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The Lost Heath

As author of hampsteadheath.net, I receive many enquiries, most of which relate to website content and activities.

There are many pieces of information and questions that resolve into some great titbits and facts which I add to the site thus enriching descriptive text with that personal touch and colour which makes the website even more vivid and informative.

There is one query that stays in my mind and is perhaps one of my favourite pieces of investigation
, although the outcome and significance were a little obtuse!

It relates to an email sent to the author by Australian Roger Canty, enclosing the pictures shown on this page.

Roger states......

“I am writing my fathers World War II history and have come across some photos with Hampstead Heath written on them. I have attached a copy. He was an Allied Prisoner of War in Germany and Italy. He was one of the famous Rats of Tobruk. At the end of the War they were flown to England for repatriation back to Australia. They were at a place called Eastbourne. (see figure 1)
I would appreciate any help you could give me.
Are these photos of your Hampstead Heath?
Was there a military base/repatriation centre there and if so, around what time in 1945?
Is Hampstead Heath anywhere near Eastbourne?
If your place is the correct one, are there any photos of the camp?”

I wrote Roger that Eastbourne and Hampstead Heath are a long way apart and I wondered if perhaps the Hampstead he spoke of could have been the wartime airfield of Hampstead Norreys (Norris) in Berkshire which was an RAF Bomber Command Operational Training Unit station.

There again…was this place possibly MoretonHampstead on the edge of Dartmoor or indeed the Hampstead in Northumberland or at a stretch of the imagination the Hampstead in Canada or coincidentally the Hampstead in Southern Australia?

I made enquiries to
local experts and historians and I also rang The Imperial war Museum.

In WW1
, The Heath had been used for target practice and recruitment but there were no camps known about in WW2…on that particular scale anyway.

The curator at The Imperial War Museum did make the observation that
"the guys in the photograph are sitting outside so it must have been warmer weather" and she drew a possible parallel to the fact that in the April and May of 1945 there had been “Operation Exodus” out of Germany when many troops were repatriated.

figure 1
figure 2

Could this be a source of Rogers photographs?

Our own local experts drew a blank but Jeremy Wright pointed out:

“The topography doesn't seem to fit the Heath very well [extensive flat area with a ridge/rise in the distance.]
(see figures 3 & 4) I know there were [WW II?] buildings/huts on the Extension on the NW corner opposite the end of Corringham Road [I have a plan showing this somewhere], but nothing as extensive as shown in the photos.”

Michael Hammerson added:

“I fear none of them ring any bells. The brick building in the first is totally unfamiliar
(see figure 2), and I doubt ever existed on, or even next to, the Heath. I am not aware of any military camp on the Heath during WW2 – much of the land was turned over to allotments. The only quasi-familiar feature is the "Gatehouse Café", (see figure 3) but I think it is in name only, and that it relates to a totally different Gate House to the Highgate one; there was no land available like that anywhere near the Gate House. The topography is so faint as to be of little help. My guess is that the words “Hampstead Heath” must relate to something else. I wonder if there is any Heath with a similar-sounding name in the Eastbourne area (and whether the name was added to the photo long after the war, in error?”

figure 3

Roger sent me additional photos:

In the papers I also found the attached four pages race program.(see figures 5,6,7 & 8) I do not believe it to be a horse racing meeting, but some sort of racing where someone carries a person on their back. If you look at the first photo it seems there are soldiers with a cup and the nurses are standing behind men dressed in jockey type outfits.” (see figure 4)

Then on sudden a few days later, almost always the result of hard and streadfast research, Roger Canty contacted me again:

figure 4

“I was a long, long way out in looking for Hampstead Heath. I was going through the internet looking at Italian POW camps and was looking for something on Rezzanello in Italy. There was a video by an English soldier who did cartoons and I looked at it for interest sake. His name is Arthur Powell. I attach the link to the video CLICK HERE

The first photo shown in the video is one of the photos that I sent you with the Gatehouse Café and the chef with his hands on his hips.(see figure 3)"

figure 5

Arthur Powell *1 did some work for "The Toronto Star".

It is thought that The Hampstead Heath racing event was called "Happy Hampstead" and was held at a place called Weinsberg in the spring or summer of 1944.

Through that event, funds were raised for the YWCA as well as many events.

These included classical shows such as Shakespeare's plays and more contemporary works such as Noel Coward, pantomimes, revues, cabarets and works by Gilbert and Sullivan.

It is understood that costumes for these stagings were borrowed from the local Opera House which had been closed during much of the war.

("'Appy 'Ampstead" is an old term used by Londoners, especially Cockneys, to describe the festival seasons on Hampstead Heath.)

figure 6
figure 7
figure 8

So it is such that the mystery was solved.

Somewhere in an Italian POW camp in Italy at the end of the War someone or some people had fond memories of a time of peace when perhaps in their mind’s eye they remembered joyous days of happiness and tranquility, strolling with family or friends on our own wonderful Hampstead Heath.

*1 There is a wonderful addendum to this story.
One of our readers, Anthony Wigg, tutor at Hampstead School Of Art, to whom I sent all these facts for possible research came back with the following:

“Amazing! What an amazing coincidence. Please extend all my good wishes to Roger Canty. My grandfather paternal was an Australian(my great grandfather maternal(C19th) was called Arthur Powell!).

I feel as if I've been part of a wider expanded almost otherworldly event with many strands! Coincidence is like that of course. Nourishing.  So his father was a POW and it was Rezzanello Northern Italy, a convent, and the sports day on Hampstead Heath a clear reference to the Heath as a sentimental reference, presumably. Roger's father would have known Arthur Powell in the film and one wonders whether he could now trace Roger Powell and communicate.” 

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