WITNESS TO HISTORY
Surrey Life|September 2020
The story of Barnes Wallis, the Effigham inventor behind the bouncing bomb, is told through the letters of his wife Molly
Stephen Roberts

In 1922, Barnes Neville Wallis, future aviation engineer and inventor of the bouncing bomb used in the Dam Busters raid of May 1943, obtained a degree in engineering. That April, Barnes also met Molly Bloxam at a family tea party. Despite the fact Barnes was 17 years her senior, they began a courtship that led to them marrying, when Molly was 20, in April 1925. The marriage lasted 54 years until Barnes’ death and bore four children, plus adopted Molly’s sister’s children, whose parents died in a World War II air raid.

Molly was an avid letter-writer, her correspondence with Barnes beginning before their courtship when he was assisting her with maths tuition. The Surrey History Centre, in Woking, has those letters, which tell us about their life together, and about the key events of World War II through her eyes. The letters are an amalgam of everyday, prosaic events, intermingled with the vital wartime projects that took up so much of Barnes’s time.

In 1930, Barnes moved to White Hill House, Beech Avenue, Effingham, with his family, which would remain his home until his death. It would be in the back garden that Barnes bounced marbles across the swimming pool during World War II.

The same year Barnes moved on to aircraft, developing the Wellesley and Wellington bombers. By the time World War II broke out in September 1939, Barnes was assistant chief designer at Vickers’ aviation section, based at Brooklands.

The day before war was declared, Barnes drove home from Dorset, where his family was holidaying under canvas.

The last night of peace saw Barnes alone in the Effingham house; the following morning he listened to PM Neville Chamberlain’s radio broadcast to the nation. Barnes is said to have sat in miserable silence, contemplating what lay ahead.

Molly’s letters reveal all the hardships of wartime shortages and making do. She writes on any available scraps, including pages of an old diary. A letter of January 30, 1943, is full of everyday homilies, including Barnes’ tea-making machine being up the spout, and Molly going to Leatherhead the previous night to watch patriotic war film In Which We Serve. But there is also a telling paragraph: “Barnes has been to London three days this week lecturing to the Admiralty. Imagine him showing his film and explaining with a chalk and blackboard.”

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