Second World War silk maps

When Sara Jane Murray brought home what she thought was a damaged silk scarf rummaged from a vintage fair, she soon realised she held in her hands a remarkable piece of history, and an emblem of British ingenuity

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Ok, so I have a bit of a obsession with rummaging around in junk shops. I love unearthing unloved stuff. Especially unloved stuff that has a map on it. Or a globe. I have been known to stare at a globe for a very long time.

Over the years, all this accumulated stuff had to compete for space in a small Victorian cottage with two large dogs and Mr Austerity who, although rather lovely, was starting to tut as yet another 1930s enamel biscuit tin in the shape of a globe obscured his view of Newsnight. In order to restore marital harmony, I started selling at a vintage fair in Kent. 

Unfortunately, this was not the happy ending of an uninterrupted view of Jeremy Paxman that Mr Austerity had dreamt of. One danger of selling at vintage fairs is that your eye is often drawn to the myriad of interesting items on sale, and it was at such an event that I came across what I thought was a damaged silk scarf depicting a map. 

It was only when I got home I realised what I'd bought. The piece of silk was an Escape and Evasion map from the Second World War. A pilot or member of the Special Forces would have carried one of these maps in case they found themselves behind enemy lines.

MI9 British Military Intelligence Officer, Clayton Hutton invented silk escape maps during the Second World War. Clutty, as he was often called, was a true British eccentric. MRD Foot and JM Langley, in their 1979 memoir MI9: Escape and Evasion said of him: "His task was to invent, design and adapt aids to escape and evasion… his enthusiasm was as unlimited as his ingenuity, or his capacity for getting into trouble with the staid authorities of service and civilian officialdom." *

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Hutton came up with the idea of escape maps after he persuaded the British Museum to collect over 50 true First World War escape stories from various second hand bookshops in Bloomsbury. He then delivered them to Rugby School Sixth Form and asked the pupils to read the books and summarise the key elements. In every account of a successful escape, the protagonist was in possession of some sort of map.

Hutton then went to Bartholomew, a world-famous map making company who, after Hutton charmed them with his eccentric wit and patriotism, waived their copyright on maps for the war effort. Hutton printed the maps onto pure silk. It was the ideal material as it was noiseless and rustle free, folded up small and was easy to hide or sew inside clothing. In blagging several rolls of parachute silk for the project, he apparently required: "A short circuit of the official system…and certain commodities acquired during the pre-war period, amongst them dozens of cases containing marmalades and jams." **

The maps were issued to the RAF and Special Forces in the Second World War and beyond. Troops sewed the maps inside the lining of their uniforms, or concealed them in the hollowed-out heel of their boot. They were even concealed inside monopoly board games and sent to Prisoner of War Camps under the guise of charitable donations.

The more I learnt about this fascinating tale, the more I wanted to share it. Further research revealed that some army regiments and ex-military personnel still had stocks that were either damaged or simply unwanted. I started to collect as many as I could, with no real plan of what I might do with them (the irony of which was not lost on Mr Austerity when I arrived home with three boxes containing over 1,000 of these maps).

And so Home Front Vintage was born. We now remake the damaged maps into cushions, notebooks, ties and lampshades for people who value British heritage and provenance. Each item we make comes with a short history, preserving the integrity of the maps and ensuring the story survives.  

And the best bit? We recently received an email from a 93-year-old ex-RAF officer who was carrying one of the maps when his plane was shot down in 1944. He'd seen our products at the RAF Museum and wrote to tell us how pleased he was that the story was being re-told. He also sent us a copy of his unpublished memoirs which, we think, is one of the greatest stories never told.

*M19, Escape and Evasion 1939 -1945, MRD Foot and JM Langley, Book Club Associates, 1979
**The Hidden Catch, C Hutton, Digit Books, 1957

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Sara Jane Murray is the designer-maker at Home Front Vintage and lives in Kent with the long-suffering Mr Austerity and two delinquent English pointers. Her perfect weekend would involve long walks in weather cold enough to wear mittens, log-burning stoves, Yorkshire pudding and half a bitter shandy, if you’re asking.