Elmbridge at War


Arguably the most notorious event of the 20th Century, the Second World War was the deadliest conflict in human history.

From Nations to Households

Allied powers fought against Axis powers for 6 long years, from the moment war was declared on 1st September 1939 to the formal surrender of Japan, after V.J Day, on 2nd September 1945.
To mark 75 years since Victory in Europe over Nazi Germany (V.E Day) on 8th May 2020, we uncovered the unique story of the Second World War in our own Borough.

As the largest total war the world has ever seen, the Second World War affected every single resident of Britain. At a grassroots level, this meant that each county, borough, town, village, street and household of the country played its own unique part in the national war effort – and Elmbridge is no exception.

Our Projects

Through the ‘Elmbridge at War’ programme, Elmbridge Museum has sought to promote public engagement with our borough’s remarkable and varied war history.  An array of projects have revealed the vastly differing experiences of the Second World War throughout Elmbridge, and helped to place the roles of our former local residents within a national framework.  You can find out more about these projects on this page.

'The Blitz in Our Borough' Exhibition

Elmbridge Museum's 'Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough' exhibition at the Civic Centre, Esher, in January 2020.

The ‘Elmbridge at War: The Blitz in our Borough’ exhibition at Esher Civic Centre in January 2020.

From 2020-21, the ‘Blitz in our Borough’ display at the Civic Centre, in Esher High Street, explored the experience of the Blitz for Elmbridge residents.

Which significant parts of the borough were Nazi targets? What happened in the immediate aftermath of a devastating raid? How did everyday life change for Elmbridge residents as a result of the Blitz?

All are important questions relating to Elmbridge’s experience of aerial bombardment, and ones which our online exhibition – tracking the Blitz from the first air raid siren to the final all-clear – seeks to explore.

Hidden Treasures Object Videos

To accompany the ‘Blitz in our Borough’ exhibition, we have created three sets of short object videos.  These ‘hidden treasures’ of Elmbridge Museum include items which feature in the exhibition and ones which remain behind closed doors in our archive.   Using the same format as the exhibition, we explore every inch of the chosen artefacts, inside and out, to paint a more detailed picture of some very special items.

Why not get to know our objects up close and personal by watching the videos in each section below? To find out more about the process behind creating the videos and gain a glimpse behind the scenes, read our blogpost.

Preparation for Air Raids

On the eve of the Blitz, 6th September 1940, the Borough of Elmbridge was prepared. Propaganda was distributed at every opportunity to encourage the famed ‘Blitz Spirit’ of resilience. Patriotic symbolism and imagery erupted as a result, and was included in an array of iconic posters, leaflets, and everyday items – such as on the handkerchief pictured.

But how could the government  maintain positivity, while also driving home the scale of the threat to life?

Air Raid Precautions

A vast array of Civil Defence Wardens acted as an essential reassurance. Approximately 10 Air Raid Precaution Wardens were appointed per square mile in Elmbridge to supervise the blackout and civilian safety when the sirens sounded, while Fire Guards would keep watch for bombs.

In addition to this, Anderson shelters, introduced by Home Secretary Sir John Anderson in 1939, were usually dug outside. They were convenient for the many Elmbridge residents who had gardens.  There were a few prominent public shelters in Elmbridge, such as the  one situated underneath Molesey recreation ground.

From the Exhibition

Handkerchief A handkerchief with a Union Jack design, from a Second World War 'Housewife kit' from Hinchley Wood, c. 1940s.

View this in St Charles Borromeo's V.E Day exhibition
Air Raid Manual 'Air Raids: What you should know, what you should do' manual printed by the Ministry of Home Security c.1939.

'X' Taped Windows The Walker family outside their Claygate home in 1940. The windows have been 'X' taped to protect against bomb blasts.

Underground Shelter The entrance to an air raid shelter in Oxshott, on the corner of the High Street, Steels Lane and Leatherhead Road, uncovered c.1980s.

Underground Shelter Inside the air raid shelter in Oxshott, on the corner of the High Street, Steels Lane and Leatherhead Road, uncovered c.1980s.

Did You Know?

British Restaurants

What if you were struggling to feed your family as a result of food rationing? ‘British Restaurants’ were canteens which provided food for members of the community facing hard times. The one based in Long Ditton Village hall was struck by a doodlebug bomb. Luckily, the bomb hit just before the hall opened for lunch—a few minutes later, and it would have been full of people.

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A Game for the Blackout

Replica 'Crosslets'

For both children and adults, the experience of air raids could vary from extremely frightening to incredibly boring. Games which were specially designed to while away the time during the blackout were often a welcome distraction.

This particular ‘game for the blackout’, owned by a family in Molesey, remarkably still has most of its pieces in tact.  A crossword game for 2 players, it contains 2 red playing boards, cut-out letter tabs, and instructions on stiff paper – all enclosed in a paper sleeve.  Yet the age of the paper it is printed on has made it incredibly delicate.  In the replica we have created, none of the original words have been changed, so you can experience this Blitz game at home!

Play at Home!

Download our replica Crosslets game

Crosslets-game-replica.pdf
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The Bombs Fall

Despite its position on the outskirts of London, Elmbridge played an important strategic role in the war. Homeless London evacuees were brought in their droves to the grand estate of Mount Felix in Walton, a place of relative safety and respite.  At the same time, the staff of Fairmile Marine worked furiously to produce boats for the Royal Navy, and workers at the Navy, Army and Airforce Institute (NAAFI) headquarters planned the nation’s next move from their base at Ruxley Towers in Claygate.

As a result of its involvement in war industry, parts of Elmbridge became prominent targets, and schools of children were whisked from their classrooms in Molesey to the peaceful Devonshire countryside – away from the danger.  The contrasting intensity of the Blitz across the borough is stark. Many areas to the south and west of Elmbridge escaped unscathed. Others further north and east received the tail end of London’s heavy shelling.

'Danger Unexploded Bomb' sign used by ARP Wardens in Elmbridge.

‘Danger Unexploded Bomb’ sign used by ARP Wardens in Elmbridge.

The attack on the Vickers-Armstrong factory was a watershed in both Elmbridge and the nation’s experience of the Blitz thus far. Just after 1pm on the 4th September 1940, the factory producing Wellington bombers was shelled by its German equivalents.  83 employees were killed and 400 injured – making it the most devastating raid since the war began.  Nevertheless, a year later the resilient workforce had moved to Silvermere and were continuing to contribute to the national war effort.

During this time, ARP wardens put their lives at risk in order to supervise the air raids.  Mr. A. C. Cornwell from Esher is one of the wardens who we know a lot about – and Elmbridge Museum is now home to many of his personal effects from the time.  These include his identity card and notes on a bombing raid in his locality, which are both on display in the exhibition.

Find out more about one of the essential items in an air raid warden’s toolkit here.

Photo Album

The Blitz in Elmbridge

The Sparrows Force Mr. Birkhead of the Sparrows Force of Walton - an anti-aircraft unit - wearning a helmet and gas mask and kneeling beside the Kempton Waterworks reservoir.

Vickers-Armstrong Factory's Home Guard The 38 men who were part of Vickers' own Home Guard Unit during the Second World War.

ARP Christmas Poster Hand-painted poster, used at a Christmas Social at the Air Raid Warden's Post in 1940. The words 'We'll keep our Christmas merry still' are in the corner. Miss Peggy Millson was the ARP warden for West Palace Gardens and Old Palace Road, during the Second World War.

Vickers' Factory Funerals The burial of unidentified casualties from Air Raid at Vickers-Armstrongs Ltd. on 4th September, 1940, at Burvale Cemetery in Hersham.

Greenways Bombing Nos. 51 and 53 Greenways, Hinchley Wood, after the explosion of a VI flying bomb in July 1944. showing No. 53 with no side walls, and the tiles on both roofs all shattered. 3 people in the road were killed in the blast and 2 homes completely destroyed.

View this image in St Charles Borromeo school's online V.E. Day exhibition

After the Air Raids

After the all-clear siren had sounded, life for most went on as usual.  Vital war work continued and light entertainment was an essential source of morale-boosting relief throughout the Borough.  The war necessitated a huge expansion in women’s responsibilities. Women were now a part of every sphere on the Home Front – most completed manual work formerly undertaken by men, while housewifery, once a backseat role, became a national duty too.

Female workers at Allsop's Garage, Weybridge, making landing gear for Vickers-Armstrong's Wellington bomber planes.

Female workers at Allsop’s Garage, Weybridge, making landing gear for Vickers-Armstrong’s Wellington bomber planes.

While young and old toiled in the factories of war industry, vast numbers of local women also grew vegetables across Elmbridge’s extensive farmland.  Bell Farm in Hersham – next to the Coronation Recreation Ground – was formerly known as ‘Secrets Farm’, and became home to row upon row of glass cloches, denoting its use by the Women’s Land Army (W.L.A).

Land work brought about all manner of unlikely alliances throughout the Borough. Prisoners of War from Thames Ditton’s Topsite Camp, Greenwood Road, were set to work at Rivernook Farm in Walton. They harvested food crops alongside members of the W.L.A, and generally led a happy coexistence within the community.

Prisoners of war and land army women harvesting tomatoes at Rivernook Farm, Walton, 1946.

Prisoners of war and land army women harvesting tomatoes at Rivernook Farm, Walton, 1946

Vickers-Armstrong was perhaps the most prominent war factory in Elmbridge, but there was also substantial production taking place elsewhere.  On the Fairmile Estate in Cobham, Airspeed Ltd. and Fairmile Marine produced air and navy equipment respectively.  Allsops was another prominent yet often forgotten player in Elmbridge’s war effort, holding the contract to maintain the Vickers Company cars. Mr. Allsop, Chairman of Walton an Weybridge Urban District Council (W.W.U.D.C.), founded the business in 1925 as a garage. During the Second World War it became a private engineering company making landing gear for the Vickers factory Spitfires and Wellingtons.  The company had a strong workforce of 500 (mostly female) employees.

Allsop's Factory

Female workers at Allsop's Garage, Weybridge, making landing gear for Vickers-Armstrong's Wellington bomber planes.

The Women's Land Army

Photograph of six Land Army girls at Secrets Farm (better known as Bell Farm), Hersham, c.1944-45.

Work at Secrets Farm

Photograph of 5 women planting seeds at Secrets Farm (Bell Farm), Hersham, c.1944-45.

Remembering Victory

On the 11th May 1941, the worst of the Blitz had come to an end.  Four years later, on the 8th May 1945, elated residents threw street parties across Elmbridge to mark Victory in Europe (V.E. Day).  A month after that, on the 8th June, a lavish celebration was being held at the Oatlands Park Hotel, with toasts, a Cabaret, and hundreds of attendees.  The place that had been a convalescent hospital for New Zealand troops in the First World War had become the official venue for victory celebrations in the Second.

Victory celebrations in Florence Road, Walton, showing a long table with children sitting at it and adults in the background holding a 'VICTORY' banner.

Victory celebrations in Florence Road, Walton, 1945.

Across Britain, there was widespread jubilation and relief for those who had survived unscathed: the prospects of bombing and the threat to life were officially over. But there were many who were not celebrating – for the bereaved and those who still had family fighting the war in Asia, there was little to be happy about.

The close of the war could not bring back lost loved ones, nor could the end of shelling restore Elmbridge to its pre-war state. 75 years on from V.E Day, we can take the opportunity to remember all those who resiliently faced suffering and death in our Borough, and those who did not live to see the arrival of the V.E Day that they had bravely fought for.

Memories of War

Oral Histories of Elmbridge

Our understanding of the experience of the Second World War is constantly changing.  Oral histories – in other words, the spoken memories of people who lived through the war – add to our understanding of this historical watershed in the modern day.

As part of the Elmbridge at War project, we asked past and present Elmbridge community members to come forward with their take on the Second World War.

'Memories of War' oral history recording equipment.

Recording equipment.

During their interviews, the final ten participants’ recollections were vivid, emotional, funny, captivating, sobering – and above all, extremely varied.

They provide a personal insight into what it was like for some living through the Elmbridge Blitz, and the profound effect that it has had on life since.

Extracts from the oral history interviews are available in the Memories of War video above and the notebook below.

Alan

Tolworth


“Whenever we had a family gathering, Christmas or birthdays or christenings… there would always be a toast to absent friends, which as a child I found difficult to understand. I thought, ‘well, who’s not here?’… But of course the fact was, some of the people who should have been there had been lost during the Second World War.”


Doreen

West Molesey


“I suppose I was about four or coming up to five when we watched dog fights over the reservoirs, and the planes were amazing diving in and out. One of them was shot down and we all cheered, but when I think about it now, we all cheered but we didn’t know whether it was a German being shot down or one of our own. As kids, we never found out.”


Helen

Weybridge


“The senior girls… used to stay the night on a camp bed and fire-watch – at sixteen, fire-watching up on the roof! And the school was bombed… we stayed and helped clear up, and camaraderie was great. One of the bombs, this stick that they dropped – they weren’t very big bombs – dropped on a shed… where they stored all the surplus chemicals… Must’ve looked beautiful, mustn’t it! So we had to clear all that up.”


Mary

Hinchley Wood


“Things were rationed, shops were restricted, so you had to buy what was there at the time. So although I had two bridesmaids, one was in pink, one was in green, and she couldn’t find any shoes – and they were rationed anyway… so she wore blue slippers! … My shoes I also borrowed from my sister. They were fabric and they were too small for me.”


Minda

Weybridge


“I remember D-Day, I woke up in the morning and the sky was black with planes going over… and then, however many years later it was V.E Day, and that was announced on the radio. We were called to assembly and we had prayers, and the head mistress said ‘you can do whatever you like today.'”


Terry

Weybridge


“We actually got bombed… the house was badly damaged and I was carried – because I’d hurt my leg – to a big underground shelter in an adjoining road. On the way, we passed Preston’s. Now, Preston’s was the local corner shop, the sweet shop, and of course we were only allowed two ounces of sweets a week. And the little window had been blown out, so as I was being carried I saw this big bar of Cadbury’s fruit and nut. And I bent down, I was so happy I’d got this big bar – and it was wood! It was a dummy, I was so upset!”


Victor

Weybridge


“We had a Morrison shelter, a table shelter in the house. This turned up, I suppose about 1942-43, and it was the thing of all grumbles of course: it was too big; you banged your hips on the corner; it looked ugly in the room; we had to get rid of the dining room table to put it there. But it proved it was always a good source of playing.”


Get Involved!

Anyone can take part

Why not try doing your own oral history recording with someone at home?

Take a look at our guide to conducting oral history interviews

Memories-of-War-oral-history-manual.pdf
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Curator's Talk

In this video of the ‘Elmbridge at War’ Curator’s Talk, Elmbridge Museum’s Exhibitions & Interpretation Officer explains how the ‘The Blitz in our Borough’ exhibition at Esher Civic Centre was put together. Including:

  • Behind-the-scenes insight into the research and design process
  • The power of place and making the Elmbridge War Trail
  • Interpreting and using the ‘Memories of War’ oral histories

Explore Further

Ending the War

To mark the anniversary of V.J Day, Councillor Vicki Macleod wrote a very special account of the experiences of her father, a Naval Air Gunner who served in the Pacific War against Japan. Find out about his remarkable Second World War career and listen to more of our oral histories recollecting V.E Day, V.J Day, and the aftermath of the war.

Take me to the VJ Day blog post