The Kent woman who turned her passion into a 1940s living museum

Old Forge Wartime House, Sittingbourne

The exterior of the Old Forge Wartime House, Sittingbourne - Credit: Kevin Ralph

Debbie White has opened the doors to what was once her family's home in Sittingbourne, allowing others access to the 1940's world that so fascinates her and her team of volunteers. She tells us her story...

Debbie White The Old Forge Wartime House

Debbie White, in 1940s character, perhaps thinking of a loved one away at war... - Credit: Keith Ralph

"I've always loved history and World War 2 in particular was an area that fascinated me. There are so many angles to explore, from how people fought, to how they lived at home.  I first got involved in the World War 2  re-enactment world  - where where you take part, in costume, in various staged historical events - through my family, including my mum and sister.  

Our family house in Sittingbourne - an old forge that dates from the 17th century with later additions  -  was sitting empty after my nan died;  it had been used by my great grandfather, who was a very successful jeweller; he used to ride round Sittingbourne in his Rolls Royce. He ran his shop at the front - we still have the original window - and my great nan lived at the back; we all had wonderful memories of visiting her. After she died, we wondered what we could do with the house. Some of the rooms were still largely unchanged from how they'd been in the late 1930s and 1940s -  and I started adding pieces from that era that I'd collected. There was a lot of research to get things as accurate as possible and it was very much a joint effort, with family and friends from the local re-enactment circuit helping out. Basically, we saw it as a chance to share our love of that period of history with the people of our home town. We started opening our doors seven years ago, welcoming others interested in that period: people with memories to share, local school children who wanted to learn about the period - all while I ran my fancy-dress shop from the front of the building. People always say it's just like Mr Benn's house in the children's TV programme, even though I no longer have the fancy dress business - these days, I work as a supervisor at Sittingbourne Golf Centre.   

Joanne Mannouch Old Forge Wartime House Sittingbourne

Volunteer Joanne Mannouch with knitted egg cosies. Knitting was never more popular, nor essential, than during war - Credit: Kevin Ralph

By 2015, we'd become so popular the Old Forge War Time House opened regularly. We've built up a team of volunteers, some of whom come from London and Essex, and most of whom we've met through re-enactment events. They're all dressed in 1940s clothes, are passionate about the period and help our visitors explore all sorts of aspects of war-time life. We've even had one family who came as visitors and ended up joining us as volunteers. Film crews have visited us, too - we've had Tony Robinson and his Time Team and the BBC through out doors. 

Bedroom evacuee's suitcase The Old Forge War Time House

An evacuee's suitcase in the bedroom - Credit: Kevin Ralph

There's a bedroom full of '40s memorabilia upstairs, downstairs we have a dining room and our utility-green kitchen, where you can find out about rationing and the joys of cooking with powdered egg. There's also the large sitting room with its open fire, and a bathroom complete with very smart emerald green art-deco bathroom suite - over the years, people have donated furniture from the period that they might otherwise be throwing out. Outside, as well as a big hut that we can use for exhibitions, we've even got an Anderson shelter - people are always surprised by how cramped it is. We have a rolling programme of themed events  - in autumn, it might be about wartime foraged foods and hedgerow cooking, for instance, and in February we'll be looking at wartime romances.

The Old Forge Wartime House

Tea room detail, complete with period telephone and radio - Credit: Kevin Ralph

Because visitors would ask us where the nearest place for a cup of tea and a bite to eat was, we ended up opening a tea-room at the front of the shop. There's no rationing there, though - we've always got cake on the go! We've also just begun offering people the chance to hire out the whole of the museum for themselves during the evening. We serve them dinner - again, without rationing portions! - and they can pretend for a few hours that the house is their own. 

Linda Gorman Old Forge Wartime House

Debbie's mother, Linda Gorman, in the Anderson Shelter. It was Linda who first introduced Debbie to the world of re-enactment - Credit: Kevin Ralph

As a period of Britain's history, World War 2  touches all our lives. People were strong and just got on with things then - there was nothing else they could do. Of course, after what we've been through recently, that attitude has a whole new resonance today. 

The kitchen, Old Forge War Time House, Sittingbourne

Cooking on rations in the little kitchen - Credit: Kevin Ralph

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Through our living museum, it's wonderful to give people of all ages the chance to learn about life as it was lived by ordinary people, and to exchange experiences. It's an honour to hear their stories. We're also helping to bring new people into Sittingbourne, so that they can discover what the town has to offer, and that's definitely an added bonus." 

oldforgewartimehouse.co.uk
Open Saturdays, £5 adults, £4 Children.
Hire of the house in the evenings, with meal, from £46 per person.

The man behind the camera

Kevin Ralph met Deborah when he came to hire fancy dress from her for a shoot connected to his work as a commercial art director. "She walked me round the house and offered me the job of House Photographer in my spare time - and I've ended up doing everything from creating the museum's website to helping build the teashop frontage."