Catherine Bailey, the best-selling author of Black Diamonds, uncovers a plotting
Duchess, a mysterious death and a castle full of lies in her thrilling book, The Secret
Rooms: A True Gothic Mystery.
In April 1940, the ninth Duke of Rutland died in mysterious circumstances in a murky
room next to the servants' quarters of his family home, Belvoir Castle.
The mystery surrounding his death holds the key to a tragic story that is played out on
the brutal battlefields of the Western Front and in the exclusive salons of Mayfair and
Belgravia in the dying years of la belle époque. Uncovered is a dark and disturbing period
in the history of the Rutland family, and one which they were determined to keep hidden
for over sixty years.
Sixty years on, The Secret Rooms is the true story of family secrets and one
man's determination to keep the past hidden at any cost.
For fans of Kate Summerscale's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher and Agent
Zigzag by Ben Macintyre, and those interested in the real world of Brideshead
'One heck of a good read...brilliant, gripping...Black Diamonds will keep you bolt
upright all night', Daily Telegraph
'A compelling new history...fascinating insights into the dynasty that once ruled this
Yorkshire roost', Daily Mail, on Black Diamonds
Catherine Bailey is the author of Black Diamonds. She read history at Oxford
University and is a successful, award-winning television producer and director. She lives
in West London.
Two doctors were already at the castle; a third, Lord Dawson,
Physician to King George VI, was expected. It was mid-morning on
Thursday 18 April 1940 and they were gathered at the entrance to a
suite of rooms. The door leading into them was made of polished
steel; the colour of gunmetal, it was the type used to secure a walk-
The door was firmly closed.
The light from the dim bulbs along the windowless passage cast
pools of inky shadows around the waiting figures. Piles of cardboard
boxes were stacked against the bare stone walls. Marked ‘Secret –
Property of His Majesty’s Government’, they were secured with steel
The doctors – Dr Jauch, a GP from Grantham, and Mr Macpherson,
an eminent chest specialist – had been in and out of the rooms
Shortly before eleven o’clock, the first footman, dressed in an azure
tailcoat and navy-blue breeches, escorted Lord Dawson across the
Guard Room. A coldly sumptuous hall, it was the first point of entry
to the 356-room castle. Rows of muskets, taller than a man, and hundreds
of swords, their blades sharp-edged and glinting, lined its walls.
From the vaulted roof hung the tattered remnants of regimental
colours, captured in battle. Directly in front of them, a magnificent
staircase swept to the state rooms on the upper floors; and yet, as the
footman led the King’s doctor across the hall, he veered to the right,
heading for its farthest corner. There, he ushered him through a discreet
swing door. It marked the border between master and servant.
They had stepped into the ‘invisible world’.
Behind the Guard Room, the entire ground floor was devoted to
the smooth running of the Duke’s household. A gloomy hinterland
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 3 01/09/12 5:55 PM
of fifty rooms, some cavernous, some no larger than a priest’s hole, it
was where the servants lived and worked. From here, a network of
passages coursed through the castle: hidden routes, which spiralled
up the narrow turrets and towers to the splendid rooms above,
enabling the servants to carry out their duties unobserved.
It was through this labyrinth of passages, deep in the servants’
quarters, that the footman conducted Lord Dawson, arriving at the
steel door where the other doctors stood waiting.
They were at Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire. Built in the Gothic
style and situated on a ridge eight miles from Grantham, it belonged
to John Henry Montagu Manners, the 9th Duke of Rutland. Aged
fifty-three, he was one of the richest men in Britain. Three years
earlier, he had carried the Sovereign’s Sceptre at the coronation.
His family had lived at Belvoir since the eleventh century. Looking
south from the castle’s Flag Tower, he owned the land as far as the
eye could see.
Earlier that morning, the Duke’s wife, Kakoo, had telephoned
Lord Dawson. Her husband was desperately ill. He must come to the
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 4 01/09/12 5:55 PM
Up in the Flag Tower, the clock struck eleven. Ten minutes had
passed since Lord Dawson’s arrival, but he had yet to be admitted to
see the Duke. The sounds of distant industry drifted along the
passageway: shouted orders; the banging of tools; the clatter of
footsteps approaching on bare stone.
The sight of the King’s doctor in the passage immediately caught
the servants’ attention.
‘If there was something serious going on, the housekeeper and the
butler would try and keep it quiet,’ George Waudby, the third footman,
recalled. ‘They might talk together, but they’d be tight-lipped
in front of us lower ranks. We were their inferiors. We were the
lowest of the low. We were never told anything. Everything we
knew depended on what we saw or overheard.’
‘We all talked. We weren’t meant to, but we did,’ said Dorothy
Plowright, the daughter of the boiler stoker. ‘Every rank had its
gossip: the upstairs maids, the kitchen staff, the footmen, they all had
Until that morning, the servants’ grapevine had had nothing
to report. They had seen and heard very little. ‘We knew the Duke
was unwell. He had been ill for a week. But we didn’t realize it was
serious,’ said George Waudby. ‘We rarely saw the Duke. He spent all
his time in his rooms. Every day, all day, he was in there. That had
been the case for months. We knew this because they were in our
quarters. Of course we had no idea what went on in there. Those
rooms were absolutely secret. But we were told it was where the
Duke worked. Nothing struck us as unusual. His routine hadn’t
changed. He had carried on working as normal.’
The servants had had no reason to believe the Duke’s illness was
life-threatening. Only two days previously, after spending the night
at Belvoir, Lord Dawson had returned to London, satisfied that the
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 5 01/09/12 5:55 PM
Duke was on the mend. Before leaving the castle, he had issued a
short statement to the press:
The Duke of Rutland is suffering from pneumonia at his home,
Belvoir Castle, and is now stated to be making satisfactory progress.
The Duke, who is 53 and succeeded his father in 1925, was taken ill
during last weekend.
That morning, however, the servants had reason to suspect that
the Duke’s condition had deteriorated. Shortly after breakfast, three
mysterious-looking packages were delivered to the castle. From that
moment, they were on tenterhooks.
The porter was on duty when the packages arrived at the lodge.
Marked ‘Urgent’, they were addressed to Mr Speed, the Duke’s valet.
Two of the boxes were long and bulky; one was very heavy. The
labels gave away their contents; they had come from Bartlett’s of
Jermyn Street, Suppliers of Oxygen Tents.
The castle’s odd-job men were summoned to take the packages to
the entrance of the Duke’s room, where Mr Speed was in attendance.
‘Besides the butler and the housekeeper, Mr Speed was the only servant
the Duke allowed in his rooms,’ George Waudby remembered.
‘The rest of us were forbidden to go in there.’
Lord Dawson’s hurried return confirmed what the servants suspected.
The Duke was gravely ill. A thrill of suspense and excitement,
usual in such circumstances, rippled through the household. ‘Do you
think he can last until morning?’ Along the passageways, in the vast kitchens,
and in the still rooms, pantry rooms and preserving rooms
beyond, this was the question whispered.
Even before the Duke fell ill, the castle had been in a state of upheaval.
Six days after war was declared – on 9 September 1939 – a convoy
of army lorries had turned off the Great North Road and trundled up
the drive to the castle. For the last half-mile, the single-track road
followed the contours of the ridge, coiling steeply through dense
woods. The sound of the whining engines had shattered the peace,
sending flocks of rooks wheeling gracefully skywards. Inside the
cabins, fuggy after four hours on the Great North Road, the drivers
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 6 01/09/12 5:55 PM
The Secret Rooms
had cursed the sharp gradient and the ruts and potholes. Doubledeclutching,
they had inched their way along the unmetalled road.
The convoy, one of a number to leave London that week, was top
secret. German bombing raids were expected at any moment: the
nation’s treasures were hurriedly being transported from the capital
to various destinations for safekeeping. Works of art from the
Tate Gallery had already left for Muncaster Castle on the remote
Cumberland coast; the British Museum’s collections had gone to
Boughton, the Duke of Buccleuch’s house, in Northamptonshire.
Belvoir Castle had been selected as a repository for the nation’s
most important historical documents – the records, spanning almost
a thousand years, of the Royal Courts and the principal ministries
At Chancery Lane in London, where the records were kept, it had
taken eight hours to load up the convoy. Seventy-five tons of documents,
packed in bundles in specially made cardboard containers, had
been stacked on to the lorries. Further convoys had been scheduled.
The oldest and most important records were evacuated first.
Among them were parchment scrolls and rolls, stamped with the
seals and signatures of every monarch since William the Conqueror.
There were War Office papers dating from 1660 and Treasury,
Chancery and Exchequer records going back to the eleventh century;
contemporary Admiralty and Foreign Office records had also
been included: these were the boxes marked ‘Secret – Property of
His Majesty’s Government’.
Ten days earlier – on 30 August – the warrant to appoint the
Duke of Rutland as Keeper of the Records had been rushed through
Whitehall. The rules of the Public Record Office stipulated that,
at all times, the records must be under the charge of a custodian
appointed by the sovereign. The Master of the Rolls and the Lord
Chancellor had sanctioned the Duke’s appointment on behalf of
King George VI.
At Belvoir, it had taken two days to unload the boxes. The Duke
had supervised, directing his servants to the various locations that
he had earmarked around the castle. Forty tons of documents had
been stored in the ballroom; the remainder, along the passages in the
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 7 01/09/12 5:55 PM
servants’ quarters. ‘There were fifty-two steps up to the ballroom. It
was a longer haul to the back passages on the ground floor,’ George
Waudby remembered. ‘Every box had to be carried. Then they had
to be unpacked, and the bundles of documents individually stacked.
It was quite a chore, I tell you. I can see them now – all the boxes
piled up in the ballroom and along the passages. All these documents.
Boxes and boxes of them. They went back to Domesday, they said.’
A new shipment had been expected, when the Duke fell ill. With
the prospect of a German invasion threatening, the remaining records
at Chancery Lane were to be evacuated to Belvoir.
On the morning Lord Dawson was called to the castle, the servants
had been busy making space in the Guard Room.
‘We were expecting several tons of documents,’ George Waudby
recalled. ‘The Guard Room was so big it made sense to put them
there. The problem was, there were lots of boxes in there already. We
had to sort them all out, and then shift them into rooms that had been
allocated in the servants’ quarters and upstairs. Some of the estate
workers were brought in to help us. There were quite a few of us.’
The route to the storerooms in the servants’ quarters took them
past the Duke’s rooms. ‘The passage was only about four foot wide
and there were hundreds of boxes stacked along it from previous
convoys,’ Jack Price, one of the estate workers, remembered: ‘There
wasn’t much space to manoeuvre. Once the doctors arrived, we had
to squeeze past them. We all felt uncomfortable about it. There we
were, filthy in our working clothes, and we were brushing up against
the King’s doctor.’
Jack and the other servants had noted the precise time of Lord
Dawson’s arrival. It was ten minutes to eleven when the first footman
had escorted him across the Guard Room. Fifteen minutes later,
as they carried another load of boxes along the passage, they were
amazed to discover that Lord Dawson and his colleagues were
still there. ‘We were all talking about it,’ Jack recalled. ‘We didn’t
know what to make of it. If the Duke was dying, what was the King’s
doctor doing in the passage? Why wasn’t he attending him? It didn’t
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 8 01/09/12 5:55 PM
The Secret Rooms
A cold stone passage, filled with servants, was foreign territory to
Lord Dawson, who was used to being ushered directly into the opulent
state rooms where he normally attended his patients. Appointed
Physician-extraordinary to King Edward VII, he had served the royal
household for three decades. Famously, in 1928, when George V had
almost died from a respiratory illness, Dawson had been credited
with saving the King’s life. It had made him a national celebrity –
and the most sought after, most admired doctor of his generation.
Invariably charming, he inspired his patients’ trust. He had been by
the King’s bedside until the very end. It was he who had composed
the memorable words on the notice posted on the railings outside
Buckingham Palace: ‘The King’s life is drawing peacefully to a close.’
Lord Dawson had been in and out of the Duke’s rooms throughout
the preceding week. What, the servants wondered, could be so
important that the Duke was keeping Britain’s most trusted medical
In a castle alive with gossip, a moment of absent-mindedness on
the part of the fourth housemaid yielded a key piece of information.
9780670917556_TheSecretRooms_TXT.indd 9 01/09/12 5:55 PM