Harperley Prisoner of War Camp, in County Durham, designated a Scheduled Monument in 2002, has seen significant deterioration over the last ten years and is now at extreme risk, says English Heritage, announcing a programme of urgent works to two key buildings: the canteen and the theatre hut. Temporary enclosures have already been built over the buildings to protect them from further weather damage, and a two-year £500,000 programme of repair is about to begin.
Built in 1943, at first to house low-risk Italian and later German prisoners of war, the camp is remarkably complete, and includes both the prisoners’ and guards’ compounds. The unique, purpose-built theatre has a stage, orchestra pit, and stepped auditorium, all built in concrete and brick. The canteen – the main communal building – has forested mountain ranges, grazing stags, and idealised scenes of the German countryside on the walls, which were painted by the inmates to remind them of home.
Harperley prisoners played an important role in the wartime and post-war economy of the Weardale, working as agricultural labourers, making toys for local children, and painting a set of the Stations of the Cross for nearby Wolsingham’s Catholic Church. A number of former prisoners subsequently married locally, and raised families who still live in the area.
Margaret Nieke, daughter of Reinhard Nieke, who was interned in the camp, said: ‘My father’s life was totally transformed during the brief years he was there as a German prisoner of war; as a result he remained in England. Emotions in the camp always ran high as the prisoners tried to make sense of the developing war story and get news from their families and loved ones at home. It is this strong, raw “sense of place” which makes the Harperley story so important.’
The architect Ptolemy Dean, who is involved in the repair work, said, ‘The challenge is how best to preserve the physical fabric of what are essentially low-cost and short-life huts. These were constructed of thin and often poorly mixed concrete with crumbly asbestos-sheet roofing that alone protects the very vulnerable, delicate but moving prisoner of war painted decorations within. A wider challenge is how the site overall will be conserved, with its melancholy but very meaningful sense of empty abandonment and decay, which is so powerfully evocative of the bleak remoteness of this site, and the quality of life that its interned occupants must have experienced during wartime.’