MORPETH COMMON CAMP

 

The Common Camp, Morpeth, Northumberland - some recollections by Krystyna Wójcicka

 

Morpeth Common Camp was built to accommodate British troops at the start of World War 2 replacing an older military camp built on the same site during World War 1.  The replacement camp comprised some 50, mainly pitched-roof, army huts occupying one square mile of land on Morpeth Common - a three square mile area of protected open space on the south west edge of Morpeth about three miles from the town centre.  Between 1947 and 1962 the camp, one of around 50 similar camps throughout the UK, became home to exiled Polish families after the end of World War 2.  It was also known as the 'Crash' Camp, an acronym for the County Regiment of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders who were stationed there in 1943.

 

 

When the war ended the majority of Polish servicemen felt unable to return to a Soviet-controlled Poland and all that that implied.  Many had no homes to return to as Poland had lost around 68,000 square miles of eastern territory to the Soviet Union.  Thousands continued to serve in the Polish Army under British command and many others, mainly those freed from Prisoner of War and Concentration Camps in Germany rejoined the Polish Army and formed part of the allied occupation force there.   Amongst them was my father Józef Wójcicki who, after being freed in 1941 from two years of Soviet imprisonment and hard labour, served under General Anders in the Middle East before joining the Polish 1st Independent Parachute Brigade in 1943, seeing action at Arnhem in 1944 and moving with the Brigade from Britain to Germany in 1945.  Vast numbers of Polish and other Eastern European displaced persons, mainly women who had been in forced labour in Germany throughout the war and not able to return to Poland,  were living in allied camps set up in post-war West Germany.  Amongst them was my mother Stanisława.  My parents met and married in Germany and my two brothers were born there.  

 

Many other exiles were also scattered across Europe, Africa, the Middle East and India and the difficult question of how to deal with so many displaced people was the subject of intense debate worldwide.  By 1946 the British government was resigned to accepting large numbers and it created the Polish Resettlement Corps (PRC), a temporary, non-combatant unit of the British army which would act as a bridge between military and civilian lifeAround 114,000 Polish servicemen joined this unit during its 3-year existence.  Wives and dependents brought the total estimated number of displaced persons who were allowed entry into Britain to around 200,000.  A shortage of housing in this country meant that they would have to be accommodated in former military camps around the UK - including Morpeth.

 

And so it was that around 300 Polish servicemen many with wives and children arrived at the Common Camp in Morpeth during 1947.  Amongst them were my parents and my brothers aged 16 months and 3 months. They had made the crossing by sea in rough weather from Hamburg to Glasgow then by train to Morpeth.  Those from the Middle East and Africa docked at Southampton, Liverpool and other English ports.  Exhausted, they arrived to find the huts unfurnished except for straw mattresses.  There was no running water, heating or cooking facilities and so for some time they depended on the communal wash rooms, toilets, bath house and dining hall.

 

Later when the local authority took over the running of the camp, sinks and plumbing were put in, stoves were installed and an outside toilet was added to each hut.  In due course, tin baths in front of the stove became the norm.  At first each hut had to accommodate several families with no dividing walls between them.  Conditions were hard and about half of the families moved away within a year or so either abroad, to other parts of the country or to other parts of the local area and this relieved the serious space problem in the huts for the remaining families.  With the help of small allowances from the National Assistance Board who initially ran the camps, second hand furniture and other basics were acquired.  Slowly the families turned their huts into homes and a strong community began to emerge.  People of other nationalities including Italian, Yugoslavian, Russian, Estonian and Ukrainian also arrived at some stage. 

My brothers Jerzy and Jan Wójcicki  1949.

My parents Jozef and Stanisława with  Jan and Jerzy against the backdrop of the hut we lived in 1948.

Labour shortages meant that despite initial resistance by the Trades Unions the men began to find work, many in coalmining.  Even those who were well educated but whose professional qualifications were not recognised here at the time, took unskilled work.  Under the conditions of entry into Britain everyone had been issued with a Certificate of Registration requiring that they notify the Police of any changes in circumstances such as employment or permanent address.  This requirement continued until the Aliens Order Act 1960 when finally the Polish population became exempt from registering such changes with the Police but had to retain their Certificate of Registration, which they did for the rest of their lives.

In time, some people, my own parents in particular, created a largely self-sufficient lifestyle.  They reared chickens, ducks and geese and grew their own fruit, vegetables and herbs providing the ingredients for the many traditional Polish dishes such as pierogi, bigos, goląbki, many varieties of soups, bread, cakes made by my mother whose culinary skills were renowned.  She preserved food of all kinds for example pickling sauerkraut, beetroot and cucumber and drying onions and herbs and the mushrooms picked in the woods.  What our parents couldn’t provide for themselves was supplied by a general dealer on the site, as well as a mobile grocer and a mobile butcher.  The poultry also provided the down and feathers for duvets and pillows.  Feeding the poultry and collecting eggs was a duty we were happy to perform as children but it was sad when the time came for our feathered friends to meet their end.  Only a short time before we had watched them hatch in boxes under the kitchen table and had been thrilled at their cuteness.  Just as cute were our rabbits, especially the baby ones which were a star attraction.  We kept about 10 at any one time - children and grown-ups alike would stop by hoping to see them out on the grass.          

My father worked first in a brickyard, then in a shipyard and later he was a miner but found time for many ‘smallholding’ activities such as building hen houses and cultivating the land around our hut, as well as making fences, gates, sheds, children’s swings and painting and decorating.  He had also acquired haircutting skills in the army and was the local barber.  My mother hand made clothes for family and friends and, when we outgrew them, she would alter them or would parcel them up and send them to our relatives in Poland along with tea, coffee, sweets and chocolate and so on, as everything was in desperately short supply in Poland at the time.  By comparison we were prosperous and so the practice continued for many years.  In those days, just as some of the letters that we sent to our relatives in Poland would ‘go astray’ so too did some of the parcels.  Trying to keep up with events in Poland was an important preoccupation.  Most people were avid readers of the Polish newspaper, ‘Dziennik Polski’ and listened to Radio Free Europe - ‘Radio Wolna Europe’ - as often as the poor reception allowed or when the signals were not being jammed.  The station had been set up in 1949 with US funding to broadcast news to Eastern Europe and is still in existence today.  Unfortunately our old Bakelite radio is not. 

Corpus Christi 1954

Procession led by the cross bearer Wojciech Kurowski, winding  its way through the camp.

 Father Franciszek Żelechowski at one of the altars

 

As small children we had little awareness of what our parents had been through and of their ongoing struggles.  For us the camp was a haven.  It was surrounded on all sides by fields, woods and farms which offered an endless supply of adventures.  A small part of the camp had for a time been used as emergency housing for a number of English families and we picked up English through our contact with them.  Starting school at the local Catholic primary school of St Roberts in Morpeth was quite daunting as our strange names and unusual background set us apart at first but we were soon accepted and we settled in, our parents encouraging us to work hard.  Depending on the weather, we made the journey to school each day either by Tait’s bus - the single fare was two old pence - or by taking the path across the Common, giving the cows a wide berth and running if they started to follow.  Some fathers had motorbikes to get to work and by the late 1950s some families had a car and it became easier to go further a field for example to the seaside about 7 miles away and beauty spots like Bolam Lake.

At the heart of the community were three adjacent huts which housed the chapel, the club and the community hall/cinema where everyone came together to celebrate the important religious feast days, commemorate the key events in Poland's history, or just to socialise.  Father Żelechowski the Polish Chaplain for the Newcastle area was a much loved, charismatic figure who travelled by bus from Newcastle to the camp to say mass in the chapel every Sunday and to take Sunday School afterwards.  Amongst the most important occasions was the annual First Holy Communion service.  Another was the annual Corpus Christi procession which wound all around the Camp and, at Easter, the Swięcone - the Easter blessing of food which is still an important event for Polish people around the world.  Families each took a basket of around six foods to the chapel to be blessed by the priest, each food having its own symbolic meaning, that is:-  bread = bread of life; eggs = resurrection and new life; ham = joy and abundance; butter in the shape of lamb = the goodness of Christ; horseradish = the passion of Christ; salt = salt of the earth.  The blessed food would be eaten on Easter morning.  ‘Wigilja’ or Christmas Eve was the day that Christmas presents were exchanged but first came the seven course Vigil meal which was served when the first star appeared.  The meal took mothers all day to prepare and we meanwhile had to be well behaved otherwise the coming year, we were told, would bring misfortune! 

A particularly poignant memory of Father Zelechowski is him celebrating mass, in Latin, using the red leather bound church missal which he, as an army chaplain attached to the Polish Forces, had rescued from the ruins of the Italian monastery at Monte Cassino, scene of the bloodiest land battle of World War 2.  Father Żelechowski has long since died but the missal is in safekeeping at the Polish Chapel in Newcastle.  Almost every family had an example of a problem with either employment, housing, finance, health and so on that he helped to resolve for them.

 

Polish traditional dance " Zasiali Górale" 1956

 The camp's children in national dress on stage with their teacher   Mrs. Janina Kurowska 1959

Halina Kołodyńska, Karol Gosk, Krystyna Wójcicka, Barbara Osinska, Lusia Kurpiel.

From Left to wright:-- Ryszard Osiński, Urszula Rozgowska, Bogdan Gajdus, Henryk Płonka, Danusia Dytrych, Wisia Osińska, Krysia Kawa, Lolek Dytrych, Barbara Magnowska, Halina Kołodyńska, Romcia Grandowska, Karol Gajdus, Mrs. Janina Kurowska with Barbara Płonka in arms, Antoś Sulek, Barbara Osińska, Wanda Sulek, Józef Hawrylak,  Tadek Kołodyński, Fredzio Jaworski, Jan Wójcicki, Grażyna Kawa, Regina Jaworska, Krystyna Wójcicka, Zbyszek Płonka, and Mrs. Emilia Gajdus.

 

Next to the chapel was the Club where dances with live bands were held regularly.  People worked hard but missed no opportunity to enjoy themselves perhaps making up for all they had been through.  The Club also served as our Polish School where every Saturday morning under the expert tuition of our tireless and inspiring teacher, Mrs Janina Kurowska - who was also the chapel organist – we learned to read and write the Polish language and to appreciate the richness of Poland's culture and heritage through dance, song and theatre.  The concerts, which she choreographed so expertly, caused great excitement as we performed our well-rehearsed folk dancing and singing to the accompaniment of accordion music, wearing our national costumes which our mothers had painstakingly made or which had been sent by relatives from abroad, in particular America where many Poles had emigrated to.  Local civic leaders often attended as guests and this added to the sense of occasion.  At Christmas of course, we would stage a Nativity play.  In summer we would have sports, games and picnics on the Common.

Two particularly important historical events merited our grandest concerts.  The first was the Constitution of 3 May 1791, only the second written democratic constitution to be drawn up in the world, America’s being the first in 1787.  Short lived though it was since Poland was again occupied  a year later by Russia, Austria and Prussia, it represents to this day its struggle for liberty throughout its history.  The second was Poland’s defeat of those same occupiers 123 years later regaining its independence on 11 November 1918.

 

Although returning to Poland can never have been a realistic possibility for all  those who settled here after the war, the hope of one day going back to a free Poland was reflected both in the Polish national anthem, ‘Jeszcze Polska Nie Zginęła’ which was sung with fervour and pride at all our events, and in the solemn prayer for the nation, ‘Boże Coś Polskę’ sung with great emotion at the end of each Sunday Mass. The British National Anthem was also always sung at our events.  

 

First Holy Communion 1956

Nativity 1958

Back row:- Zbyszek Płonka, Karol Gosk, Walek Cierepok, Bernard Dąbrowski, Roman Kawak.

Front row:- Krystyna Wójcicka, Barbara Osińska, Halina Kołodyńska, Grażyna Kawa.

Kneeling;-Wisia Osińska, Krystyna Wójcicka, Mirka Janson, Halina Kołodyńska, Grażyna Kawa, Wanda Sulek, Lusia Kurpiel, Zbyszek Płonka, Józef Hawrylak. Standing:- The accordionist  Edward Rozgowski, Barbara Osińska, Unknown, Roman Kawak, Unknown, Karol Gajdus, Krysia Kawa,  Danusia Dytrych, Bogdan Gajdus, Monika Wróbel as Joseph, Anna Wróbel as Mary, Karol Gosk, Danusia Gosk, Ryszard, Osiński Tadek Kołodyński, Jan Wójcicki, Antoś Solek.  

 

Many of the original families lived on the Common Camp for 10-15 years until one by one we were re housed and the camp fell silent as the last of the families moved out.  We continued to keep up our religious and cultural traditions but inevitably to a much lesser extent.  For the next 40 years people met once a month at St Robert’s Church in Morpeth to attend mass said by the visiting Polish priest from Newcastle and took part in events at the Polish White Eagle Centre and Chapel in Newcastle which Father Żelechowski had worked so hard to bring about.  Every year for the feast of All Souls Day a small declining number, now in their eighties and nineties, along with some first and second generation Poles, still meet at the Polish War Graves in St Mary’s Churchyard, Morpeth for a short ceremony commemorating the souls of the departed including 74 Polish Forces men who had been based at the Camp towards the end of the war and who had succumbed to TB.  The Isolation Hospital on the northern edge of the camp where some of them died was converted from what was originally built as a racecourse grandstand in the late 19th century.  It was converted again in the 1960s, this time into five cottages.

We first generation Poles born and brought up in Britain naturally have a strong allegiance to this country and an appreciation of the opportunities we have had but at the same time, given our traditional Polish upbringing and our close links with extended families in Poland we have strong emotional ties with Poland.  This dual identity is something we have always just accepted. Morpeth Common Camp was demolished in 1964 and now many years later we still appreciate the uniqueness of our experience.  The concrete bases and roads were taken up so that nothing remains to show that it ever existed.  Even the Star Plantation, the copse of trees planted on the site in the 19th century in the shape of a star, was cleared.  In the Camp’s place stands Craik Park, home to Morpeth Town Football Club and other sporting facilities.         

 
No part of this article may be reproduced without the written permission of Krystyna Wojcicka
 
 
If you lived in the camp and would like to share your memories and photos please contact zosia@northwickparkpolishdpcamp.co.uk
 
 
More information on:-   Common camp Morpeth
 
 
  Page 1 Current, The Common Camp, Morpeth recollections by Krystyna Wójcicka
  Page 2   The Polish Military  geaves in SS. Mary and James Churchyard MORPETH
   
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