Tweedsmuir as a Polish Refugee Camp (1947 to 1960)

(From "Living in Tweedsmuir Camp - 1948 to 1957" / First published in 2003, held at the History of Thursley Society. A Book by Wies and Zen Rogalski)

Chapter 5: Memories from the past

The camp was never meant to be a permanent settlement. In fact, over the nine years we lived there a constant haemorrhaging of people reduced the size of the community significantly.

People left to settle in different areas of England, and other parts of the world such as Australia and Canada, pursuing work and prosperity. Some went to the industrial areas of Britain such as the North and the Midlands. Others decided to remain in the local vicinity, like Elstead, Thursley and Haslemere for example. One family established a home just off the Old Kent Road in London. This resulted in the gradual establishment of further Polish communities around the country.

London was an obvious destination because of its varied opportunities. The most popular London Boroughs were Ealing, Hammersmith, Putney, Kensington, Wandsworth and the Streatham area of Lambeth. For many Polish people, having lost all personal possessions in the war, buying their own house was the next priority after obtaining employment. However, it was not only the desire to find somewhere new to live that prompted people to buy houses. Property was seen as an investment for the future and therefore had to be freehold and not leasehold; an attitude borne out of loss.

Fig. 5.1: Tweedsmuir Camp circa 1956. This photograph shows how the camp looked at the time it was being demolished.

Inevitably, as people left the camp there came a time when a ‘critical number’ was reached and it became difficult to call those that stayed a community. The people who remained were now a collection of individuals who knew they had to move on. Fig. 5.1 is the only photograph we have of how the camp looked at that time. It shows what we believe to be the last Corpus Christi procession to have taken place in Tweedsmuir Camp (circa 1956). In the background it is just possible to detect the foundations of a demolished barracks and, behind the foundations, a brick outbuilding. Today, the same view is very different (Fig. 5.2). The spacious grass areas have been subsumed by thick vegetation.

Fig. 5.2: Tweedsmuir Camp circa 1956. This photograph shows how the camp looked at the time it was being demolished.

As we compare the two photographs, we cannot help wondering what the same scene will be like in another forty or fifty years time.

The man who co-ordinated the closure of Tweedsmuir Camp was Mr Wood. He was a tall, thin faced, English gentleman, who arrived on business in Tweedsmuir Camp on a black, ‘Raleigh’ bicycle. He always wore round, tortoise shell spectacles and a navy blue boiler suit. Mr Wood lived in a bungalow on the outskirts of Elstead and is best described as the caretaker of Tweedsmuir Camp. He would be the one who solved problems for us and attempted to make life in Tweedsmuir more comfortable.

As areas of the camp became unoccupied and fell silent, they became large playgrounds for us children. Now, at the ages of six and nine years, we used the materials of the camp as play objects. A ladder we had made from planks of wood enabled us to climb a well established oak tree and barracks’ roofs. Felt roof tiles became ‘Frisbees’ and old brushes and tins of paint gave us the chance to practise our painting skills on doors of unoccupied barracks.

Fig. 5.3
How we got away without damaging ourselves whilst climbing the ladder escapes us! Looking back, making a ladder from old planks of wood was not a particularly safe thing to do. Most adults, for example, appreciate that a long, thin piece of material will remain rigid when a force is applied to its edge, but will bend when a force is applied face on (Fig. 5.3). As children we did not take this aspect into account when we nailed the ladder rungs to the faces of two planks, which distorted dangerously as we climbed. Nevertheless, we quickly learnt that it was much easier to climb a roof than a tree because the straight, barracks roof brim provided a secure edge upon which to rest our ladder, whilst the round form of a tree trunk did not. To make the latter activity safer, we recollect nailing a batten to the top of the ladder through which we had driven a nail into the trunk of the oak tree mentioned in the paragraph above. Others may see such behaviour as antisocial or even vandalism, but we disagree: this play did not grow out of anger or disrespect.

In 1957, one thing became clear, the camp was obviously in decline and mum and dad had to plan our subsequent departure too. They made contact with estate agents and solicitors in London. As mentioned in Chapter 3, these individuals were themselves of Polish origin but with a good command of English, something mum and dad did not have. We remember trips to view houses in South London and the signing of any legal documents needing attention. Eventually they found a house they liked in the London Borough of Wandsworth and bought it. Needless to say, it was located where other Polish people had settled and where there was an established Polish, Catholic parish.

Soon, the time came when we had to leave Tweedsmuir Camp. It was autumn, though not cold. It is strange how adaptable children are for we do not remember feeling sad or upset at our departure. We had to move, our parents were leaving and that was that. But we do believe mum and dad moved with some trepidation. As adults, they could imagine the pitfalls as well as the opportunities such a move could bring. In fact, mum went through a period of adjustment in London that she did not enjoy and would not forget. When we met Joe Modzelan’s (Fig. 2.7 in Chapter 2) mother in 2001 and talked about the move to London, she informed us that it took her some three years to acclimatise, suggesting that others also found the relocation difficult.

As the move to Tweedsmuir Camp had brought its problems in 1948, so the move to London brought its in 1957. We, as any young family, had accumulated the trappings of domestic life. Clearly a removal lorry had to be hired. But how does one decide what will and will not be useful if one has never lived in a modern city? Does one need a galvanised bucket in London? Should we take the pram? How about the go-cart? Obviously there were things requiring no discussion; beds, tables and chairs had to be taken. But ours was utility furniture, unattractive and basic. Would it be appropriate for London? In the end we had no choice. This type of furniture was all we had.

Fig. 5.4: Photograph of an Austin KT Box Van, similar to the one our parents had hired in 1957 to help us move out of Tweedsmuir Camp. (Courtesy of Terry Davies at 'aliciadavies.supanet.com')
A few weeks before our last day in the camp, dad built a bonfire to dispose of unwanted possessions. It was sad to watch the things we knew and used everyday change into black ash by the flames. On the day our family moved, a large, green, ‘Austin’ KT Box Van (similar to the one shown in Fig. 5.4) backed up to our home. It was so large it dwarfed the barracks.

Fig. 5.5: North exit of Tweedsmuir Camp, October 2001.)
Slowly the removal men opened its rear doors to expose a vast space inside. Did we have enough things to fill its huge volume? We were about to find out. All useful items were taken from the barracks and loaded onto the lorry. We have to admit that the few pieces of furniture covered with blankets and secured with rope for safety were a sorry sight. A couple of cupboards, beds and tables and other odds and ends were the sum total of our worldly possessions, but you have to start somewhere. And so it was with these possessions that we began a new chapter in our lives. The lorry crept slowly towards the camp’s north exit (Fig. 5.5), turned right into Thursley Road, roared its engine and left. Although we were very young, we sensed that mum and dad were saddened by the necessity of having to leave Tweedsmuir Camp, and can remember how they gave a sideways glance as the lorry made its way past the barracks that had been our home for nine years. Not a word was spoken as we journeyed to London.

Fig. 5.6: A chicken coop left behind in Tweesmuir Camp by one of the Polish families.)
On 1 January 2002, taking a camera with us, we revisited familiar areas of the camp, to see if we could find and record, any reminders of our first home. We came across part of a chicken coop (Fig. 5.6). The coop was constructed from galvanised, corrugated sheet steel, nailed to 4” x 2” (about 100mm x 50mm) softwood posts dug into the ground. At the front of the coop, and to the right of the corrugated sheet steel, would have been a wooden frame door covered with chicken wire. Once the chickens were safely inside for the night, the door would have been secured by a small wooden stake forced into a hasp; foxes may be bright creatures but they could still be outfoxed by a small piece of wood!

One objective of this visit was to find possible remnants of the ladder we had made in the late 1950’s. We had a good idea of where the oak tree we had climbed stood and thought maybe evidence of our ladder’s existence might still be there. To our great surprise we found what we considered to be the very batten that once secured our makeshift ladder to the tree! (Fig. 5.7)

Fig. 5.8: Milk bottles left behind by Polish residents of Tweedsmuir Camp.
Fig. 5.7: Tweedsmuir Camp 2002. We believe this is the batten that secured our makeshift ladder to an old Oak tree in the late 1950s.
In the depths of the camp remains, we found an earth mound peppered with old milk bottles (two of which are shown in Fig. 5.8) and broken glass which we think was amassed by those responsible for demolishing Tweedsmuir Camp.

Fig. 5.9: Details (enhanced with a blue chinagraph pencil to aid viewing) on two of the milk bottles we found in Tweedsmuir Camp in 2002.
We were keen to find out whether the bottles were indeed from the time we lived there. One way of detecting the approximate decade to which a milk bottle belongs is by weighing it. In the1940s and 1950s for example, the humble milk bottle weighed 18ozs (about 500gms) and, since the two bottles in Fig. 5.8 are of the same weight, it is safe to assume they belong to that era. Of the two bottles, the one on the left in Fig. 5.8 appears to be older. It has a greater number of abrasions on its outer surface, presumably sustained when it rubbed against other bottles on a filling line. Moulded on its outer surface are the words “Bottled by the Members of the Safety First Milk Association” and a simple triangular logo which includes the words ‘Safety First’ (Fig. 5.9a).

The other milk bottle in Fig. 5.8 has fewer abrasions on its outer surface, suggesting that it had been recycled fewer times. In addition, it carries the word ‘Association’ in abbreviated form (‘Assn’) and, more interestingly, an etched advertisement which read s “Ask Your Salesman for Double Devon Cream” (Fig. 5.9b). The practice of using advertisements on milk bottles was commonplace in the 1950s. From this, we assume that the first milk bottle is from the 1940s, and the one to the right in Fig. 5.8, from the 1950s.

Fig. 5.10: A much weathered lamp shade of the kind that adorned the ceilings of the chapel, community centre and nursery in Tweedsmuir Camp.
We also came across a discarded lampshade of the type that used to hang from the chapel, community centre and nursery ceilings (Fig. 5.10). These lampshades were manufactured from sheet steel and finished in vitreous enamel. Although the lampshade in Fig. 5.10 is blue, we remember some being dark green. In either case, the inside was enamelled white. Such designs only appeared in communal areas. In individual barracks more pleasing designs were used.

Fig. 5.11: A wound steel cable tie which kept upright one of the telegraph poles in Tweedsmuir Camp.
Fig. 5.11 shows a length of steel cable we found on the north side of the parade ground. We believe this to be a remnant of cable used to stabilise telegraph poles, which stood around the camp when we lived there. Although an insignificant ‘archaeological’ find in itself, the cable reminded us of the camp as it used to be and perhaps more importantly, it made us ponder the whereabouts of some of the possessions we left behind. Where for example are the tricycle and bicycle we once owned? Perhaps they are still in the camp but buried deep under debris?

As we walked through the remains of the camp, there was no doubt that the eventuality of finding artefacts that once belonged to us before we left Tweedsmuir in 1957 were negligable. On the other, we had the satisfaction of being able to identify, and reminisce about, familiar areas of the camp; particularly those associated long, warm summer evenings.

Fig. 5.13: The unmade, sandy road in Tweedsmuir Camp as photographed on 1 January 2002.
Fig. 5.12: In the background, a short length of 25 mm steel pipe and in the foreground, a short length of 50 mm steel pipe. Both are the remains of the bath complex.
In Chapter 2, we mentioned how the Polish community made use of a communal bath complex. Today, embedded in the very foundations of the bath house, it is still possible to see short lengths of steel pipe (Fig 5.12), the diameters of which (25mm and 50 mm) suggest that respectively, they are the remains of the water heated frame structure used for drying washed clothing and the scaffold system from which were suspended tarpaulin screens.

The unmade, sandy road shown on the map in Fig. 4.1 (Chapter 4) is now lined with young trees, covered in grass and thick moss, and will probably become more difficult to recognise as it disappears under additional vegetation as time goes on. Fig. 5.13 shows the sandy road as we saw it on New Year’s Day, 2002.

Fig. 5.14: A cluster of daffodils planted by our parents in the 1950s.
In April 2002, we made our last visit to Tweedsmuir Camp before completing our book. One living link that remains to this day are clusters of daffodils that grow among the wild vegetation. In the 1940s and 1950s, they adorned the gardens of the Polish people who lived there. Fig. 5.14 is a photograph of the daffodils that our parents planted at the back of 39 Tweedsmuir Camp. We considered transplanting them into our own gardens but decided they were best left to grow where mum and dad first planted them.