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Uncover the rich history of Elmbridge with our latest online exhibitions
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Explore our learning offer for schools, families and community groups
Uncover the rich history of Elmbridge with our latest online exhibitions
Want to discover more about your local area?
In response to the first wave of the pandemic in 2020, It’s Not Your Birthday But worked with Claygate Centre for the Community and an army of brilliant creative volunteers, to mobilise Words on Wheels. A selection of cards, letters, crafts, art and a whole range of creative connections were delivered with Meals on Wheels to people who lived alone in our community.
They received great feedback from the recipients; the deliveries made them feel less alone and gave them creative nourishment and inspiration. Once a relationship had been established, they began to see how many of the recipients had little or no contact with others. It was from here that the idea of ‘Nothing About Us Without Us’ was born: giving those people the chance to be recorded speaking about who they were, what mattered to them, and how the lockdown had been for them – and to get a professional portrait done in the process.
The National Lottery Community Fund and the Community Foundation for Surrey funded It’s Not Your Birthday But to work with 20 people in our community. Here, you can explore the 20 portraits by artist Erika Flowers, snippets from the oral histories, and learn more about how the project was conducted.
With the help of partner organisations, we reached out to 20 local people who would most benefit from the project and began work with them in 2020. After undertaking oral history training in preparation for the interviews, the plan had originally been to record our volunteers’ chats with each sitter whilst they were having their portrait drawn live. New lockdowns, however, forced a change of tactics. Instead, each participant had a doorstep photo shoot and interviews were subsequently conducted online or by phone.
The project’s impact on participants has been profound. As well as feeling less isolated during the challenging times presented by the pandemic, many have commented on how encouraged they feel that their community is interested in hearing from them. Through Elmbridge Museum’s archive and website, the portraits and words of those involved will have a permanent legacy for our local area’s future generations.
Find out more about the portrait artist Erika Flowers and her other projects
“You can walk about here, and I can go out in the garden – I’ve got a lovely garden, have you seen it?”
It’s gorgeous. Do you like gardening?
“I love gardening. My sister got me those plants. She’s lovely, my sister. She’s four years younger than me…
I used to walk my dog at Richmond Park… I got her from Battersea dog’s home… she was a Jack Russell found in London, homeless – Susie. She was a proper Jack Russell! Couldn’t stand the postman. I’ve had an Irish Red Setter as well, before her… I love dogs.”
“I’ve got a cookbook. I’m expanding that and I am actually halfway through book 2, and I’ve been doing various pamphlets as well.
Christmas is coming, but we’ve also got a holiday called Hanukkah, which is a bit like, I compare it to Christmas and Diwali as a winter ‘light’ festival, so I’ve just finished my pamphlet with the help of a friend who sorted it out.
So I’ve been doing that, and as I say, creating recipes and changing them and thinking about what to put in book 2, and getting book 1. Actually, the community where my son is have just started cooking demonstrations based on my recipes. So, they’ve been having zoom sessions and they’ve let me join.”
“My oldest son and a very, very old friend of mine has come round to help me with something. My friend came and dumped a book on me at the doorstep. She just felt like a ride in her car I think, like a drive and that was nice.
Neighbours of course, I have very helpful neighbours. Next door, upstairs, round the corner.”
“I mean, we all live in a need-to-know kind of society, but it doesn’t help. All you want to know is somebody from the doctor phones you and says we’ve got a ration of vaccine, come and have your own vaccine.
You don’t really need to know who’s winning. ‘Have the Russians got a vaccine, have the Chinese got a vaccine, have the English got a vaccine?’ – you’re not really worried about the race, are you? We have no control.”
“[I’ve been] bored, doing a lot of cooking… I’ve done that all my life and I did it for work for about 10 years and I’ve just got time to create recipes. I’ve been doing some videos, managed to prop my phone up and do videos and then send them to various people which is fun.”
“We lived in Battersea until I was about four years of age, and then my dad was an engineer, so he wanted to work in engineering, so we moved to Molesey so he could work where Brooklands is now – it was Vickers-Armstrong. And he started working there as an engineer, and then in 1940, September, he was killed. Because it was bombed, and he was in charge of getting people to the shelters. And on the way to the shelters, he was machine gunned. So I was six years of age, and.. so that left just me and my mum…
During the war, I was evacuated to the Midlands, to Stoke-on-Trent, but I cried my eyes out, so she had to come and pick me up, bring me back. But it was very hard during the war, because my mum was doing war work, and she was never at home really. I was on my own a lot, so this pandemic reminds me so much of during the war, where we didn’t have much and it was hard going. But we got through it.”
My dad, Albert, chose war work instead of going into the army.
He was an engineer, and he was killed at Vickers-Armstrong on 4th September 1940, working on the Wellington Bomber. He was also a warden, getting people to the bomb shelter. As he was last out of the building, he was hit by shells from the German aircraft, and was killed.
We now know that 85 people were killed that day at Brooklands. My name is John, and I’m his son.
“Over the years, we’ve been trying to see if we could find out more about what happened on that day, in September 1940, and luckily my daughter, Karen, she has been ringing a certain lady that had something to do with it, about if we could get a plaque with the names of all the 85 people who were killed at Vickers-Armstrong on that day.
It’s taken 80 years, and a couple of months ago we had the joy of going to Brooklands Museum, and seeing a massive plaque with all the 85 names including my dad, and we had a lovely day there with the Mayor of Elmbridge, certain other people there, pilots…
We had a really nice day, but it’s taken 80 years to get that done.”
“I come from a big family and we were always together on the weekends. In summer we would go on picnics, there were 30 or 40 of us and we went to different picnic spots. All my brothers and sisters went to George in the Cape and slept in a self-contained flat. We all had our own flats but in the same building and then every day we would get together in the cars and go to different beaches and do lots of sightseeing. We had lovely holidays while we were growing up. It was just carefree…
We came here [to the UK] with just our clothes and that was it, and not very much money either. But, thank goodness, we were part of a big church in South Africa, and the pastor here had worked with the pastor in South Africa. So when we came over, we contacted him and we stayed with a lovely English couple who were at the church as well, and they helped us out tremendously, and then after 3 or 4 months we got a little flat and a job and settled here.”
“We’re lucky, we have my daughter-in-law in Walton, I just write down all my groceries and she orders it from Tesco’s, and she comes as often as she can but she’s also busy. My son works shifts and we don’t see him all that often.
My son in Ireland used to come once a month and spend a few days with us. My daughter used to fly over in between, but with lockdown we’ve not seen anybody. Even now it’s no good coming as they have to self-isolate.”
“I like movies and crime, and he [my husband] loves all of his sports. I used to tell him off that all he watched was sport, and now I go into his room to check on him and he’s watching Neighbours, Home and Away and children’s programmes! We have two TVs, one in the lounge and one in the bedroom, so we could both watch our own programmes.
When I was a teenager I used to go to the shops and buy True Detective magazines, so it’s always been an interest. Now I watch Poirot and Miss Marple.”
“I joined a club and I went karaoke – I used to sing… it depended where it [the club] went. My friend would tell me where it is, and they would come and pick me up… I like pop… Engelbert Humperdinck, Cliff Richard… I’ve got a load of DVDs and CDs…
I like going out and about, yes. I meet all my friends… They live all around, you know, I’ve got them all over the place… We go out for a drink or a meal, or we meet in the evening and go to one of the clubs. They’ve got music in there… Have a dance. I can’t do dancing like I used to… I used to remember all the 60s, I was always on the floor dancing…
How did you find lockdown?
Oh, very depressing. It took too long really. It was nearly a year before we came out of it… I had no one to talk to, you know, and I felt very lonely… I could ring my sisters, talk to them, you know.”
“I’m 97 years old, and I’ve lived in my present house for about 43 years.
But going back in history – before the Second World War, I’d always wanted to be a Spitfire pilot, because a lot of my friends did at that time, but eventually I finished up by going into the Royal Engineers, and I spent the next four years there…
I did end up coming back to this country because I finished up in Burma and the Far East, and we had some tidying up to do afterwards, after the war finished, and I didn’t get back here until 1947. And in ’47, it was a fine summer that year, which was a change from the Far East!… it was a lovely summer and I met my beautiful wife.”
“I must say that looking back, the really exciting part [of my life] was working in central London – I met so many good people, it was a real, very busy time at that time, and there was a lot of construction going on, I even had a very nice dinner in the main Guildhall. That was extraordinary, There was a speaker there who was an MP and a minister, and he was a chap I didn’t particularly like, but again, he was such a good talker.”
“I left school at 14 and worked in a bakehouse because I was going to do patisserie work, but got fed up as I had to do the cleaning. It was a cafe in Walton, and they had a separate cake kitchen. I learnt things from him from icing cakes, so I’ve done a lot of cakes in my time, wedding cakes.
The last cake I made was for my son’s wedding about 25 years ago. They then brought out rolled icing and I wasn’t used to that. I used piped icing and I used to do decorating and trellis work, so I gave up. My daughter then started doing them and my granddaughter now does them as well.”
“I do knitting and some art as well, because the R.C. Sherriff Trust sends us art or crafts to do every fortnight, so that’s something to look forward to, so I’ve been doing those…
In fact, I got a new one that came in this morning… It’s sort of a secret really, I don’t quite know. It’s something that’s going to go into the entrance of the Riverhouse Barn. I think everybody has got a piece to do and then it’s all going to be put together. We don’t really know and they haven’t told us what it is. It’s a design, we’ve got to fill in whatever we want to do, we can paint, we can do collages or whatever and it’s all going together at the end, so I don’t know what it’s going to be or how it’s going to look but it looks quite interesting anyway…
There are quite a few pieces in it to do and it’s quite interesting. I keep thinking, I wonder what it’s going to be, you know. Anyway, I haven’t decided what to do yet.”
“I certainly don’t want to go on public transport. The only time I’ve been into a shop since March, I went away for a few days with my daughter to Eastbourne and I was in a supermarket there. It’s the only time. In all this time that’s the only time…
It was in the evening, and there weren’t that many people there. We were lucky, one of my daughter’s colleagues has a flat down there so we went down mid-week for 3 nights. We went into a couple of restaurants and sat outside. It was overlooking the sea, it was lovely.”
“I’ve got an iPad as well now and I learnt to use Facebook. I got in an awful lot of mess at the beginning, pressing all sorts of buttons and goodness knows what. Sending messages to people I shouldn’t have sent messages to.
But I’m quite good now, I often put things on there and I reply when people put different things on there.”
“You can’t do what you normally do, sing, write, art class – you’re stuck indoors. There’s only so many walks you can do. And as I’m disabled, I can go over there. And then come back. There’s a green the other side of the railway. Just over there.
How do you get over there?
I walk very slowly with my stick
Over the railway track?
There’s a bridge. Yeah, just over there. You can go under a few yards down.
And have you been for quite a few walks?
Not so much now. I do – no I’m lying, at night-time if I’ve not had anything on, I do take my stick and walk over there as far as the arch. And then I come back. Take my time. You might see somebody.”
“Did you learn Greek at school?
And you enjoyed Greek?
Oh I did, I really did. More than Latin, although I got prizes for Latin… I used to say about my French, I’ve been learning French for seven years, but I can’t speak a word of it.
But Greek however, I imagine was a different story?
Oh, I couldn’t speak it. However, very nicely, in the army I got the offer of this Greek course. I had some friends who knew no Greek at all… we were given six weeks of phrases, that’s what we learnt, phrases, and the six weeks were intensive… And then we flew out to Cyprus, where we were fighting the Greeks… and when we got there, for two weeks we did nothing. I think if anything, it was to acclimatise ourselves, that was the idea… Then we had an oral exam in Greek, and they said where do we want to go, and I chose the Durham Light Infantry, because my father served with the Durham Light Infantry in the First World War. Anyway, it was a lovely posting away, the other end of the island – a place called Paphos, the most beautiful place, where Aphrodite the Goddess of Love was born. It was a wonderful place, wonderful.
And what year was that?
That would be ’58 to 9.”
“[As a child] I was put in the garden to play every morning, on my own. And I still remember how bored I was… until, suddenly one day, I found myself playing with my sister.
So she wad put out as well to play?
When she was old enough… And we had such lovely games, we had a lovely time, wonderful… We had a lovely garden, wonderful garden – full of hiding places. There was a tennis court there too, that we restored – it wasn’t looking like one then. So these friends down the road and up across the road were playing with us, played lovely games. Oh I had a very happy childhood.”
“What with this lockdown, it’s been terrible… It has [changed] now because we’re able to go out and about and things, and I’m slowly going with Irene to some of the groups we go on during the weekdays and that, which is very good, I enjoy it.
It’s good to get out and do a bit of gardening and that, and here I just wish people would join in more… A few people stay in their flats, but it’s a case of getting them all joining in…
Now that lockdown is easing, is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to getting back to doing?
Well just getting our coffee mornings going down here, getting everything going downstairs – like Irene wants to get everything going again down here, which I often help. If Irene’s away I help Tony, who came round today to look, I help him do coffees and teas and things, and we get the bingo going in the evenings, which will be good. And I hope Burview Hall starts again, where I used to go… arts and craft.”
“I grew up in Leeds, in Yorkshire, that was where I was born…
We lived in Leeds for quite a while, then we moved off to here with my parents, and then my parents passed away… I have got some memories of Leeds, some of my cousins live up in Leeds, some I can’t find but I keep in touch with some of my cousins.”
“We [my family] used to talk on WhatsApp and things, and my sister said, whilst the lockdown’s on, don’t go travelling far or anything!…
I see quite a lot of my disabled son. I see him on Sundays, where I go to a church… I see [my son] David on a Sunday, when we meet. Because he has a carer who goes round with us, and then we go back to his place, then I normally come back home after.”
“My friend Stella and I, who is not with me any more unfortunately, we used to go down to the Thames at Weybridge, and they used to have a bathing hut. And there used to be a gentleman there that used to make sure that you could swim properly before you could go deeper into the water.
Well, we were past going, so we decided that we would go over the Thames to the other side, under the bridge. And that’s where my brother John used to do exhibition diving, he used to dive off the bridge there. This time, when I had met Harry, we swam over – so we sat and rested on the ledge that is there. [She] said alright, ready to go Sylvia? So I said yes okay, off we went, and all of a sudden these little pebbles started popping around.
I said to Stella, what on earth is happening? There’s all these little splashes. What had happened, there was a row of cheeky faces looking down on us. He [Sylvia’s future husband, Harry] had just been demobbed from the air force, because he’d done his two years in the air force, then they met us on the other side, introduced themselves, they were perfectly gentleman-like, and off they went. By chance on the Sunday we went down to the coast for the day, and who should be on the sands, it was that same group, laying there.”
“I was still working at John Lewis’, I had another phone call, from Buckingham Palace – again. And I shook in my shoes, I thought, oh no, what’s happening, what’s happened this time! Anyway, again it was Lady Strathclyde, she said, we have been looking at your interviews, six months previously, that you had with Heather in Buckingham Palace. And she said… we want someone to look after Princess Diana when she marries Charles.’
Well, I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what to think! And I said, oh – oh she said, I haven’t put that correctly, you’d have to be a dresser, she said, lay out all her clothes out ready, you know, and getting her bath ready, and all things like that, like a lady in waiting. And I thought all these people were sort of royal people, like did that.
Anyway, I said well that would be a lovely idea. I said yes, I would really enjoy doing that. Anyway, again she said to me, can you come tomorrow for an interview? That was the very next day. And you know, the day they rang me, I was packing my case to go on holiday to Spain. And I said oh, gosh, no I can’t come tomorrow! I said, I’ll tell you why, I’m in the middle of packing my case to go to Spain. My hotel’s paid for, my airline, everything – I’d lose a lot of money if I hadn’t gone.”
“It [things in lockdown] changed a great deal, because once a month we had a meeting – there was eight of us would have a lunch together and meet, and that closed because we used to go to the local day centre.
They named us ‘The Loud Ladies’! When we said we’re coming for a special dinner, they always had a tag, a thing on the table, with ‘The Loud Ladies’ written on it. That obviously all stopped.
Last year’s lockdown, we decided that we would carry on meeting, but there could only be six of us, and we took our deckchairs and our picnics to Hersham Green and sat there. We’d end up sitting there all afternoon… But that all stopped, the weather started getting cold and it stopped. And then, of course, the lockdown happened again, so we just couldn’t meet.”
“The other thing [problem] is of course my grandson and my new granddaughter! I haven’t spent as much time with them as I would’ve liked.
Although, I was in their bubble, but we still – because my grandson carried on going to nursery, my son and daughter-in-law were frightened of the risk it would give me. So I didn’t see very much at all of them, I certainly didn’t see them indoors.
And of course my little granddaughter was born in November, when I had to go to the house to babysit the older one. So that made a huge difference, not being able to be with him as much as I would like.”
“I remember the feeling when they told us we were going to lockdown, I remember, almost a lonely sort of feeling. And I remember the day when they said that we were locking down and I thought well, how do you get food, how do you get shopping?
And I remember, Waitrose is just around the corner from me, and I remember they opened it up, the first morning, for pensioners, or people over the age of 65 I think. But you had to go there first thing in the morning. And I can remember walking round there, that first morning, and getting in a queue, and I remember being cold and thinking this is so weird, that it must be like wartime, when people had to queue to get their food.
And it was a funny, lonely feeling. But that was only that first week, and then I thought, well actually I can cope with this! You know, this is not that bad, there’s worse things.”
“I used to go and sit down there.
By the river?
Where those two girls are sitting, that’s where I normally sit, yeah. And, oh I’ve met so many people down there… they recognise me and, like, ‘hello mate!’, and because we’ve got the garage there, a lot of boats stop there to fill up, so it’s quite busy. And this one guy there, I had a chat with him, he said ‘we’re going up to Kingston, do you want a lift? Jump on’. Never met them before in my life – ‘yeah, come on, jump on the boat, we’ll take you’ – I didn’t want to go to Kingston, but I thought, a boat ride up to Kingston, I walked back along the river, and it’s fine you know, it’s better than telly…
Another friend of mine, he came past a couple of months ago, and him and three of his mates share a boat. And they just, they came past and they were like ‘Oi, Steve!’ And they turned round, and they said go on, jump on, we’ll drop you off at Kingston, and my son and his partner and my two granddaughters came down about 3 weeks later, I’ve never seen my youngest granddaughter before, so I phoned my mate Dean up, I said ‘can I charter your boat for an afternoon?’ He said yeah, ‘course you can, he said just, you pay for the diesel and we’ll go up to Hampton Court. And the weather was glorious, and we had such a brilliant afternoon, it was amazing.”
Interested in listening to more oral histories? Head over to our 'Elmbridge at War' online exhibition to discover the Memories of War project.Go to the online exhibition