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A GWENT castle’s devastating fire is being commemorated with a special drama.

Ruperra Castle in Machen was destroyed by a fire on December 6, 1941, the cause of which is thought to have been an electrical fault.

The Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust have created a drama called Ruperra Castle War and Flames 1939-1946 to highlight the fire right in the middle of the Second World War.

A number of people have recounted their memories of the fateful day which came right in the midst of the Second World War and just a day before the bombing of Pearl Harbour.

Inside Ruperra Castle

Ethel Ackland was a resident living in Ruperra Park Drive near the Cardiff Road entrance to the castle. She recalled noticing that there was no water coming out of her main water source – the outside tap. She then saw high flames coming out of what looked to be the top of a square fireplace and through the windows.

She went to see what was going on along with many others and remembered the ‘frightening’ crackling sound of all the varnish and polish in the wood as she walked up the drive.

Nearby children watched fire engines rushing past on the roads. One, Terry Everson from Machen, remembered seeing the orange and gold glare in the sky. He recalled how it would flare up bright before dulling and then build back up before blowing out as if something was exploding and spewing out an orange glow.

Doris Oram and her husband were in bed at No.3 The Row in nearby Draethen. They worked nights at the Rodgerston Aluminium Factory. Mrs Oram recalled: “It was nearly time for us to get up to go to work and we heard the noise of fire engines rushing up the road to the Michaelstone entrance to the Castle.

“We were sure the Germans had invaded. We can laugh about it now but at the time it was very frightening.”

The blackout in place due to the war meant that it was difficult to get emergency services to the castle to extinguish the fire as engines were getting stuck on the fields before even reaching the castle. The castle’s Game Keeper Blackburn tried to help the fire engines to the pond but the reflection of the light of the fire in the water had led to them getting stuck in the soft earth after cutting across the grass.

1938 Leyland Engine used to put out the fire. Picture: Lee British Fire Rescue Pics

Those that did arrive at the scene drained the water from the ponds to help to put out the fire.

So what was the cause of the fire?

At first, there were thoughts that it was a bombing raid, or the Germans had invaded but it was a wet night so there were no bombing raids and there was no invasion.

Many theories were spreading around about the potential cause of the fire including that the Americans caused it as there were soldiers using the castle as a base, but America didn’t enter the war until the day after the fire when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour.

Italian prisoners of war were also blamed as were the Dutch, however the Dutch soldiers – the Princess Irene Brigade – left the castle in October 1940.

One of the soldiers who was in the castle at the time of the fire believes it was an electrical fault.

Who was present at the time of the fire?

At the time of the fire and in the years prior, Ruperra Castle had been home to a number of Army regiments. The 307 Searchlight Regiment’s South Wales region HQ was at Ruperra Castle in November 1941 and 500 men were stationed there and at 24 nearby sites including Hanley Swan, Mamhilad, Ponthir and Bulmore Road, Christchurch and Belmont.

At the time of the fire, only 50 or 60 men were stationed in the headquarters at Ruperra facilitating the requests from the nearby sites.

Andy Newton of the regiment – which originated in Tyneside – said that they felt like royalty living in the castle. He said: “In the main hall they had a marble fireplace. My billet was at the top of the house, with wide south facing windowsills where we could lie flat-out in the sun. On a clear day you had a beautiful view to the other side of the Channel.”

The soldiers enjoyed the countryside too and since the Hollybush in Dreathen was now closed down, they would walk along the river to the British Legion Club in Machen where they were very welcome. Lance Robinson never forgot hearing an old boy of about 90 there, an Eisteddfod gold medallist, a really good singer.

307 Searchlight Regiment at Ruperra Castle

The 307 regiment only lasted 12 days at the HQ due to the fire. Frank McClary was preparing to move to the Battery Headquarters at Ruperra Castle right as the fire started. He said: “We spent just one night there sleeping in the stable block in bunk beds where it was really comfortable.

“The castle was a ruin. They said that there wasn’t enough water there to put the fire out. The soldiers walked inside and had a look. It was quite a mess. The treads on the beautiful big staircase were still there.”

Lance Robinson of the Tyneside 307 Searchlight Regiment was stationed at Ruperra Castle on the night of the fire.

He said: “Only our regiment of about 50 men was in Ruperra when it burnt down. The rest had gone out on to the searchlight sites. They reckoned there was an electrical fault. The castle hadn’t been used, you see, and so when all the lights went on, the electric wires in the ceilings and the walls were overloaded.

“I mean, if you’d smoked a cigarette in the castle you couldn’t have set fire to it because there was no furniture or anything to catch. It wasn’t our neglect. You’re not going to burn your own home down, are you? We’d been in some big places before and they’d been alright.

“The fire started in the ceilings. They were falling in and everybody was trying to get down the stairs. That’s why Cecil Hogg and me and my brother jumped out through the windows. There was a scatter, just a big scatter. A fellow came in to where the men were sleeping or playing cards and said in Geordie ‘Away – the hiss took a hardin!’ which means ‘Get out, the house is on fire.’

“There was a cockney lad who used to do all the cleaning, who went round throwing pieces of coal in through the windows of the separate rooms of officers and sergeants. The rest of us had been together in large rooms.

“The whole aim was to get everybody outside and then see what you could do. You couldn’t do anything inside. There was a roll call to check that everyone was out. It was probably about 9 or 10 o’clock when the fire started and by 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning it was well away, burning itself out. It was dark you know and people could see the flames all around the area. There were some hoses got out of the outhouses and we were told to hold on to them tight because they kick. But there was no water coming out of them.

“The fire brigades came from Cardiff, Newport, all over the place, but they couldn’t all get through. And when they did, it was too late. The following day Lord Tredegar came in his brass hat – he wasn’t in a proper army dress, it was an honorary one. He said he was very glad that we’d all got out.

“The only casualty was Lieutenant Barker, a very nice fellow, who went in to rescue the mascot dog, a bulldog, called Tyne. It was frightened by the fire and went back into the Castle. There were friction hoists above the windows which he used to lower the dog down so then he couldn’t use it for himself and had to jump from the second floor. He broke both his legs and of course that finished him in the Army. He was a good Rugby player too.

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“We all slept in a big room above the stables after that.  Pat Kirkwood was supposed to come to do an Ensa show in the Banqueting Hall but with it being burnt down she gave it in the stables. Eventually I went inside the Castle. I remember seeing all the inside flattened. When I looked up he could see the sky.

“Ruperra had been really something for someone like me to see. The rooms there were fancy and there was a sprung floor in the hall on the first floor. We’d seen castles before, we’ve got a lot of castles up here on Tyneside you know, but this was really beautiful. And I’ve never forgotten the chandelier. When it was all over I was really upset. The surroundings were so nice, the gardens and the trees. I enjoyed it there and I’m sorry for those who never had the chance to see it as it was.”
The year before the fire, the castle was home to a battalion of Dutch soldiers who had escaped from Holland before the Germans invaded.

The Princess Irene Brigade were stationed at the castle between August 29 and October 10, 1940, six or seven weeks after landing in Milford Haven.

Sergeant Siegmund Emanuel Kleerkoper

Sergeant Siegmund Emanuel Kleerkoper was one of those who was sent to Ruperra Castle. He said that they were housed in the coach house and in the stables with bunks of four men. He wrote about Tuesday training sessions including weapons training, field exercises and marching in the mountains.

He said: “I learnt to march. With large blisters under my feet and sweat pouring off my face and body, I never gave up and I finished every march.

“The surroundings were splendid, and we remained in Ruperra Castle for two months. We couldn’t criticise our training even though shortage of weapons enforced the usage of fairground guns but with instructions from military police.”

Sergeant Kleerkpoper would play the piano in the banqueting hall and encourage the other musicians in the regiment to put on performances.

Before and after the fire a Royal Army Service Corps Unit were trained at the castle and some of those who escaped from Dunkirk were recovering at the castle.

When the unit came back from Dunkirk, they were given two blankets to sleep on the floor in the castle and they were unable to bake as their equipment was left in France.

The unit were ready to move out as the Second Field Bakery Unit moved in after they left Dunkirk. John Rogers, a baker from Kent, had a lucky escape in Dunkirk as many of his comrades died but he was in the other half of the unit which returned to Ruperra.

The coach house and stables entrance now

Mr Rogers returned to Ruperra Castle in 1943 following the fire and slept under a canvas in the grounds. He said: “This time the mobile bakery equipment was at Ruperra which became the number one bakery training base.

“Men were being recalled from the Middle East and from various parts of England. We baked under marquees and the ovens stayed on the trailers with canvas over. We did the baking out in the field under canvas.”

Mobile bakery at Ruperra Castle

The Ministry of Defence’s instruction manuals for Mobile Bakeries were illustrated with pictures from the Ruperra Castle grounds and Mr Rogers said that they trained a whole American unit at Ruperra who also slept under canvas

What is happening with the castle now?

The castle is a neglected and dangerous ruin according to the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust. They have been campaigning for 25 years to purchase and conserve the Scheduled Ancient Monument, Grade II listed building and Grade II registered park.

The current owners previously submitted planning applications to convert outbuildings into a private residential development.

Ruperra Castle recently

The Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust have created an hour-long drama/documentary called War and Flames with Cwmni Cwm Ni (Our Valley) theatre group who dramatize the recollections of wartime soldiers and local people around the time of the fire. This will be performed on Thursday, December 9 in English at Machen Uniter Services Club. Book tickets: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/performance-of-ruperra-castle-war-and-flames-1939-46-tickets-204437807987 

They are also providing a free copy of their book Ruperra Castle War and Flames 1939-1946 to any new member who registers as a member of the trust between now and the end of December https://ruperracastle.weebly.com/membership.html

The book is also available to be purchased for £6 https://ruperracastle.weebly.com/films-and-books.html

The trust are also releasing their film, War and Flames, so the public can learn more about the history of the time around the night the Castle was burnt out. https://youtu.be/rx04eahJ-hA

Jack Hanbury, Patron of Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust and Deputy Lieutenant of Gwent, said:  

“It is a great shame that Ruperra Castle, once truly a castle fit for a king, has been neglected for so long. 

“The Trust wants to see the Castle rescued from its current ruinous state, and for its magnificent setting to be respected as a haven for wildlife and as a lung for the surrounding conurbations of Newport, Cardiff and Caerphilly.   We want to help and encourage the current owners to restore the Castle and protect its gardens and outbuildings.  This is a great opportunity for the local community to help save this iconic building from collapse.”

Find out more about Ruperra Castle:

A big thank you to the Ruperra Castle Preservation Trust for providing the information and images.

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