Whenever I visit an archive, I always wonder ‘what will I find?’ Archival research is exciting precisely because you never know what gems you will discover.

At Surrey History Centre in Woking, I hoped that I would find more about West Horsley during the Second World War and the day-to-day experiences of the evacuees and the Canadian soldiers who were billeted in the village. The periodical ‘Around & About Horsley’ contained first-hand accounts of life in East and West Horsley during the war. It was difficult not to become distracted and read each issue in full, but I scanned through them looking for mentions of wartime life. I struck gold with the Winter 1989 edition and an article entitled ‘Evacuee’s memories of St Mary’s School during Wartime’. This article, written by Una and Eric Methley who had been evacuated from London, painted a vivid picture of their school days in West Horsley. There were their country dancing lessons carried out to the sound of a wind-up gramophone, the frozen bottles of milk that would be thawed out by the fire, and the knitted rabbits they made by recycling old jumpers.

Other editions of ‘Around & About Horsley’ added more details to wartime life. Vera Havers noted that ‘you could hear the gunfire at night from Ranmore Common where some of the Canadian troops were based’, while Michael Jenvey recalled that ‘they camped all over the woods down Ockham Road. There were Chevrolet trucks to ride in and huge steaks with bread at the cookhouse.’

Archival work is also exciting when snippets of information start to connect. The report on the bombing of West Horsley Place noted that ‘it would not worry [the Canadian soldiers] if all the furniture was removed from the house with the exception of that in the three bedrooms in the west wing’. Why did they need only three bedrooms? John Hornby remembered that ‘most of [the Canadian] men were billeted in a tented encampment north of Green Lane, off Ockham Road North. There was however, overspill, and this was accommodated by using vacant houses in the area’. Were those of higher rank in the army staying in West Horsley Place, rather than sleeping in tents in the woods of Horsley?

At West Horsley Place, evacuee Eileen Farmer’s letter mentions a game called ‘musical orange’. I wasn’t sure what this could be. Possibly, it was a game where they passed an orange around the circle of children until someone lifted the needle on the gramophone. John Hickey in ‘A World War II childhood in East Horsley’ remembered how the Canadian soldiers brought oranges with them – a luxury which he had never seen before. Suddenly, everything fell into place like pieces in a puzzle. ‘Musical orange’ would have been an exciting party game with such a rare and unusual fruit.

Next week, I’ll be turning all of this research into a talk for volunteers and an activity session for children. I now feel that I have a stronger grasp of the atmosphere of life during the Second World War in West Horsley.