NOT many, if any, Christmas cards arrive with a “Private and Confidential” stamp on them, so the headmaster of Malvern College knew something was up when a blue-grey envelope so marked arrived among his festive mail on Boxing Day 1938.

In those days the postman called every day, no exceptions, but this letter was certainly not about to bring glad tidings or great joy into the life of the Reverend Canon Howard Charles Adie – better known as “Tom” – Gaunt.  Because it came from a permanent secretary at the Government’s Office of Works and told him his school premises were likely to be requisitioned for the war effort, even though at that time there was no war.

Tom Gaunt’s pleasurable musings that he was about to receive an award in the New Year’s Honours List suddenly went very pear shaped.

What followed next, and the part Malvern and its famous educational establishment played in the Second World War, occupies a complete chapter in a new book by social historian Julie Summers called Our Uninvited Guests (Simon and Schuster £8.99).

Its sub-title “The secret lives of Britain’s country houses 1939-45” better sets the scene. Because it’s an account of how some of the nation’s finest country piles came to play important roles in defeating the Nazis.

Thousands of them were taken over by the Government to provide accommodation for the armed forces, secret services and government offices, as well as vulnerable children and the sick and the elderly, all of whom needed to be housed safely beyond the reach of Hitler’s Luftwaffe.

As a result they came to be occupied by people who would never otherwise have set foot in such opulent surroundings. 

Of course, Malvern College was no country mansion, but in the mantra of estate agents everywhere it had location, location, location.

Government experts reasoned the College’s 250 acre site would be protected from low level bombing by the backdrop of the Malvern Hills and there would be plenty of accommodation for civil servants and military personnel in the hotels and boarding houses of the tourist town. Also it would not be far from other properties so requisitioned in the south Midlands.

However, in the mid-winter of 1938 Tom Gaunt faced any number of conundrums. If his school campus was to be taken over – by no means a done deal at that point – he would obviously have to pre-plan with senior staff, but secrecy was of the utmost importance. The more people he conferred with the greater the chance of leak, but feelers had to go out as to where Malvern College might move to. It was a very delicate balancing act to achieve something which may prove redundant if peace reigned supreme.

Sadly it did not and as 1939 progressed the clouds of war grew darker at about the same rate as headmaster Gaunt’s frustrations, for he was becoming increasingly unable to find a suitable site.

Such places would have to be able to accommodate a 500 pupil school, provide dormitories, classrooms, large kitchens, laboratories and sports fields.

Then suddenly, out of the blue, the 10th Duke of Marlborough offered Blenheim Palace in Oxfordshire. Although the mansion had no history of institutional use, it certainly had the size and Gaunt snapped it up before anyone else could.

But that was just the start. As soon as war was declared on September  7, 1939  planning began in earnest. 

Canon Gaunt delegated the “stupendous task” of getting Blenheim ready for use as a school to his second master Major Elliott, a job made marginally easier by the Duke and Duchess’s decision to occupy only the building’s east wing for the duration.

Gaunt, who was 36, had only taken over at Malvern two years before and as a young, thrusting new broom had many plans for his new school, but moving home was not among them. To allow alterations to be carried out to Blenheim, the autumn term was delayed from September 28 until October 12.

The academic side was less than the half the challenge of relocation. British public schools operate a peculiar system of “traditions”, among which for Malvern College was where boys may only walk, not run, which hand they could have in which pocket when they passed a prefect or where hands in pockets were not allowed at all. Such rules had grown up on the long established campus at Malvern, but decisions had to be made how they would be implemented in the entirely different geography of Blenheim Palace.

The boys were also warned about the temptation to use the magnificent portraits of the 10th Duke’s ancestors as dartboards. 

Malvern College stayed at Blenheim Palace for nearly 12 months, until it packed up at the end of summer term 1940 and returned to Malvern, the spooks of MI5 taking its place in the ancestral halls.

But this was not the end of the College’s travels during WW2. Early in 1942, warnings came of a proposed attack on the Government’s Telecommunications Research Establishment in Dorset, which was developing radar. A move for the TRE was urgent and the place selected was Malvern College.

Once again Canon Gaunt had to relocate his school and this time the destination was Harrow School, which, slightly worryingly for Malvern parents, had suffered a dramatic fall in pupil numbers because of its proximity to London and the dangers of being bombed.

However, the College brought its own peculiar danger to urban Harrow, that of naked pool swimming. This had to be stopped after complaints from ladies working in a nearby NAFFI.

 Malvern College eventually returned home in September 1946, while the wartime work of the TRE in its laboratories and workshops is the stuff of legend. Although much of it too came under the heading of private and confidential.