York Second World War visitor book reveals forces romance

Archivists have digitised a record of visitors to a Second World War forces canteen and hope now to discover more about those who signed the book. Laura Drysdale reports.

Archivists Lydia Dean and Sally-Anne Shearn with the forces canteen visitor book.

It was October of 1943 when Margaret McGowan and Sidney Gillings logged their names, one after the other, in the visitor book of a forces canteen set up in York during the Second World War.

It is not known whether the pair were already acquainted or if they met that night, but towards the end of the Second World War, in April 1945, they returned to the canteen together.

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They inked over their names, this time adding that they had wed on August 26, 1944. The record of the couple’s wartime romance has recently been discovered by archivists during a project to digitise the inscriptions of visitors to the canteen.

The facility was run in Wesley Methodist Chapel by civilians on the home front, in an effort to provide happiness and a social escape for forces stationed in the local area.

A committee ensured it offered refreshment and recreational facilities throughout the war, with a library, billiards, a piano, and a quiet room stocked with newspapers.

There were also regular events including dances, film screenings and tours of York, as well as an annual Christmas party.

“The book offers a snapshot into daily life in wartime,” says Lydia Dean, joint-archivist on the project, run by the Borthwick Institute for Archives at the University of York. “It’s a lively alternative to the official records of men and women in service.”

The visitors’ book provides a record of friendships forged and reinforced during the war between people passing through York at a turbulent and uncertain time.

There are plenty of shared jokes and nicknames jotted in the margins and, at the back, a poignant ‘hidden’ page with a note thanking the canteen organisers and expressing hope that the war would soon come to an end. Those visiting came from all over the British Isles as well as France, America, Canada and South Africa.

“Some of my personal favourites are Pat, Micky and Jimmy who visited in November 1944 and call themselves the ‘Three Musketeers’ and the eight ‘little Naafi girls’ (Navy, Army and Air Force Institute) from Broad Oak Canvas City,” Lydia says.

“Many of the entries have added a nostalgic tribute to their home like ‘wild Wales’, ‘bonny Scotland’ or ‘good old Somerset. And clearly not everyone enjoyed their time in York, with some putting their departure date down as ASAP.”

Volunteers have created a transcript of the book, which included names, addresses, arrival and departure dates and personal messages, and it is available online through the Borthwick Catalogue.

But the stories behind the entries are not known by the archivists, who are keen, in particular, to discover more about the course of married life for Margaret, a member of the Auxiliary Territorial Service, and Sidney, who was with the Rifle Brigade.

“Marriage rates rocketed during wartime,” explains Sally-Anne Shearn, another of the project archivists. “The insecurity of the future left people in need of a little hope and joy so they wanted to grab happiness where they could.

“The fact that Sidney and Margaret returned to York to ink over their original entry suggests the city and the canteen were special to them as the place where they first met.”

The archivists hope people will recognise names of their relatives in the book and get in touch with more information about them so the catalogue can be updated with more context on their stories.

Sally-Anne says: “We’d love to know more, particularly about Sidney and Margaret – whether they survived the war and if so what they did with their lives afterwards.”

Email [email protected] or call 01904 321166 with information.