“He loved the Common:” Roy Smithers and his photographs of Valley End.

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Valley End was always home for Roy Smithers. He was born at Brick Hill in 1909 and baptised at St. Saviour’s in the same year.

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His parents, William and Elizabeth, had 5 children, Phyllis, Brenda, Eric, and Winifred, as well as Roy. Sadly his sister Phyllis died in 1912 aged 9.

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Roy went to Valley End School, and even won prizes there. In July 1916 he was given a prize at the school treat by Mrs. Leschallas.   The Smithers family did well that year; his siblings Brenda and Eric were also awarded books, and the bouquet for Mrs. Leschallas was presented by “Winifred Smithers, a tiny tot from Class III.”

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During World War II Roy found himself, to his irritation, in a reserved occupation. But finally he joined up, and worked on the motor torpedo boats with the Navy. He spent some of his war service in Australia.

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Roy always lived in the family home. His sister Winnie worked as a cook in Sunningdale, but after their parents died she returned to Valley End and shared the house with her brother.

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He worked as a carpenter, but he had other interests as well. A creative man, he played the violin, and enjoyed photography.

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Roy took portraits, but he didn’t have a studio. He would visit and photograph his subjects in their homes. Like the rest of us, he took pictures of holidays and trips out, but he also took photos of scenery.

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Roy loved and knew the Common. A practical man, he used his wood working skills to maintain the footpath signs.  He way marked all the footpaths on the Common, and built notice boards, gates, bridges and stiles to make it accessible. During his life he charted nearly all of the Common’s 93 footpaths on Ordnance Survey maps.

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It is not surprising that he took photographs of the countryside, and especially of the Common. He took pictures of Fox Hill, Anscombe Hill, Round Pond, the fires in the heather in summer, and the wide vistas of the heath land.

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A resourceful man, he decided to develop his own film. First he had to prepare a darkroom, and so he built one himself in the garden.

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His nephew Peter Reed remembers work going on in there. “Roy was a talented photographer, and one of the sheds was built as a darkroom. I spent many hours in it with Roy, rocking photos in trays of developer, enlarging, doing matte, gloss or sepia finishes, etc.”

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Pam Corben, his niece, knew how seriously Roy took his developing. “If you got caught there while he was developing, you were stuck.” Because the room had to be completely dark, no one was allowed to open the door to leave.

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He was a very inventive man, who could make things work. As there wasn’t room for a bathroom in the house, he put a bath into the darkroom. It was heated by a gas-ring under a dustbin full of water. When a Water Board official visited, he was fascinated. “Can I bring my partner to look at this?”

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The darkroom continued as a tool shed. The Stroud  family had been living in Brick Hill for many years when Mrs Stroud moved to the ‘Smithers’ house. She and her son Mark found the dilapidated shed out in the garden with the bath in it. It was so derelict that it had to be demolished, but before it was knocked down they found a tin box, containing negatives.

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When they looked at them, they discovered that they were looking at striking images of people and places, and of Chobham Common. They had found Roy Smithers’ archive, and recognising their local value retained them.

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Roy died in 1990 at the age of 81.  His ashes were scattered on the Common at Longdown, a high point where there are distant views over the golf course and open countryside. A bench stands there “To the memory of Roy Smithers who loved this spot so well.”  It is a fitting resting place and memorial for him; “He loved the Common.”*

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Sources.

Surrey Advertiser, 29th July 1916.

Newspaper clipping, “Chobham mourns passing of a good man.”

With thanks to Mark Stroud for sharing these photographs, and telling me the story of how they were discovered.

With many thanks to Peter Reed, Pat Corben, and Joan Weymouth for information on Roy Smithers.

All photographs by Roy Smithers. With thanks to Mark Stroud.

  • Quote “He loved the Common” by Joan Weymouth.

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