 were given to all 225 inhabitants to leave their homes ‘in the National Interest’ by 19th December. Help with resettlement would be provided. The Government appreciated that this was no small sacrifice, but was sure that people would give this help towards winning the war with a good heart. And, when it was all over, of course they could all come back.
In little more than a month, a community that had lasted the best part of two thousand years ceased to exist. Hurriedly, livestock and possessions were sold. Evelyn Bond, from the Big House, who had received news that her son was a prisoner of war on the same day as the eviction notice, helped the villagers find places to live in Wareham, Corfe – or wherever. The story goes that she was the last to leave and, famously, pinned a note to the church door before she went:
“Please treat the church and houses with care. We have given up our homes where many of us have lived for generations, to help win the war to keep men free. We shall return one day and thank you for treating the village kindly.”
As we know, the villagers did not return; they were not allowed to. Some requisitioned land was given up by the Army after the war, but not Tyneham. The unravelling Cold War created a whole new set of circumstances; the country still needed to train men to fight. The local MP protested. There was an enquiry, which in 1948 decided that it was in the National Interest for the army to retain the land, which should accordingly be compulsorily purchased. Most of the land was owned by the Bond family, who allegedly received £30,000 for it. But tenants had nothing to sell; it is said that the only compensation villagers generally received for giving up their homes was the price of the produce from their gardens.
The debate about Tyneham, and public access to the surrounding countryside and nearby coast, rumbled on through the 50s, 60s and 70s. Tyneham House was declared unsafe and dismantled. An action group was set up – though people had different aims. One villager, war veteran John Gould, wrote to the Prime Minister of the day, Harold Wilson. “Most of all, I want to go home”, he said.
Meanwhile, the myth grew. Tyneham was dubbed ‘the lost village of Dorset’, ‘the village that died for Britain’, ‘Dorset’s ghost village’ – and so on. Somewhere beyond the hyperbole there is always a sense of perspective, another view. Britain – indeed, probably the whole world – is littered with deserted villages which have died or been abandoned for a dozen reasons, fair and foul. Nor was Tyneham’s wartime experience unique – Stanford in Norfolk and Imber in Wiltshire suffered a similar fate. And Tyneham is certainly no Oradour-sur-Glane.
That said, of course none of us would want to be forced to leave our homes (particularly at such short notice) and witness the sudden death of our community. It was particularly hard on the older folk. And it does seem that the government did the very least it could for the people whose way of life had been sacrificed for the greater good. But perhaps life before eviction wasn’t so idyllic after all. When re-housed, villagers experienced electricity, piped water and decent drains in their houses for the first time; many had no desire to go back to queuing at the village pump and an altogether harder life, however much they may have treasured the memories of it. Moreover, was Tyneham in decline anyway? The coastguard was disbanded in 1911, putting several men out of work. The population was reducing. The school closed in 1932, because it only had 9 pupils. The world was changing. The kind of benevolent feudalism that most people in places like Tyneham depended on was coming to an end. Different attitudes, votes for all and increased mechanisation combined to change rural communities forever. Even before the events of 1943, Tyneham was contributing to the war effort; there was a radar station nearby and both RAF and Army personnel had been billeted in the village, including up to 60 WAAFs (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force) in Tyneham House. Had it not been for military intervention, perhaps Tyneham would have become a village full of holiday homes, with the few residents largely reliant on tourism. Perhaps that development would have been good; or perhaps an otherwise lovely landscape would have been blighted by ugliness.
So, what has happened to Tyneham? Gradually, through the 1970s, the Army developed public access to the village. It is still in the firing ranges of the Lulworth Gunnery School, but since 1979 it has mostly been open to the public over school holidays and at weekends. The school has been lovingly restored with a recreated schoolroom recalling primary education in the spring of 1927. The children’s schoolwork is set out on their desks. The subject was ‘Nature Study’ and you can read each child’s adventures and discoveries, described in their best joined-up writing and colourfully illustrated. The church of St Mary the Virgin has been restored and now exhibits photos and other material showing how life was before the soldiers came.
The cottages are derelict, roofless and floorless, but have been made safe. Each has its information board, with photographs of former occupants and brief details of their lives and occupations. Some buildings nestle in woodland and loom up from behind bushes, their once carefully tended gardens now overflowing with brambles and ferns. The main street, Post Office Row, looks as though it could easily come alive. Just beyond the village is Tyneham Farms granary and stable, which, following an Army initiative and with their support, has been steadily restored since 2007. In a barn is a recreation of ‘the Tyneham Theatre’, where the youngsters from ‘the big house’ used to stage productions before the First World War. There are military mementoes too – shells and other once lethal detritus.
Dorset’s ghost village? Normally, I avoid clichés like the plague, but it is hard to escape the atmosphere of Tyneham, the air of carefully managed decay, the feeling that, as many people observe, time has somehow stood still. Amidst the bustle of a modern town, with the sights, sounds and smells of the 21st century assaulting our senses, it is hard to feel close to our recent ancestors, to imagine them going about their daily business in a world without the motor car, microchip and charity shops. In Tyneham, even with other visitors around and about, you might just do it. In general, I think you’ll find them a friendly bunch, calling to each other with the latest gossip, or laughing over the large shoal of mackerel spotted in Worbarrow Bay and how they’d all rushed down to help haul it in.
Drifting amongst the ghosts of Tyneham’s past villagers (many of whom still lie in the churchyard, by the way), you might also feel the presence of countless military personnel who passed this way before you, thanks to the villagers who vacated. They include young Americans, far from their own homes, who landed at Omaha Beach in Normandy on 6th June 1944, and who suffered the worst casualties of any of the 5 landing beaches on D-Day.
And if you come face-to-face with a Challenger 2 battle tank, you’ve visited Tyneham on the wrong day.
Go to A Bit About Britain’s directory listing for Tyneham.