Brigadier Eric Earle of Walton
Walton Hall
Walton Lodge Cottage

If oysters be the food of love, it’s perhaps best to not only stand by with a bucket of cold water but, as another pearl of wisdom, also a stomach pump, for it was from eating oysters that Diana Earle, the wife of Brigadier Eric Earle, of Walton Hall, died in 1964.

Wishing Christmas to be a quiet affair, and with the family not expected until after the festive day, on Christmas Eve the couple had left their home at Walton Hall to go out for dinner, but that night Diana suddenly became ill, and died from food poisoning.

Devastated, her husband had all the furnishings turned out of Walton Hall and burnt, and the following autumn he died of a broken heart, to be buried alongside Diana in Walton church.

In fact none of the family would ever return to live at Walton Hall, and in 1967 the Milton Keynes Development Corporation purchased the property, to accommodate their Planning and Architects offices, pending an eventual move to Wavendon Tower. Then on September 1st 1969 the Open University officially took up residence, and the grounds of Walton Hall have since been extensively overlaid by their consequent developments.

As a 21 year old Second Lieutenant, on August 26th 1914 Eric Greville Earle had taken part in the Battle of Le Cateau, the last to be fought on open ground, and, with this being one of the earliest engagements of the First World War, as part of the action the British troops had been detailed to recapture howitzers from the Germans.

During the engagement Eric was hit by a bullet in the left wrist, but as he glanced down to determine the damage he was hit by a second bullet, which pierced his left eye and continued out through the back of his head. Yet by glancing down he almost certainly escaped death, for the bullet would have otherwise entered his brain. The award of the D.S.O. subsequently recognised his part in the action, and in his later military career he would progress to the rank of Brigadier.

Born into a well known Liverpool import and export shipping family, it was following the dissolution of his first marriage, to Noel Downes Martin, that Eric first became acquainted with Walton Hall, through his marriage in 1931 to Diana, ‘Dido’, Harley, a tall and striking blue eyed blonde ‘with a rather loud laugh.’

She was the eldest daughter of the late Dr. Vaughan Harley of Walton Hall, and there the couple would set up home, with Diana becoming stepmother to four young sons. All would be educated at Stowe, and having joined the army, when one was made top cadet at his military training college he telephoned his good news to his family at Walton Hall.

However, within an hour another phone call had to be made, to say that he had been killed by falling from a moving gun carriage. At the outbreak of World War Two, Brigadier Earle was posted to Cairo, taking Diana with him, but by the time of their return the rectory and Walton Hall had been occupied by some 40 members of the W.R.N.S., engaged on the code breaking activities at Bletchley Park.

Therefore the couple moved into Walton Lodge Cottage, but after the war, as with many families of a similar status, their fortunes would never be the same, and although they moved back into Walton Hall, from the previous and somewhat extensive staff now only a single maid remained.

And therein lies a certain irony, for from once epitomising the ‘upstairs, downstairs’ world of entrenched class divide, Walton Hall is now a recognised icon of social change, offering a university education to anyone, regardless of their social background.

Thus those positions formerly the preserve of a privileged few can now be aspired to by anyone, and that such degrees of change have been made possible is all due to the Open University, at Walton Hall.