In late 2012 I was approached to assist in a new television programme for ITV highlighting house histories across the United Kingdom. In the five part series Britain’s Secret Homes the remarkable stories behind fifty of the UK’s most secret, surprising and intriguing homes are revealed. While assisting in compiling the final fifty houses for the programme, two of those chosen were first featured in my book, House Histories: The Secrets Behind Your Front Door. One of these, Orchard Court in Portman Square, London, was used by the French Section of Winston Churchill’s Special Operations Executive during World War Two.
From the exterior, Orchard Court in Portman Square appears to be like many other mansion blocks in central London; however, this simple inter-war building has a fascinating history associated with some of the most heroic men and women of the Second World War. The history of Orchard Court is a good illustration that every home has a story, no matter what the age of the house or what it looks like from the outside. Portman Square was first laid out for building in 1764 with houses designed by Robert Adam and James ‘Athenian’ Stuart. Grade I listed ‘Home House’ on the northern side of the square is one of the few original buildings to survive from this time, completed in 1777 by Robert Adam for the Countess of Home. Most of the eighteenth-century buildings were swept away as part of building redevelopments in the 1920s and ’30s, including those on the eastern side, where Orchard Court now stands. It was designed by architectural firm Messrs Joseph and completed in 1929, with residents moving in during 1930. Orchard Court is listed as an ‘unlisted building of merit’, built with a brick facade and stone detailing, and giant classical columns and pilasters. The name ‘Orchard’ does not relate to any former apple orchard, but rather originates from Orchard Portman, a former country estate belonging to the Portman family, near Taunton in Somerset.
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) was created by Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1940, with the main objective of supporting resistance movements in enemy territory in Europe, including Italy, Poland, Norway and France. The flats within Orchard Court were used by the French or ‘F’ section (SOE head office was at 64 Baker Street). Here, new spies were recruited and later briefed before being taken into occupied France. Sending women behind enemy lines and training them in espionage, including silent killing, was highly irregular at this time. One former spy, Noor Inayat Khan, said: ‘The time the agents spent at Orchard Court was a brief period of luxury before their gruelling, dangerous stints in the field.’
The F Section was commanded by Maurice Buckmaster, who was assisted by Vera Atkins; these two figures are said to have been the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s ‘M’ and Miss Moneypenny in the James Bond stories. Vera Atkins was responsible for interviewing recruits, as well as organising their training, creating the cover stories for the spies. Atkins has been much praised for her extraordinary work in the SOE. During her time at Orchard Court she sent 470 agents into France, including 39 women. 118 of them were never to return …
By Melanie Backe-Hansen