Play about county’s secret war role will support local drama groups

During the Second World War, the Harrogate area had a little-known role at the centre of a secret plan to protect the Royal Family.

The Stray

What might have happened if this plan had been enacted forms the action of a new play commissioned by North Yorkshire County Council chairman Cllr Jim Clark as part of his drive to support culture in the county and to commemorate the 75th anniversaries this year of both VE Day and VJ Day.

The Stray is a two-act drama by North Yorkshire playwright Keith Burton, who was assisted and advised by Harrogate historian Malcolm Neesam.

Local drama groups and schools will be able to perform the play free of charge.

The Stray takes historical fact as a starting point before entering the world of what might have been.

It is true that in the Second World War Harrogate featured in the Coats Mission, a secret plan for the evacuation of the Royal Family from London. The plan identified Newby Hall as a possible evacuation site for the Royal family and a wing of Grove House, Harrogate, as accommodation for Prime Minister Winston Churchill, should he need to overnight following an audience with the King. Grove House stood opposite a secret RAF bunker.

On 8 September 1940, Buckingham Palace was bombed and the Coats Mission was expedited. Neither the RAF nor SIS wanted any activity that raised the intelligence profile of Harrogate. Both had activities in Harrogate supporting the building of Washington bombers at a secret underground factory at nearby Yeadon and the secret Forest Moor Y station that fed intelligence to the code-breaking centre at Bletchley Park. But Coats was given the go-ahead.

Then, on 12 September, a Junker 88 attacked the Majestic Hotel, Harrogate, and the plan was dropped. These were the only bombs to fall on Harrogate during the war. The papers at the time reported “a stray” bombing by a plane that was part of a bigger raid on “northern industrial targets” without naming where the bombs had fallen.

But was Harrogate the victim of a stray bomber? Coats felt not. By 14 September, he had dropped Newby Hall and Grove House from his plan for the Royal Family, much to the relief of the SIS and RAF. Later intelligence reports showed that the raid was not random.

The Stray is based on what might have happened in Harrogate during the week commencing Sunday, September 8, 1940.

Cllr Clark, who commissioned the play, has a long history of involvement in theatre and is approaching the 60th anniversary of his first appearance on stage.

Cllr Clark said: “There have always been stories about Harrogate’s part in the war, so I thought this was a unique way of capturing the drama of it.

“I wanted to be able to make a contribution to help drama groups at schools and amateur dramatic groups. I will have the rights to the play for five years, so anybody can perform it within reason.

“They will be able to play it in theatres throughout Yorkshire and, if it is successful, further afield.”

Cllr Clark is hoping to arrange a formal premiere for the play.

He said: “I have approached Harrogate Dramatic Society, who last year celebrated their 75th anniversary. When we restored Harrogate Theatre about ten years ago, they put on the first production in the new auditorium, so we are hoping that once Harrogate Theatre gets the go-ahead to reopen, they will present The Stray as the first performance.”

Keith Burton started writing plays in 2010 after a career as a chief education officer. He is currently a writer in residence at The Pateley Playhouse. His work has been performed from Knaresborough to New York and New Orleans. He is the holder of the Geoffrey Whitworth Trophy for best original play at the All-England One-act Play Festival, which he won in Harrogate last year.

This story was published 6 September 2020