Waddesdon Manor is ready if disaster strikes

Above, Pippa Shirley checking one of the disaster boxes. Below an 18th century painting of Venice by Guardi, an 18th century elephant automaton that would be covered in a fireproof blanket and cut out of its frame and  a book that would be removed via a human chain through the house
Above, Pippa Shirley checking one of the disaster boxes. Below an 18th century painting of Venice by Guardi, an 18th century elephant automaton that would be covered in a fireproof blanket and cut out of its frame and a book that would be removed via a human chain through the house

Few visitors realise, but among all the priceless antiques found in each room at Waddesdon Manor lie hidden boxes containing instruments such as scalpels and incontinence pads.

Staff hope they will never need to open these boxes and use the tools within – the scalpel for cutting masterpieces from their frames, the pads for drying up water after a flood.

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is a piece of art that would, in the last instance have to be cut out of its frame to rescue it

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is a piece of art that would, in the last instance have to be cut out of its frame to rescue it

The disaster response kits also include specially shaped fire blankets to cover statues and a list of which items are the most valuable – in case an employee or fireman only has time to grab one thing.

The manor has 25,000 items of value on show or in its archives and this month staff took part in their latest disaster-response training exercise to ensure they are prepared for a flood or fire.

In the past this has included forming a human chain through the manor to remove replica books. This month 70 of the manor’s 90 staff were challenged to remove replica items from three different rooms as quickly as possible.

Pippa Shirley, head of collections, who has worked at the manor for 12 years, said: “Staff come and go and you have to make sure new members have the basic training.

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is the elephant automaton, which has its own purpose made fire blanket

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is the elephant automaton, which has its own purpose made fire blanket

“It is also bringing all the departments together, because the salvage teams are just made up of whoever manages to turn up.

“So they are people that might not know each other or if they are new might not know their way around the house in the dark.”

The manor’s emergency plan only kicks into action once the fire brigade confirms it is safe to enter a part of the house – and after everyone in the building has been evacuated and accounted for.

Then, in what seems like military precision, staff are split into ‘salvage teams’ which are a maximum of 12 people. This includes a salvage team leader and another person whose sole job is to count the rest of the team in and out of the house.

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is head of collections Pippa Shirley with one of the many books on display

Waddedon Manor - feature onthier disaster exercise. Pictured is head of collections Pippa Shirley with one of the many books on display

In each room, often hidden in boxes under tables, are a set of unique emergency instructions and items that could be useful.

This includes bubble wrap, gloves, torches and those incontinence pads and scalpels for cutting paintings out of their frames, which Pippa reflects ‘is better to get it cut out than not out at all’.

She says staff are told to cover many of the items with fireproof blankets, because ‘stone doesn’t burn in the way that wood or textiles would’.

There are also instructions for how to get many of the antique curtains or tapestry’s down and advice on how many people are required to roll-up a specific carpet and dump it out of a window.

The first full-scale disaster-response exercise took place in 2003, when the fire brigade were invited to lay hoses through the manor and understand the obstacles that might hamper them during a genuine emergency.

Since then exercises have taken place at night, during the day and even over the festive period.

The training has already paid off. Last year there was flooding in the Batchelors’ Room because of guttering problems which occured in the middle of the night and staff had to strip the room of anything valuable.

Although all items in the house are insured, Pippa says it is vital to have an emergency plan in place because ‘many of the objects are unique and irreplaceable’.

During this month’s daytime test 624 members of the public had come through the gates of the famous manor.

Pippa stresses that they were told what was happening and it was also highlighted on the manor’s website.