Wartime Bewerley – Echos from the past

As Bewerley Park turns 80 years old, explore the early years of the centre in Wartime Nidderdale.

We have been living in exceptional times during the Covid-19 outbreak, with travel being restricted, we have to queue for our food and every evening we watch the news, hoping to hear the end of these troubled times getting closer. For nearly all of us this has been a new and shocking experience, our whole way of life has been curtailed and we are experiencing a taste of what it may have been like for our parents or grandparents back in the 1940’s when the whole world was embroiled in terrible wartime.

The wartime years

It was in those dark years, in response to the threat of wartime bombing, Bewerley Park Camp was built to provide safe sanctuary for children in the countryside away from war torn cities such as Leeds and Bradford. Born of the Camps Act in 1939 the huts at Bewerley Park were completed by March 1940, almost exactly eighty years ago today.

Wartime at Bewerley Park

The first forty one children arrived later that year in August and by December there were two hundred children on roll from Elementary Schools in Leeds. Their ages ranged from six to fourteen years and many of them spent as much as four years at the camp.

With ample playing fields, wonderful countryside and the well-known beauty spot of Pateley Bridge on the doorstep the camp was ideally situated and provided a healthy safe refuge for the children.

Conditions were at Bewerley Camp were primitive by today’s standards. The children slept in wooden dormitories with two tier iron beds and a room for the teacher at each end.

On arrival suitcase in hand they were shown to their dormitory handed three blue blankets and a white cotton sleeping bag and told to make their bed. Like today the result was often a crumpled mess. There was an adjoining Elsan chemical toilet for night time ‘emergencies’. The lavatories were in another building which held the bath, big enough for twenty children! One evacuee, Maureen Brockie, recalled queueing for a bath:

“We would rush to get to the front of the queue to get to where the taps were. The bath was thirty feet long and made out of cement. If you got near the taps you got a hot bath. By the time the water reached the other end it was cold.”

Beyond their sanctuary the war raged on, and danger was never far away. The camp looked like a military base and there was always the worry it could be bombed. Tony Walmsley the son of the Head Teacher wrote:

“No bombs were dropped on the camp. The nearest incident was when the Pateley Flyer – the Harrogate train – was bombed. Officially though there were scores of air raids. German planes often flew over at night to rendezvous up the dale over the reservoirs, which could not be blacked out. There they gathered before going on to attack Liverpool, Belfast or Barrow in Furness. Then they returned again, often flying over the camp.”

The children followed the news with interest, each night after supper the day’s war bulletins were relayed to them with important places being pointed out on the map, flags showing the front lines in battles.

Hoping for the crust

Food was in short supply, but despite this the children were well fed. The kitchen had machines for potato peeling, refrigeration, bread buttering and slicing, dough making, bacon and ham cutting. Some evacuees even suggested there was a machine for taking the butter off – so meagre did the wartime ration seem. A typical day’s meal was; breakfast of porridge and boiled eggs, dinner roast beef and potatoes, cabbage, fruit pudding and sauce with bread and butter. Still in practice today, the day’s meals finished with a supper of milk, cocoa and biscuits. The bakery in Pateley Bridge was an attraction. One evacuee Jean Lafbery recalled:

“On Saturday mornings, if we had any pocket money, we would buy a crusty loaf that had just come out of the oven and tear it apart as we strolled around the village.”

Her sister Brenda recalls Christmas in 1940 where they were offered an extra slice of bread:

“We had to form a line and pass the huge pile of bread taking one slice only. We each hoped there would be a crust on top when we reached the pile, as it was worth two slices.”

Because the prime aim of the camp schools was improving health, they came under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Health. Children were encouraged to be active and exercise. They took walks up ‘stoops road’, visited the woods, farms and moorland. Mr Walmsley, the Head Teacher, thought gardening was a wonderful activity. The children were encouraged to ‘dig for victory’ with the produce of the children’s energies greatly appreciated by parents.

The rabbit club was another flourishing concern and some one hundred and fifty table rabbits were raised each year. Caring for a rabbit was one of the strategies Mr Walmsley and his staff used to help the shy and sensitive children to settle. Though how they felt when it was time to eat them I’m not sure.

Education, adventure and entertainment

The children’s education carried on as if at a normal school. Play times and lunch breaks were just as the children had always known except instead of going home for dinner they would just cross the grass to the dining hall. They attended lessons in the morning and early evening. The afternoons were free for explorations into the local countryside. Providing they told the teacher on duty where they were going, small groups were able to go out on their own. For entertainment concerts were an important feature of life at the camp. In 1942 the children performed in a concert in aid of Upper Nidderdale Warship Week.

Wartime at Bewerley Park

Scenes, songs and country dances formed the main features of the performance, amply supported by scenic effects and designs made by the children during their arts and crafts lessons.

Wartime comes to an end

All things come to an end and by 1945 the war was over. There was no longer a need to billet children away from home to keep them safe from German bombs. Staff and children were given only a few days to pack and leave. The sudden change was not easy. Many children had made good friends who within a few weeks had disappeared, never to be seen again. A new school, new surroundings and no friends at first. A lot to get used to.

The camp itself continued, it was taken over by West Riding Local Education Authority in June 1945. It continued to run as a camp school for children. Getting them out of the industrialised urban areas into the countryside to improve their health. Each month two hundred boys and girls were sent to the camp from the poorer areas of the West Riding, but that’s another story…

So back to today, can we learn from the experiences of those children? I hope so. They coped with change, new surroundings, a shortage of creature comforts. Despite this they thrived, made new friends, found new things to do and found themselves. In many cases went on to better and more successful futures. In my time at the centre many of the evacuees, now much older, have come back to the centre to revisit this place where the magic worked. They share their tales of discomforts, hardship, friendship, daring- do and adventures with a youthful twinkle in their eyes. I just hope the young people who visit us today will feel the same way in another eighty years.

Thanks to:

Dr Lyn Cook, much of the information comes from her book Bewerley Park: From Camp School to Outdoor Centre 1940 – 1974.

Nidderdale Museum, Pateley Bridge for the photographs and documents.