A short history of the Signal School / HMS Mercury



 

  The first Signal School was established in HMS VICTORY, then one of the accommodation hulks at Portsmouth in the middle of the 19th century.  The School moved with the other accommodation and training facilities at Portsmouth into the Royal Naval Barracks in 1905.  It was at that time a Visual Signal School only, and was joined in 1917 by the Wireless Telegraphy School from HMS VERNON.  In about 1920 in recognition of its position as the comprehensive and premier Royal Naval Signal School.  The School was given the title of HM Signal School by the late King George V.

  In the years immediately before the Second World War it became apparent that the accommodation in the Royal Naval Barracks was inadequate for the Signal School and its associated Experimental Department.  Plans were afloat to move both Establishments to Stamshaw Camp when the War broke out in 1939.  It was considered that a move to a new site on Portsea Island during the War was unwise in view of the bombing, and in 1940 the Experimental Department of the Signal School was moved to Haslemere, the Instruction element remaining in the Barracks.  In 1941 the Barrack Block was bombed and immediate steps had to be taken to remove the remainder of the Signal School out of Portsmouth.  A survey of available buildings and estates suitable both in size and location for HM Signal School showed that Leydene House was the only suitable remaining building.  Accordingly the Leydene Estate was requisitioned and the instruction part of the Signal School moved to it in the latter part of 1941.

  Leydene House, between Clanfield and East Meon near Petersfield has been the focal point of the Royal Navy's Signal School since the school was evacuated from the Royal Naval Barracks early in 1941 and commissioned as HMS Mercury in August of that year. In the early days of the Navy's occupation the house gave shelter to many facets of the school, providing classrooms, offices and feeding arrangements for personnel while being surrounded by a camp of bell tents,  A rapid programme of hut-building, some of which were still to be seen prior to the closure of HMS Mercury in 1993, took place so personnel were brought in from living under canvas and, since World War II, the erection of permanent, purpose-built blocks dispersed most of the activities which used to take place in the main house, which prior to its closure and sale was used solely as the Officers' Mess or the Wardroom.

  Leydene House was built by the Peel family.  William Roderick (?) Peel, a rising young MP, represented Manchester as a Unionist from 1900 to 1906, and Taunton from 1909 until he succeeded his father as the second Viscount Peel in 1912,  He was married to an energetic and outspoken Scottish lady, the daughter of the first Lord Ashton who made his money in linoleum.

  The couple decided that they should have an appropriate country seat in the South of England, and Lady Peel who had tremendous desire, set about finding a suitable site.  In 1913 after a large number of journeys through the South and West of England that Earl and Countess Peel decided that the site at the top of Hyden Hill promised to be the ideal spot for a house; that it would have the necessary advantages that they required, namely an elevated position giving extensive views, a clear clean and invigorating air softened by the lower grounds to the West and South, nearness to a large town or city yet far enough to avoid the noise and smoke, and, also near enough to London to make a journey there and back easily done in one day.  Cars were then just coming into their own as a means of general transport. The story goes that Lady Peel's main requirement was that no other buildings should be visible from their new place and, to that end, she toured the area, then well wooded, with nimble young men who were sent climbing to the tops of the trees to scan the scene - if buildings could be seen, then the party moved on.  At Leydene the requirement was met, so 16,000 acres was bought from Lord Hosham.

  Any first impression was one of complete peace.  Where the house now stands were sloping grounds, thick with wild strawberries, a number of grazing sheep and a variety of wild flora and fauna.  Among the latter might be seen in numbers, Admirals (butterfly variety) and Wrens (feathered).

  In 1913, plans were prepared and in the spring of 1914 work began with direct labour, mostly local; levelling and foundations were well in hand and Lord and Lady Peel had decided to adapt a farm house at Coombe Cross for their use to watch and supervise the building, but with the advent in August of the First World War all work ceased on building Leydene House.

  Work recommenced in 1919 with building of the house.  At 680ft above sea level, which was the highest in Hampshire, was completed on a grand scale in 1925; it probably was one of the last houses in England to be built on such a grand scale and the estate was laid out on similar lines The link with the linoleum trade is said to have been observed in the layout of the rose garden, the design of which is based on a bestselling linoleum pattern.

  There are many tales connected with the building of Leydene House which was minutely supervised by Lady Peel. The stone came from Belgium, being shipped to Littlehampton, then by train to Havant and transported to the site by lorry. The bricks were specially made by the Rowlands Castle brickwork.  The very fine staircase requested to be a copy of one in a house in Bruges, was built by a Gosport firm. It is free standing - the main support being the small buttress at the base of the half way landing.  This staircase was not used by the Navy until 1946 when the Captain and the Commander were allowed to use it. Later a wooden pillar was placed under the front of the front of the platform and it was then used by all officers. The pillar was removed after experts pointed out that these staircases are designed around the single buttress support and any other support would weaken the structure.

  The Peels moved into the house in 1924 though the building was not completed for another year and the gardens not until 1927.  Leydene was then the venue for many weekend parties, one, just before World War II being extended for almost a week as snow had made all roads impassable.  There is a story that Lady Peel sued the Hampshire County Council for the cost of board for her guests as the roads were impassable.

  Lord Peel held posts in government after the First World War, most probably as Secretary of State for India from 1922 to 1924 and 1928 to 1929. He was created Earl Peel and Viscount Clanfield in 1929 and died in 1937. Lady Peel, his window, continued to live in Leydene and it was from her that the property was requisitioned in 1941.

  As stated previously, in 1941 the RN Barracks at Portsmouth , were bombed and Leydene House  and grounds were therefore requisitioned to re-house the Signal School.  At that time this was the only available estate left in the Portsmouth area large enough for the purpose.  With this move the Signal School was established as an independent command in the name of HMS MERCURY, but at that time retained HMS Signal School as its main title.

  In 1946, consideration was given to moving the Signal School and returning Leydene House and the estate to Lady Peel.  However, it was not practicable to move back into the RN Barrack, because there was insufficient space available.  Serious consideration was given to building  a Signal School at Fort Southwick thus siting it adjacent to its old Experimental Department, now grown out of all recognition and embracing Radar in its many activities.  The proposal was turned down because of the site's vulnerability to atomic attack, situated as it is on Portsdown Hill overlooking Portsmouth, which would itself be almost certain to be a target.

  It was then established that the cost of rehabilitating the estate for return to its owner would be considerably higher than the cost of compulsory purchase.  This was largely due to the fact that during the war years the hilltop had, of necessity, become littered with Nissan huts and temporary buildings, some of which could still be seen in 1993.  The Admiralty therefore bought the house and estate by compulsory purchase in 1947 for £60,000.  This was bitterly opposed by Lady Peel, who suddenly died shortly afterwards.

  It was about this time that the Establishment was firmly on its own, and although it had been known HM Signal School it formerly became HMS MERCURY and in this capacity it functioned and was regarded as the premier Signal School of the NATO and similar foreign Navies.

  Contacts with the family still remained friendly.  Lady Peels daughter, Lady Doris Blacker, used to visit the place from time to time until her death in 1983, and one of her sons, who has property just outside Petersfield, allowed the wardroom to shoot over his land in Steep Marsh.

References:
Letter from L.H. Typole in service with Dowager Countess Peel during the building of Leydene House.
Loose Minute from DNS - Defence Lands Review (Nugent Committee)
SMOPS TV Video script.