Thursday, 13 July 2017

My school really was a Prisoner of War camp

While researching this article about Peckham's Prisoner of War camp recently, something stirred in my memory; a rumour that went round my secondary school that it too used to be a Prisoner of War camp.

We wouldn't be the first teenagers to jokingly compare our seemingly-tough schooldays to the punishing regime of a Prisoner of War camp, but in the case of Weald of Kent Grammar School*, it's true.

Unlike in Peckham, I've been unable to find any remaining physical evidence of the Tonbridge camp; no relic tin huts, no information board to tell 21st century Tonbridgians of the past, nothing to show that it ever existed at all.

Today, the ever-growing cluster of school buildings sits on what can be described as a top terrace. The school field is on a lower terrace, down a steep, grassy bank. A further field sits down another slope, largely out of sight of the school buildings. In my day (said the haggard old woman in the corner...) we were only allowed onto this lower field when a certain PE teacher decreed that we were due a particularly gruelling cross-country session. I've since heard a rumour that it's been sold off for housing... watch this space.

It's a rather beautiful setting for such a history. The modern Weald site is encompassed by three fairly busy roads, but the situation of the buildings and the perimeter hedging meant that we rarely knew of their existence as we went about our lessons. Looking south-east from the school offers a view of the beautiful Schools at Somerhill building on the peak opposite, a Jacobean manor immortalised by JMW Turner himself. It's safe to say that we didn't appreciate our surroundings in our school days.

The school buildings and the slope down to the top field
I've always imagined the Prisoner of War camp would have been situated on the lower field, away from the school buildings - a flawed logic, I know, given that the school wasn't built until the 1960s. But I was surprised to find, in this map from the Tonbridge Historical Society, that the wooden huts of the camp were situated on the top field. The blue shapes show the location of the school buildings as they were in around 2003 - several more have since been built.

The camp was known as Somerhill Camp (or Camp 40), as the land it was on was part of the Somerhill Estate at the time. German and Italian soldiers were kept at the camp, and sent out to work on local farms -- including Churchill's country gaffe, Chartwell. There's little information available about what happened to these specific captives after the war, but repatriation programmes nationwide weren't complete until 1948. A rummage around the newspaper archive produced this little gem from the Kent & Sussex Courier, 8 August 1947:

Image created courtesy of THE BRITISH LIBRARY BOARD.
In the case of the Peckham camp, many of the soldiers stayed on in the local area after the war, setting down roots and opening businesses. The above concert was advertised in 1947, so some of the Tonbridge prisoners were still in the area two years after the war ended. Were any businesses that still exist in Tonbridge today founded by former PoWs? If you know anything, I'd love to hear about it in the comments below. Twitter user @dizzernp has pointed out that Tonbridge Cemetery has graves of Germans and Italians dating from as late as 1947s, thought to be PoWs who died of illness or accidents after the war ended.

For more on the Somerhill Camp, the excellent Tonbridge Historical Society has a wealth of information.

A car park and sports centre has been built where the PoW camp was
EDIT: I've just been back to the school on a quiet weekend to try to take a couple of photos of the field for this post, and it's changed a lot since I last went past. The rudimentary hedges that separated our school days from the outside world have been reinforced with a metal fence, and the new sports centre has been built on our beautiful school field - right about where the PoW camp wooden huts are on the map above.

* If this school name sounds familiar, it's been in the news recently as it's the school behind the grammar school brouhaha. It's opening the first new grammar school in the country for several years. For the record, as a past student of Weald, I do firmly support grammar schools, but that's another blog post for another day.

Scribbling Lau is now on Facebook. You can also find me on Twitter and Instagram.

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