Headington history: Miscellaneous

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Old Road Prisoner-of-War Camp

Entrance to the camp in 2021

The Old Road Prisoner-of-War Camp in Headington was reached by the above road (now blocked off except for a footpath in the corner beside the garages) which ran southwards straight into the working farm then run by the White family called Wood Farm. This former access road is adjacent to the present 154 Old Road and to the east of Titup Hall Drive (which did not exist until the 1950s), and the camp was in the middle of the farm's northernmost field.

The Headington camp, which had a gated entrance, was a hostel rather than a base camp. It was a satellite of 43 Harcourt Hill Working Camp in North Hinksey (then in Berkshire) and was described as being “situated in a suburb of Oxford” and as “enjoying the same advantages as the main camp”. Harcourt Hill prisoner-of-war camp opened on farmland in North Hinksey in 1942 and was originally an Italian working camp/labour battalion. A guard reported that there were 600–700 POWs in the camp, plus 500 in another section, which probably means this Headington camp. The Germans held there after the war were both Class 3 (“white”, or anti-Nazi) and Class 2 (“grey”, or neither pro- nor anti-Nazi).

The fields of Wood Farm then stretched northwards from Magdalen Wood, reaching the back gardens of the Crown & Thistle pub and the houses on the south-east side of Old Road, as shown in the following 1939 OS map of the section of Old Road between York Road and Quarry Road. The camp with its entrance road was built to the west of a row of old cottages a couple of years later.

Site of Wood Farm Camp in 1939

1. Italian prisoners of war: c.1942–1946

Initially “Hostel Headington”, as the Old Road Camp was also known, held Italian prisoners of war, and it is likely that it was built soon after the Harcourt Hill Camp opened in 1942. After the Italian surrender on 8 September 1943 these prisoners were encouraged to become co-operators, which means that they had better conditions in exchange for being employed on a wider range of work, and many people remember seeing them around Headington, Cowley, and Oxford. It is likely that the Italian prisoners worked mostly on the farms of Headington and Cowley, but other official work undertaken by them in Oxford included dredging of the part of the River Cherwell at the end of Cave Street in St Clement's, and even installing a kitchen in the flat at 33 Beaumont Street.

Until 19 August 1944 all Italian prisoners in the UK were restricted to a “Free Area” with a radius of two miles around their camp, and those allowed bicycles could use them there, but had to be back at the camp by 10pm every night, and were only allowed to speak to British civilians when it was necessary to do so (namely in relation to their work duties or within camp). Connie Coppock recalls an incident when she was coming home from work after dark one night on the slight slope along The Slade by the end of Peat Moors, and in the blackout conditions bumped into someone who turned out to be an Italian prisoner of war who claimed to be a member of the Italian football team. When he tried talking to her, she had to tell him they were not allowed to fraternise.

Dick Tolley wrote:

Down at Wood Farm near Titup Hall Drive was a camp for Italian prisoners of war. These guys were allowed out to walk in the evenings but not in public places. They were issued with battledress with a large red patch on the back. They were made to work but at tasks not linked with the war effort, so they dug drainage ditches and mended roads.

This painting of Italian prisoners working in an onion field somewhere in the UK shows them all wearing the red patch that Tolley remembers.

From 19 August 1944 the Italian prisoners were allowed to travel within a radius of five miles, and to speak to members of the public in Headington and accept invitations to private houses. Chris Payne recalls:

There is a row of cottages including 162 Old Road (my grandparents’ home) and the entrance was at the end of that row set back from Old Road. The Italians were allowed out fairly unsupervised and I had my hair cut regularly by an Italian POW. Three of them were fairly regular visitors to my Gran’s and they would sometimes sit down at the table with us for a meal. After the war the three Italians corresponded with my Gran thanking her for being so kind to them and helping them to cope with missing family life back home.

People remember the Italian prisoners using “Tilly's shop”, a general store run by Miss Matilda Kislingbury (1886–1975) at the present 123 Old Road.

Google Earth map of 1947

The above Google Earth Historic Image shows Old Road Camp in December 1945, overlaid by a map of the roads of Wood Farm that have since engulfed it. At this point the Italian prisoners were starting to being sent home, and the process was completed in early 1946.

2. German prisoners of war: 1946–1948

After the Italians were sent home the labour force nationally was depleted, and the Home Office allowed suitable German prisoners-of-war to occupy the vacated Italian labour camps, but they had less freedom and initially they were only allowed to work in agriculture and forestry.

Hence from mid-1946 to early 1948 the Old Road Camp was a re-education camp for German prisoners-of-war. (A re-education policy targeting German prisoners-of-war had been approved by the War Cabinet in September 1944.)

Chris Paye recalls that these German POWs worked on the local farms of Headington, but always as a group supervised at all times by armed guards.

Below is an aerial view of the camp in 1947, when it was occupied by German prisoners of war. Old Road is near the camera, with the Slade on the right, and the fields of Wood Farm run southwards as far as Magdalen Wood. Titup Hall Drive did not exist at this date, but the south ends of Quarry Road and York Road are visible right at the bottom.

Old Road Camp from the air in 1947

The Old Road Camp was inspected every month from July 1946 to January 1948 by the Re-Education Survey (with the Red Cross inspecting the main camp at Harcourt Hill). Initially in July 1946 there were 160 German prisoners here, but by May 1947 there were 230, which means that about 15 men must then have occupied each hut. In July 1947 the report mentioned a theatre group.

Headington Cinema

The Hostel Leader in Headington throughout was Oberfeldwebel (= fourth-lowest non-commissioned officer rank in the German Army/Air Force) Hans Bangert. At the inspection in October 1947 he was described as “a policeman, who is in my opinion a very honest man and gets on well with local inhabitants”, but the next month, when his age was given as 31, he was described as a common type with little education, and was classified Grade B (also known as “grey”, meaning that he was neither pro- nor anti-Nazi).

The report in September 1947 noted that the hostel was due to be closed down, and that there were now only 64 men at the camp.

On 10 October 1947 Professor Leibholz gave the German prisoners a lecture on his “Three-month stay in Germany”, and 30 prisoners attended, At the next monthly inspection it was noted that the wireless set in the camp was broken, and that the Conservative Club, Rotary Club, and students at the University of Oxford were all inviting the Headington prisoners to visit.

Then in December 1947 the inspector noted that the German prisoners liked to visit Headington Cinema.

Right: Headington Cinema near the
top of New High Street in the 1920s

Prisoner of War


Left: Cartoon published in Punch on 14 January 1948 entitled:
"Send him back, Mr. Attlee.”

It shows a German prisoner-of war who is obviously longing to go home, and indicates tthe general feeling in the UK in 1948 that it was time that the remaining German prisoners who had been working on farms should be sent home.

The final report on the Old Road Re-education Camp is dated January 1948, and so presumably the last remaining 37 German prisoners-of war there at that date were sent home soon after this cartoon was published, probably in February 1948.

3. The camp used as housing, and the coming of the Wood Farm estate (1948–1956)

As soon as the Germans had moved out in early 1948, homeless British people unofficially took over the huts in the camp, and before long the site was officially transferred to Oxford City Council for temporary housing. Estimates by Symm & Company for the conversion into flats of this “German Prisoners of War camp at Wood Farm”, dating from July 1947 to February 1949, are held by the Oxfordshire Record Office (B27/1/A4/4/6).

The city council duly converted the huts into 34 homes (31 two-bedroom and 3 three-bedroom units) at a cost of £11,738. The rents per week were then 8/6 plus rates for the two-bedroomed flats and 9/- or 10/- plus rates for the three-bedroomed ones, and the community was still surrounded by fields.

In May 1951 the first set of plans for the Wood Farm estate were approved: these were for 116 Easiform houses on new roads that would become Titup Hall Drive, Wood Farm Road, Masons Road, Palmer Road, and Pauling Road (51/01745/A_H). The Bronze Age tumulus shown to the east of the camp on the 1939 map above was destroyed in the process.

The first roads carefully avoided the bulk of the camp, so initially only eight of the 34 units there were lost, and for five years the people who still lived in the Old Road Camp were surrounded on all sides by building sites. This aerial view of 1953 shows the new roads and houses starting to encircle the camp.

Once Titup Hall Drive was created, a replacement vehicular entrance was made from it to the camp. The former access road next to 154 Old Road was now blocked off to vehicles, but a footpath leading to Masons Road in Wood Farm was retained and still survives today.

In 1954 planning permission was granted for the garages shown at the top of this page to be built in front of the fence that separated the Wood Farm estate from Old Road (54/03861/A_H). They were intended for the use of people on the estate, and hence the old footpath from the camp to Old Road still survives today.

Old Road camp, Kelly's 1956

Right: List of the heads of households of the 26 surviving huts of Old Road Camp from Kelly's Directory for 1956. (The camp is only listed in two editions: 1954 and 1956.)

Below: Map of 1956, shows how two of the new roads of the Wood Farm estate (Titup Hall Drive to the west and Masons Road to the north and east) had closed in on the Old Road camp and had already taken bites out of it, probably explaining the eight missing numbers (1–6 and 27 & 28) in the directory on the right. .

Old Road camp in 1956

See another map dating from the 1950s
side-by-side with the same view today

This shows the camp just before it was demolished

Later in 1956 the occupants of the huts moved out, some to new council houses at Wood Farm, Barton, and Rose Hill. Then on 23 October 1956 planning permission was granted to build 27 houses in a new road, Stansfeld Place, in an “area off Titup Hall Drive, Wood Farm Estate, until recently occupied by hutted camp” (56/05634/A_H), and the remains of the Old Road Camp shown in the map immediately above vanished without trace.

Stansfeld PlaceThe entrance to Stansfeld Place from Titup Hall Drive, running NE across the
western side of the former camp. The newer entrance to the
Old Road Camp also used to start about here, but ran due east

As well as the prisoner-of-war camp at Harcourt Hill, there were six other ones in the present county of Oxfordshire, namely at Shotover House, Eynsham Park, Henley-on-Thames, Arncott, Blackthorn, and Shrivenham.

Thanks to the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum for details about the camp inspections when German soldiers were held there between 1946 and 1948, and to Professor Bob Moore for general information.

For more on the Old Road Camp, see the reminiscences of
Kathy Turner and Pauline Gibbs and Chris Payne

National Archives (links to catalogue entries only)::
43 Working Camp, Harcourt Hill Camp, North Hinksey, Oxfordshire:
FO 939/125 and FO 939/299

See also page about the separate Slade Army Camp in Brasenose Woods

General links:

Wikipedia: German prisoners of war in the United Kingdom

Henry Faulk, Group Captives: The Re-education of German Prisoners
of War in Britain, 1945–1948
(Chatto & Windus, 1977)

There is useful information about life in a British prisoner-of-war camp
in this review in the Irish Times of Sophie Jackson's book,
Churchill's Unexpected Guests: Prisoners of War in Britain in World War II

© Stephanie Jenkins

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