Behind the Wire: Wanstead's forgotten home to prisoners of war (From East London and West Essex Guardian Series)
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Behind the Wire: Wanstead's forgotten home to prisoners of war
A local history group has found strong evidence of the existence of prisoner of war camps in Wanstead during WWII, despite there being no official documentation.
The Wanstead Flats Working Group, a sub-group of the Leyton and Leytonstone Historical Society, has been researching the use of the Flats during WWII for over three years and has discovered the main location of the camps.
Resident accounts and aerial photographs show that the prisoners, mainly German and Italian, were held on a plot of land encompassed by Lake House Road, Dames Road and Centre Road, now the site of Jubilee Pond and the fairground.
Although many residents still remember the camps, the details are now unclear and the history group has been piecing together memories, newspapers and photographs.
Wanstead resident John Hayward remembers travelling over the Flats in 1941 to see their ‘latest attraction’.
He said: “For us boys it was like going to the zoo to view the animals. Most looked quite happy, laughing and waving at us.
“They were in their own battledress on the back of which had been sewn a coloured disc. We guessed that was to mark them out if they decided to take a walk from what, in its simplicity, hardly seemed worth calling a prison camp.
“Within a few weeks they were all gone.”
Residents recall the prisoners being extremely cheery and talkative, with only chicken wire to stop them escaping.
The most widely remembered use of the Flats was to accommodate over 100,000 Italian prisoners of war in early 1941.
The Flats held sub-camps between 1939 and 1945 of a larger prisoner of war camp located on Carpenter’s Road, Stratford, the main reason why, it is thought, there is a lack of official documentation.
The camp in Stratford is thought to have spawned at least eight other sub-camps, including ones in Chingford, Waltham Abbey, Woodford Park and Victoria Park.
The acceptance of prisoners of war into the community increased as the war went on and prisoners from the Flats were often seen being taken to Upton Park to watch West Ham’s home games.
The Wanstead Flats Working Group committee are presenting a talk about the use of the Flats during the war and have produced a booklet summarising the extent of their research.
Group co-ordinator, Peter Williams, said: “We do all the research in our own time and have a huge interest in local history, so we really do know what we are doing.
“We are a mixed group of people – one of us is just about to start a PHD – another is a resident in his eighties and clearly remembers the end of WWII.
“We used our own initiative to take on this project as people are extremely interested in local history and it is a taste of other projects we may move onto.”
The group have published 120 copies of their booklet, Behind the Wire: Prisoner of war camps on Wanstead Flats and will be selling them at their talk on November 7 at Coffee7, Sebert Road, Forest Gate.
For tickets, contact Mark Gorman on 0208 553 5220.
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