Part 2 of the West Horsley Place in the Second World War Series.

On 25 April 1939, the bookkeeper at West Horsley Place, Thomas William Imms, recorded an order placed with Selfridge & Co Ltd which totalled £42, 16 shillings and 6 pence. They had ordered lamp holders, sheets, towels, and pillowcases which were to be used in case children were evacuated from London and sent to the manor house.

At that time, West Horsley Place belonged to the Marquess and Marchioness of Crewe. To understand their standing in society, we simply need to turn to the guest lists of dinner parties held at West Horsley Place. On Tuesday 7 February 1939, they hosted the King and Queen, the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk, and Lord and Lady Mountbatten amongst other distinguished guests. Seven months later, they would be hosting evacuated children from Fulham. 

The British government feared that the German air force, the Luftwaffe, would begin to bomb London and other major cities when the war inevitably arrived. Therefore, on Friday 1 September 1939, children arrived at their primary school in Fulham as they usually did. But on this morning, each had a small case of luggage with them, and they were soon handed a small, square cardboard box which contained their gas masks. As the buses arrived, they waved goodbye to their parents. They were among the 800,000 children that were being evacuated that weekend. Often, they were told they were going on holiday.

The convoy of buses took the school children to Wimbledon Station, where they took a train to Guildford. From there, half of the school boarded buses destined for the village of West Horsley. Around 40 children were billeted at West Horsley Place.

That Sunday, the 40 or so evacuees were trooped over to St Mary’s Church, which lies opposite the house over the road. Across the country, ministers delivering the Sunday service were interrupted with whispers or handed notes just after quarter past eleven. The Prime Minister had just announced on the wireless that Britain was now at war with Germany. In the parish records for St Mary’s, ‘WAR DECLARED’ is written in capitals in the margin of the 11 o’clock service. 

That day, the evacuees were told to write home, to let their parents know where they were. A report on the Guildford Rural District noted that the ‘school children have been warmly welcomed and they are undoubtedly happy and greatly improved in health since their arrival.’

In September 1939, the West Horsley visitor book reveals that Kathleen Halpin visited the house. Halpin led the administration of the evacuation of children from London, and due to her success would become the chief administrator of the evacuation for the whole country. She later wrote to thank the Marchioness of Crewe for taking in the evacuees and ‘the whole spirit of [her] staff’. She noted that the children and teachers ‘appreciated all that was being done for them by [her] servants’. Halpin described the situation at West Horsley Place as ‘a perfect example of… evacuation’. 

Throughout September, October and November 1939, there were other visitors to the house too. Mary Roxburghe and Annabel Dodds visited the house a number of times. Mary was the Marquess and Marchioness’ daughter, and Annabel was the Marquess’ daughter from his first marriage. It was not unusual for these women to visit, but their visits would have taken on a new significance in those first months of war with the house filled with the footsteps and shouts of evacuees.  

One evacuee sent a postcard to her home in Fulham on 26 September, with a photograph of West Horsley Place on it. She was thanking her father for the cards and presents sent to her on her birthday and wanted to thank her Granny for the ‘socks’. She also asked for him to ‘tell me exactly when you are coming’ to visit. 

In West Horsley Place, the evacuees – or the girls at least - had their dormitories in the West Wing. The children would make-up stories about ghosts, would play in the gardens and do handstands and cartwheels - until one girl broke her ankle - and would blush at the butler and the footman and were then distraught when they joined up to the armed forces. When the air raid siren sounded, they would race downstairs and huddle under huge tables in the dining room which were pushed up against the walls underneath the windows. The windows’ wooden shutters were pulled, and they had corrugated iron fitted on the outside, probably to meet blackout regulations as well as for protection.

On Monday 4 September, as Britain watched the skies for an expected attack from the German air force, the evacuees were sent to school, trapsing across the fields and dodging the sheep and horses. On 10 October 1939, the St Mary’s Parish minute book noted that ‘there were 101 children from Fulham in the parish as well as a number of mothers and children… it was understood that West Horsley had fewer evacuees leave than any other parish with the exception of one in the [Guildford] rural area. The education of the children now appeared to be the one difficulty as the school was not large enough to take the whole of the children, for the present the village children were attending school in the morning and the evacuees in the afternoon.’ By 13 November, it had been agreed that the village hall could be used for educational purposes, except for Thursday afternoons when the Women’s Institute required it.

In the morning, the evacuees had classes in a village hall. They were given black boards and chalk. In the afternoon, they had classes in St Mary’s School and West Horsley C of E school amongst others where they could use paper. Their school would take them for walks in the ancient woodland of Sheepleas, they would pick wild strawberries, climb trees, they would have country dancing lessons outside on warm days and lessons under the trees, and they would knit and sew toys. They would collect rosehips and it would be turned into syrup. When it was cold, a fire would be lit at St Mary’s School, and milk bottles would be placed in front of it to thaw.

On 17 November 1939, another order was placed at West Horsley Place for £27 5 shillings and 10 pence to pay for 50 blankets for the evacuees. The weather that winter was freezing, and the evacuees would have felt the cold in the large house. January 1940 was the coldest month on record for around 50 years and the river Thames froze over. Yet, the Marquess and Marchioness of Crewe had a plan to brighten up those cold, dark winter days. They held a Christmas party for the evacuees.

By Hannah, student recipient of the Bamber Bursary