A hidden part of West Swindon’s history is being shared until 23 November writes Sophie Cummings, curator at Lydiard House.
Thanks to a recent loan of documents and photographs, The 160 Camp exhibition takes visitors back to the 1940s, when the park played host to a prisoner of war hospital.
It treated up to 200 German prisoners of war at a time, in huts located where the events and sports field is today. The large camp was originally established as a station hospital for US servicemen injured during the D-Day landings, but after they returned home, the camp was adapted to hold the growing numbers of captured Germans as the war drew to a close.
It finally closed in the late 1940s and the huts were converted to temporary housing for Swindon people.
Unlike the camps at Stratton, Lydiard Millicent and elsewhere in Wiltshire, the Lydiard Park camp was a working hospital, where sick and injured German prisoners received treatment from local nurses- right – and German medical officers – below.
When they recovered, they were put to work in local factories, on farms, road crews and logging parties. The staff at Lydiard House knew that there was a fascinating story to tell about Swindon’s recent history, but until recently had little information about it – until Elaine Newcombe-Jones made contact in 2011 with an amazing collection of documents.
Elaine’s father was John Bailey who was born to a German father and an Austrian mother. His mother later married a British army sergeant-major and John adopted his step-father’s name. He acted as an interpreter at several POW Camps in Britain, but his humble manner belied his experiences in the early years of the war running weapons for the Belgian resistance, surviving ship wrecks and escaping from Nazi custody.
John spent his later years in Wootton Bassett where he was active in the British Legion. Elaine produced some remarkable photographs of her father, his colleagues and camp inmates. Maps, photographs, letters, reports and other items form the core of the exhibition and bring to light the human stories behind the camp.
These include Werner Wachsmuth, the German doctor who treated both prisoners and local families, and Peter Probst, the captured German artist who gave paintings of Lydiard House and St Mary’s Church to a local farmer.
Since the exhibition opened in July, lots of local people have shared their own memories of Italian and German prisoners of war in Swindon, leading to several donations of artworks and other objects made by them.
One visitor remembered German prisoner Toni Schnoode billeted on a farm in Wroughton who used to construct model ships in bottles, which he sold to local people. Another recalled Italians, wearing wooden clogs, working on the farms between Wootton Bassett and Lyneham and shouting ‘Bongiorno!’ to passers-by.
Sophie Cummings holding a painting by German prisoner and artist Peter Probst. Image: Richard Wintle of Calyx
The exhibition at Lydiard House runs until 23 November and is open Tuesday to Sunday, 11am to 5pm during September and October, and 11am to 4pm in November.
We would appreciate more information about prisoners of war drafted into Swindon railway works during the 1940s. If you have any stories, memories or material, mail: email@example.com or write to Sophie Cummings at Lydiard House, Lydiard Park, Lydiard Tregoze, Swindon, SN5 3PA.