A new exhibition explores Life after the Courtaulds at Eltham Palace

By Ed Sexton | 06 October 2009
a large group of people enjoying a banquet

Mess dinner in the banqueting hall. Courtesy RAEC / EH

Life after the Courtaulds, Eltham Palace, London.

English Heritage’s new permanent exhibition at Eltham Palace explores life at the part Art Deco, part 14th century palace after the Courtauld family moved out and the Royal Army Educational Corps took it over in 1945.

The Courtaulds moved into the stunning Art Deco mansion in 1936 and enjoyed just three years at the house before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. As the war rolled on into the early 1940s the bombing in central London intensified and became too much for the family.

Although Eltham Palace never received a direct hit from a shell, the 14th century banqueting hall still bears the scars of an incendiary hit. Stephen Courtauld had to make a pyjama-clad dash with a bucket of water to put out the blaze.

floorboards with black marks

The charred marks left by an incendiary that hit the banqueting hall. © Culture24

The Courtaulds left war-torn Britain in 1944, returning the lease of Eltham to the Crown, and eventually settled in Rhodesia. Rab Butler, the then education minister and Stephen Courtauld’s relative by marriage, suggested the palace be used for army educational purposes.

Eltham started off as an army school, preparing soldiers who returned from World War II for civilian life, before becoming the Institute of Army Education in 1948. Staff at Eltham became responsible for dealing with army education, exams and training for promotion, running a library and overseeing a whopping 8,000 correspondence courses.

The queen and two men in uniform

The Queen visits the RAEC at Eltham. Courtesy RAEC / EH

The Royal Army Educational Corps (RAEC) started as the Corps of Army Schoolmasters in 1846, became the AEC in 1920 and then later the RAEC. The Corps was responsible for educational programmes for military and educational purposes, current affairs and citizenship.

When National Service was phased out in the 1960s, the RAEC focused on providing education for the serving military and their families around the world.

a radio, books and magazines

Period touches in the officer's bedroom. © Culture24

English Heritage have chosen to recreate an officer's bedroom from this period with the help of Brigadier Tom Sherry, who was stationed at the house in the' 60s and '70s. The RAEC have donated a large number of items to make the room as genuine as possible down to the bedding, bed and uniforms on display.

There are also some great period touches such as a Roberts radio, copies of the RAEC magazine ‘Torch’ and a record player and records. Brigadier Sherry has also donated a family photograph from the '60s to go on display in the room – as a visitor you feel as if you have inadvertently wandered into an officer’s room.

a black and white photo of a family

Brigadier Tom Sherry and his family.

Once you have taken in the typical officer's room, you can see where some lucky and no doubt high-ranking officers would have slept in the opulent Art Deco master suites once occupied by Stephen and Virginia Courtauld.

Eltham was a renowned party venue when the Courtaulds were in residence and some of this party spirit was carried on when the army used the house. When the RAEC was established at Eltham it once again became a focus for various balls, garden parties and royal visits.

a grand marble bath surrounded by gold tiles

Virginia Courtauld's opulent bathroom. © Culture24

In 1992 the flag was lowered and the site returned to the Crown Estate. Eltham was the home to the RAEC for 46 years and still held in great affection by those who lived and worked at the palace.

It is clear that a lot of effort and money were injected into the building of this fantastic creation and the Courtaulds clearly intended to spend their lives here, until the war interrupted and their plans had to change.

a blue sweatshirt with a torch logo on it

RAEC sweatshirt. © Culture24

Panels in the new exhibition commend the RAEC for their careful treatment of the historic interior and exterior of the property during their time in the house. Having seen the carefully preserved interiors in all their glory, it would be hard to disagree.

The exhibition offers an opportunity to explore another aspect of Eltham’s long history. Next month a new display of Tudor artefacts from the palace will go on display, filling in yet another chapter of the building's story.

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