One of Bexley’s most historic houses will be reliving its more recent past on this year’s Spring bank holiday. LINDA PIPER explores the background to the wartime story of Hall Place.

WHEN former London Lord Mayor John Champneis built his Tudor home on the banks of the River Cray in 1537 he could never have imagined the role his new home would play in saving his country from invasion.

The Forties Festival being held at Hall Place in Bourne Road, Bexley, on May 31 will celebrate the wartime history of the Tudor house, kept secret until 30 years after the Second World War, and still not widely known.

By 1943, the house belonged to the then Bexley Borough Council, but it was left empty after the death of the last private resident of Hall Place, Lady Limerick who first owned, then rented the house.

The same year UK and American goverments had signed the BRUSA Agreement committing themselves to closer co-operation on intelligence.

As part of the agreement, three regiments of American soldiers were sent to the UK to help with Operation Ultra which was dedicated to decoding the messages from the Germans’ Enigma encryption machine.

In 1943, members of the 6811 Signal Regiment of the US Army arrived at Hall Place, and their secret intercept station Santa Fe was opened.

The GIs were there to intercept the very faint Luftwaffe signals which the Germans overlaid with other louder signals and deliberate interference.

The work required intense concentration with missed digits resulting in unintelligible messages and the potential for more lost Allied lives.

The American radio operators worked 18 hour shifts trying to pick up the signals, while the cryptographers recorded and organised the the symbols which were sent onto the now famous Bletchley Park decoding centre, then known just as Station X.

During this time, Hall Place was a hive of secret activity.

The Great Hall and Tudor kitchen housed the set room and cryptographers.

The Great Chamber was used as a billet for some of the men while the Parlour was the mess room.

Radio wires crisscrossed the roof and a number of outbuildings were erected in the gardens.

Although their work was top secret, there was no keeping the GIs’ presence under wraps.

They made a big impression on the locals at the regular dances held in the nearby Black Prince pub and could be seen playing softball on the Hall Place lawns.

But no one ever asked what the Americans were doing in Bexley.

In 1945 at the end of the war, Santa Fe and Bletchley Park were dismantled and the GIs returned home.

Sixty-five years later, Hall Place will ring again to the sights and sounds of their occupation and 1940s.

The festival will include Dig for Victory in the gardens, 1940s fashions, a display of military and civilian vehicles from the era, as well as jive and jitterbug lessons, a live trad jazz band, re-enactors and lots of other activities.

People are being encouraged to wear their own 1940s costumes and there will be a prize for the best dressed visitor.

The event will run from 11am to 5pm. On the day, tickets cost £7, and £5 for 16-year-olds and under.

Discounted tickets are available in advance. Call 01322 621238.