Kelvedon Essex

Kelvedon Essex


Memories of a Happy childhood in Kelvedon camp contributed by Kaz Janowski.

The Kelvedon Polish Displaced Persons Camp, known to the Poles who lived there as the "Obóz", took its name from the nearby village of Kelvedon in the Braintree District  of Essex.  Witham was the closest town, with the villages of Rivenhall and Silver End both within easy cycling distance.

The camp was built on land originally requisitioned from local farmers. It was a self-contained world largely cut off from the sparsely populated surrounding small villages and farmsteads. The camp buildings were left over from RAF Rivenhall, a WW2 airfield opened in October 1943 and used for bombing missions to Europe. An assortment of aircraft, including American B26 bombers and Mustang fighters, had flown from the place during the war. Rumour had it that Special Forces Units were trained there on gliders. Even after the war, the camp had an air of mystery and secrecy about it.


Polish soldiers enjoying a British pint

Czesław Janowski entering civilian life.


Polish ex-servicemen and their families started moving onto the site soon after the airfield was formally closed in September 1946. The Nissen Huts that once housed the flight crews and ground support staff were now occupied by a motley collection of Polish-speaking civilians and an ever-growing multitude of children. An observer flying over the camp would have seen clusters of black-roofed Nissen Huts tucked away among flattish fields and patchy woodlands. Various towers, hangars, odd-shaped buildings, air raid shelters, concrete paths, roads and runways betrayed the site's original function.


The relative isolation and 'ready-made' camp infrastructure created for these people an illusion of a tiny Polish state, nestled within a benevolent but alien English landscape. It was a welcome and largely happy little world for people who had been through a good deal during the war. Each family had an extraordinary personal story to tell of how they survived the ordeals of war, deportation and separation from their loved ones. Between them, the Poles arriving at the camp would have travelled through or fought in an impressive array of countries in Europe, Central Asia, Siberia, the Middle East, India and Africa. Many had served alongside British armed forces. Now it was time to start a new life either in Britain or further afield in Canada, the United States, Australia or even Argentina. The option of return to Poland was not countenanced by many, as those who returned experienced persecution from the Communist government - and in any case most of the people living in the camp were from eastern parts of Poland which were no longer part of the country but had become the states of Ukraine, Belarus or Lithuania, all part of the Soviet Union.


The Nissen Huts, affectionately known as 'Beczki', 'barrels', were neatly grouped into four 'sites'. Each hut was supplied with electricity and running water. Toilets and wash houses were communal but nobody seemed to mind, for the washing of clothes and hot baths provided an excuse for catching up on camp gossip. Originally, our Nissen Hut, Hut 213, housed two families. My mother, father, grandmother, uncle and brother lived in one half and a family who eventually emigrated to the States in the other.

Aniela Janowska with her sons Kaz  and Jan

Kaz in his scout uniform


My brother Janek was three years old when I arrived in the camp in May 1952. My mother with her little newborn bundle had made the journey in an ambulance from St John's Hospital in Chelmsford.  By this time our family occupied the whole of hut 213. My Mum, Dad, older brother Jan and I lived in one living area; and my uncle Rudek and his mother - my grandmother - had the other half. There was a partitioned off area for our meals and for entertaining guests. In between the two living areas there was a kitchen, which also served as a smaller dining room. Here there was a larder and a large, white enamel pail always filled with fresh water. The hut was heated by a cast-iron stove and the cooking was done on a cast-iron cooker. Both were fired by wood and coal. Our room was heated by a small paraffin heater. Our chairs, tables and wardrobes were classic examples of British-made Utility furniture. Simple, yet robust. This furniture was functional and comfortable and our little hut was snug and cosy. I loved living there.

At night we would gather around the stove and listen to uncle Rudek read from our favourite book of enchanted Polish fairy tales - 'Za Górami, Za Lasami' - 'Beyond the Mountains, Beyond the Forests'. My father built up a fine collection of Polish children's books published by  'Nasza Księgarnia' - 'Our Library'. Stories by Janina Porazińska, illustrated by Jan Szancer, fed our childish imaginations with images and a moral code of hard work, honesty, and kindness to people and animals from a homeland far away.

 We had more than one priest, including Ksiądz (Fr.)  Hołowacz, who was the Proboszcz (parish priest).  The one I remember was ksiądz M. Stasz. The church formed the hub of the camp's spiritual activity. Here, on weekday evenings, ladies in head scarves chanted hymns to the Virgin Mary or recited the rosary. On Sundays the structure reverberated to the sung words of 'Ojczyznę wolną racz nam wrócić Panie' - 'O Lord return to us a free Fatherland'. After Mass, ranks of faithful dressed in their Sunday best strolled back to their respective 'sites' while recounting wartime adventures. It was here that my brother and I celebrated our First Holy Communion and, when we 'came of age' for this purpose, joined the huge gaggle of altar servers. Our white 'komeszki', 'tunics', were sewn by our mum. We were also kitted out with 'kołatki', wooden clappers reserved for special use during Holy Week when the ringing of bells was too brash. The 'kołatki' were made by Rudek, who was also a dab hand at shoe mending.


Corpus Christi Procession


On the feast of Corpus Christi, processions made their way round the camp. The colourful display of banners, children in traditional costume, flower petals strewn along the path and the singing throng, provided a curious spectacle for passers-by. Eventually, even local English people began to come to watch the colourful spectacle.


First Holy Communion

Children and parents outside the church

A visitation from Prelate Bronisław Michalski - 1954


The  camp was divided into  parts known in  English as sites and in Polish as 'saydy'. On Corpus Christi each site erected its own shrine, to Our Lady of Czę stochowa or to the Sacred Heart, and the procession stopped at each of these. There was a sense of competition between sites to create the best shrine.


The camp had a co-op shop - the 'kołoperatywa' - a health centre and a nursery. Vital Polish delicatessen products were supplied on a regular basis by Pan (Mr.) Janko, who lived in London but who visited the camp on Saturdays in his VW van. On Fridays smoke and the sound of a bell ringing Heralded the arrival of a travelling fish and chip shop, fish and chips on wheels. When this marvel first appeared the astonished onlookers shouted 'Look! Hot Ice Cream!' It was just another of the wonders to be found in the strange land beyond the camp perimeter.


There were other visitors too. A paraffin vendor, a baker and door-to-door salesmen stopped by. We bought a set of encyclopaedias, a vacuum cleaner and an array of colourful rugs and hangings to brighten up our 'barrels', these last from bearded men with turbans. How these transactions came to be made is anybody's guess since the only language spoken in our 'barrel' was Polish. My parents went to evening classes to learn English and struggled with 'Essential English for Foreign Students' by C. E. Eckersley but since everyone in the camp spoke Polish there was little incentive to try hard.


Prelate Bronisław Michalski with the children inside the church

A party held in the camp's community hall


It's strange to think, in the light of the severe travel restrictions imposed upon Polish citizens in the 1960s, that we had two visits from family members from the People's Republic of Poland - my uncle Witek from Gdańsk, my father's older brother, and my aunt Adela, my mother's older sister, who was living in Biecz. She had fled to Biecz towards the end of the war from Wełdzirz south of Lwów, where my mother and she had both been brought up, because the Ukrainians had begun to massacre Polish people. On both occasions the reunion in the camp was a joyful one, but their reactions to our living conditions and presumably future prospects were fairly negative. I remember feeling uneasy about this, and it raised questions about where we really belonged.  (Ed. note: After W. Gomułka came to power in 1956 travel restrictions were relaxed, although by our standards still heavily controlled, and families were able to visit each other for the first time since the war.)


Some of the old airfield buildings were set up as a wayfarers' centre, and from these there was a steady flow of dishevelled-looking (English) rustics. Sometimes they tapped at our windows in the middle of the night seeking directions. I have two memories from this area of the camp. The first is the sight of gypsy caravans pulled by sturdy-looking cart horses. The caravans were painted and were hung on the outside with an assortment of pots and pans that jangled as the convoy wound its way along a country lane. The other memory is one I'm still ashamed of. A tired wayfarer (' łazęga' for us) had decided to have a nap in a ditch. He was spotted by one of the camp urchins and soon a small gang of us made our way to where the poor chap was sleeping. The bravest of our group picked up a huge clod of clay and dropped it on the poor fellow's chest. We fled. It was a cowardly act and evidence that we were no angels.


The former airfield gymnasium was now used for social functions organised by the SPK - the Polish Ex-Servicemen's Association (Stowarzyszenie Polskich Kombatantów). There were theatrical performances, 'akademie' (solemn celebrations of national events), and film shows -Laurel and Hardy, Tarzan and Pan Twardowski being particular favourites of mine. The projectionist, Jurek Romanowski, lived on our site and would occasionally treat us to private screenings of films in his barrel. At Christmas, the hall was 'visited' by 'Św. Mikołaj' - the Polish St. Nicholas. Children had to go up on stage to collect their gifts if they were good - or 'ruzgi', birch twigs, if they had been naughty. Of course no children ever got only birch twigs - but some got them as well as their presents!


A National celebration (akademia)


Pani Bobolska was my nursery school teacher. I was very fond of her. I remember that she told us that her husband was killed by the Germans by being put in front of a cannon.


When I was 5 I had to leave the haven of the Polish-speaking nursery at the camp and start at the primary school in the nearby village of Silver End. My English was nonexistent and this is reflected in my exercise books from that time. We had to copy model sentences written for us by the teacher. These models came from oral attempts to describe what we had seen on a particular day. The method was crude but effective and English soon became the language of choice amongst us kids.


Some of Kaz's Paintings

Middle section of Silver End school photograph, which is below


Silver End school photograph, 1956, with some of the 52 Polish children in the school


We were collected from the camp by a green double-decker bus and I personally couldn't wait to get back to the barrel, no doubt exhausted by the strain of trying to communicate in English. I have often wondered how the local English children felt about the massive Polish invasion of their school. If they felt any animosity towards us, I certainly cannot remember any. The teachers and English pupils were kind and patient.


We had a radio set with a green 'eye' permanently tuned to radio Free Europe, out of which came a stream of cheerful Polish songs, sinister drum beats of Beethoven's Fifth, the 'V' for Victory signal, followed by endless lists of missing persons, 'Such and such is searching for such and such'. Our favourite songs included 'Głęboka Studzienka' -  'Deep Well' - by Marysia Data; 'Antoni Kociubiński' a song about a loveable rogue; and 'Gruba Baba' - 'Fat Woman'.


My father had a motorbike with a side car. This machine was housed in a small garage at the side of the hut and when unleashed would tear along the deep Essex country lanes to the toy shops, Woolworths and dentists of Braintree and Witham.


Kaz feeding the chickens.

One of the residents feeding her chickens.


Around our hut we had flower and vegetable plots. We kept chickens and rabbits. Meat was not fully de-rationed in Britain until July 1954 so these creatures provided us with valuable protein for our meals. I remember rabbits being skinned and chickens plucked and singed over a primus stove. I loved feeding hay to the rabbits and would be taken in my dad's motorbike sidecar to meadows where we cut fresh supplies. Sadly Maxymatosis finally killed off our rabbits and our hutch was empty. I looked after the hens and some of my first memories include me feeding them grain.


On a snowy winter's night my brother and I told our parents that we had to go urgently to the communal toilet. In fact we set to and had the most incredible snowball fight in the eerie glow of the camp 'street lamps'. The winter was long and cold that year We mostly played outside. We imagined phantoms stalking the dark woods around the huts. We were all over the air raid shelters. We wanted to be Cowboys or Indians. Two boys inspired by what they had seen on television bought a family pack of matches in the co-op and set fire to two haystacks on the outskirts of the camp. In summer, at harvest time, we followed combine harvesters in the fields. In the autumn we watched tractors plough the heavy Essex clay. I wanted to be a farmer. On Sundays we watched foxhunting - beautifully arrayed riders galloping over the fields. Who were they?


Just before we left in 1959 we had a narrow escape when an American jet crashed in the woods behind our hut. The shrieking engine overhead and the great ball of fire served as a spectacular farewell.


My father was the President of the SPK in the camp. I recently found his old ledger with the names of SPK members. Taken from the ledger is the list below of SPK members. Not everyone in the camp was a member.

Babula, J. Czajkowski, A. Grónberger, K. Kawski, W. Leszko, M.

Rudzińcki, A.

Zaborniak, A
Bajdaka, M. Czajkowski, M. Guzik, E. Kindela, J. Lipiński, W. Olszak, K. Sarnicki, K. Zapaśnik
Baran, J. Czajkowski, S. Guzik, F. Kisała, J. Lipiński, W. Organiściuk, H. Siemieniuk, M Zenzer, R.
Bartosiak, J. Czesnikowski, A. Hatt, Z. Klimas, S. Lipka, F. Orzeł, F. Smilgin, A. Zenzer, S.
Bereczek, J Dawidowicz, B. Hawliczek, J. Koczarski, R. Lipka, W. Orzeł, K. Smyn, B. Zubkow, M.
Bernacka, Anna Droźdz, J. Fr.Hołowacz Kododko, Stefan Łukasiewicz,  J. Paduch, J. Soroczyński, J. Zwierzchowska, K.
Bernacka, K. Dryś, J. Hołownia, Z.

Konieczna, A.

Łukasiewicz, W. Pawłowicz, T. Sroda Zwierzchowski, J.
Bernacki, W. Dudziak, M. Hrabi, J Konieczny, J Markow, F. Pawłowicz, Z. Stachowski, Z. Żurawski, W.
Bilinis, Józef Dudzic, A. Ignaciak, M. Konieczny, L.A. Markow, J. Picheta Styczynski  
Blin, B Dudzic, J. Ignaciak, St. Konopka, M. Markow, T. Picheta, J.

Suswiło, B.

Bojarski, A Dudzic, Z. Jabłonowski, C. Korolczuk, F. Markow, W. Pickelon, D. Suswiło, J.  
Boreczek, J Duźniak, Sz. Jabłoński, J. Kotłowska, M. Masłowski, S. Piekarski, A. Swiło, H.  
Braclik, E. Dąbrowka, H.

Jabłoński. B.

Kowalczyk, B. Matkowski, K. Piekarski, Z. Szemńako, J.  
Brogowski, W. Dąbrowski, J.- who Jacyna Kowalczyk, Jan Matrejek, M.

Pisula, Cz.

Szuszkiewicz, I.  
Budzeński directed camp Jacyna-Onyszkiewicz, J Kołodziej Mazur Piłatowicz, A. Szyszko, W.  
Budzyński plays and organised Janowska, A Kołoronia, M. Maślanka, A. Piłatowicz, H. Tobolewski, M  
Bykowski, C. functions and Jakubiak,W. Kołotka, S. Mirecka, E. Platonow, J. Tomaszewski, B.  
Błago, E. cinema showings; Janowski, Cz. Kruśmórz, K Mirecki, J. Podpora, J. Tybulewicz, J.  
Ceran, J. Ejsmont, S. Jarczuk, G. Krysiak, T. Naniak, M. Podpora, S. Tyszkiewicz, S.  
Chmara, A. Fendek Jaśinski, M. Krysiński, J. Naniakowa, A. Proszowska, Z. Walusowa, H.  
Chmara, E. Filipek, W Jelinska, G. Krysiński, S.

Niedźwiecki, J.

Proszowski Waszczuk, E.  
Chmara, J. Gall, Franciszek Jelinski, S. Krzykowski, A. Nienajadło, Jan Pądzinski Waszczuk, S.  
Chudy, A Gawlak, J. Karpiński, B. Kubica, J. Nijander, M. Konopka, E. Wierzbicka, A.  
Chudy, E Gawlak, W. Kasjan, M. Kudź, A. Niziel, S. Pędziński Wierzbicki, S.  
Cybula, A Grejnerth Kasjan, R. Laskowski, Cz. Nowaczyńska Rajan Ludwik Wnuk  
Cybulski Grunt, A. Kawski, C. Laszczyk, L. Nowaczyński Romanko, A. Wondzynski  
Czajka, G. Grzadziel, J. Kawski, R. Leja, M. Nowak, A. Rozdolski, R.



Can any one throw any light about this photo.


In July 2011 I visited the site of the camp at Kelvedon with my brother Janek, his son Krzysiek and my wife Monica. It was a very wet day. Monica and I had been before to the camp area, but we hadn't been sure of the exact situation of the 'site' where I had lived. Janek, who is three years older, said he was sure he remembered. First of all I took him to Silver End school, which he and I had both attended - he for the whole of his primary school career, I for two years.


We then visited the buildings which had once been part of the old air base, some of which had been converted for the use of the Poles living in the camp. One had been our church. After this we went to find the site of our home - our 'barrel' or beczka. Janek took us to a wood just off the road, straight to the place where our 'barrel' had stood. We traced out where the kitchen had been, where we had slept and sat and ate. Nearby were the ruins of what seemed to be the bathhouse. Monica found an old medicine bottle and brought it back as a souvenir. I recorded Janek talking about his memories.



The following photos of the Tobolewski family were sent in by  granddaughter Antonina Tobolewska 

The Tobolewski family Helena and Mieczysław with their sons Wiesław and Zdzisław Helena and Mieczysław with their three sons Wiesław, Zdzisław and Krzysztof with a family leaving the UK for the USA - 1954

Fr. Aleksander Howacz christening  Waldek Tobolewski in the camp's church

Helena , Mieczysław and their sons Wiesław and Zdzisław with the Szczeciński family 1949.

 Helena and Mieczysław Tobolewski, Fr. A. Hołowicz and Jadwiga Gawlak in their Nissen hut 1956

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