The Willersley Babies – or Princes and Princesses of Willersley
Since 2010 there have been annual reunions for those who know they were born in Willersley Castle. The first was organised by Simon Chandler and Tim Rogers from the Hotel, along with The Methodist Guild. Willersley Babies have met and shared stories and items of interest and all are joined by the common thread. At least two midwives, including Kathleen Bateman and Trainee Nurse Winifred Warren, who was at Willersley from October 1944 – 1945 as well as two London Mothers and their children attended. The 2020 reunion was cancelled when the Covid 19 lockdown was imposed, followed by the closure of Willersley Castle. New hotel management will hopefully result in many more reunions in the future.
As part of the project, a number of social media callouts were posted on Facebook, Twitter, Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site Newsletter, and East London Radio, requesting information and memories from anyone born in Willersley Castle. There were many from Wirksworth and Cromford and a few from people as far afield as New Jersey and Vancouver! Most were proud to have Willersley Castle on their birth certificates and below are a few of the responses:
Pat Fox was the first person to respond to the Facebook call out for Willersley Babies
‘My husband was born here 24th May 1941 – unfortunately nor he or his mother, Florence Fox are still alive. All I have are these (below)’
‘All I remember was he grew up thinking he was a prince! I intend to visit Willersley Castle later in the year for my husband as he always wanted to visit but due to ill health it was never possible.’ Below is the telegram birth and a postcard of Willersley Castle sent to announce his birth.
‘Princess Elizabeth’ of Willersley Castle
Elizabeth Goldberg was born in Willerlsey during the second world war to Hilda Gunzberg and now lives in New Jersey, United States. She came across this project on Facebook.
“First of all, my mother never mentioned to me that I was a princess. I happened to notice it when I looked at my birth certificate. At least I was impressed. This was followed by a big Mother why didn’t you ever tell me?”
“Mother did say everyone was very kind at Wlilersley. This was not a happy time in her life as you can well imagine. A week had passed and the matron came to see my mother ‘Hilda it has been a week and your baby has no name. Why don’t you name her Elizabeth after all she was born on the Princesses birthday’. The rest is history.”
“When my father was able to visit he brought my mother a box of apples and told her to put them under her bed which she did. Well anyone coming into the room could smell them. She ended up sharing her apples with everyone. Proud of her.”
“My mother was a Jewish refugee from Vienna, escaping Hitler. My father was in the Polish Cavalry and he was rescued from Dunkirk by the British. They met in London and were married on Abbey Road. in St. Johns Wood. I believe my mother was 24 when she came to England. Just as an aside she was in service and became a cook for an Admiral in Portsmouth. They probably felt she might be a good cook coming from Vienna and they were right.”
“A number of years ago on one of my trips to London I did make a day of it to go to Willersley Castle. The people there were very obliging. When I went to the front desk I mentioned that this is where I was born. The woman at the desk said welcome you’re one of the babies. Apparently people came from all over to see where they were born. They took me around and showed me the room I was born in. It was the library and they took a photo of me. “
“Mother did describe sitting on a bench outside of the Castle near the stream. I am happy to say that when I visited the Castle I sat on that same bench.”
Ken Worpole a writer (author of The Mothers’ Hospital in Hackney: Modern, Restored, Forgotten, Ignored, published by the Hackney Society in 2009), social historian and Willersley Prince.
During her research, Heidi noticed one of his responses on The Hackney Society website and realised he was a Willersley baby. When asked if having Willersley Castle had had an effect on his life he replied “for rhetorical effect I have on occasion interrupted a discussion on the English class system by saying, ‘As someone born in a castle…”
“I was a baby of ten pounds at birth apparently, and therefore known by everybody as ‘the Worpole whopper”. (I grew to 6’3″).
Willersley Prince Terry Condliffe’s Birthday Surprise!
For 65 years Terry Condcliffe had celebrated his birthday on August 28th. He discovered while looking in one of the notebooks on display during the first reunion that the “night records” had logged his birth as August 29th 1944 – a day later. He believes his mother or grandmother must have registered it wrongly but it had been that date ever since. This surprise was witnessed by the Daily Telegraph and Terry was unsure at the time whether to keep his birthday as it was, or change it!
Ben Lewis’ wife Marion was born in Willersley
“My wife Marian Jeanette Boon was born in 1943 but unfortunately died 6 years ago. I have only photos when she was an older child about 4 years old”
“My wife Marian and my Mother-in-Law didn’t tell me a thing about their stay and whether they stayed in the Castle or returned to London.”
Marian’s parents lived in Walthamstow east London both worked in the war – her mother worked in the ammunition factory at Ponders End and her father was a tool maker making parts for military aircraft.
Proving that humour can be found in the toughest of situations, when discussing how he was coping with Lockdown with Heidi, he added with great humour, ‘By the way I’ve had a round of golf with my twenty friends, don’t tell Boris!’
Jill Denton – Willersley Princess
Jill’s mother was billeted at 81 Arkwright Street in Wirksworth. Jill attended some of the reunions and compiled an extensive list of documents about the hospital, its staff and the Willersley Babies.
‘Willersley Castle has a very special place in my heart as my husband took me there for the first time 22 years ago on our first date. My Mother never told me much about the castle except that she was made to scrub the steps when she was pregnant, and never wanted to go back.
The first year of the Babies Reunion, we found ourselves in the room where I was born and saw the beautiful view out of the window. In fact, the TV cameras came to the Castle and interviewed many people, including us in the birthing room. A few years later when we were staying in the same room at a Reunion, my husband proposed to me and we were married the same year in Jersey. If the Castle had had a marriage licence, we would have got married there.’
Brian Rope is also a Willersley Baby and shared a photo of him as a baby with his parents. He now lives in Australia and is a photographer with an interest in his history which he has documented on his blog: https://brianropephotography.wordpress.com/
Margaret Gaye a Willersley Princess – Daughter of Alice and StanSpringett
Margaret was as born there in 1945 when her mother Alice was evacuated from London. She always felt proud and special to have Willersley on her birth certificate. She attended the last reunion in 2019.
Her mother’s letters (an important source of documentation for this research) to her husband Stan tell us so much about how it was in Willersley Castle and are a wonderful example of the lost skill of letter writing.
Above is a photo of Alice Springett and below a postcard she sent to her husband. She has placed a cross where she was staying with Mrs Bingley at Ashlea, Steeple Grange in Wirksworth. The other side of the extremely steep Cromford Hill, which was the route the cab companies, or ‘Agony Wagons’ as they were known as, would have taken as they rushed mothers in labour to Willerlsey Castle.
Marilyn Hodgekinson, who replied to the Facebook callout, attended the 2014 Willersley Baby Reunion on her 64th birthday on a lovely sunny day. Her mother, Florence Hodgekinson, was a local Cromford woman and she gave birth to Marilyn in labour room 19. Marilyn recalled that her family lived in the Masson House, Cromford, Matlock Bath, overlooking Masson Mill, all through the Second World War, including her grandparents, her father and his sister with all the family in different apartments. She said it was supposed to be haunted and her mother claimed to once see the ghost of a Beefeater dressed in uniform! The family also took in evacuees escaping bombed cities.
Many other Willersley Babies responded to the callout which was wonderful and greatly appreciated.