Canadian Soldiers on the Eerie Camp
Headley Down Nature Reserve History
The Phoenix from the Flytip
The Canadian Camp
Many local people know that the Canadians were in Headley Down during World War II, and a few can still remember the days when the ‘Erie’ (or ‘Eerie’) camp, now the site of the Heatherlands Estate, was a detention centre for Canadian prisoners. The land had belonged to the Whitaker family since 1884 and was part of the estate still known as The Land of Nod until it was requisitioned by the government during the war. Before the camp was built, villagers had described it as ‘the prettiest spot in Headley’ with a wonderful view over unspoilt heathland, but to one Canadian Engineer, Fergus Steele, it was ‘what seemed to be a piece of wasteland.’ A long-neglected part of that same land was subject to constant littering and fly-tipping for many years. Now, the Headley Down Nature Reserve Trust is turning this overgrown land next to the Heatherlands Recreation Ground into a better place for wildlife, local residents and visitors.
Remembering and Recording the Past
The nature reserve project presents a unique opportunity to highlight the unusual and interesting history of the site. An illustrated information board on site will chart the changes that have taken place: from war-time prison camp to post-war temporary housing, then from rubbish tip to the building of Heatherlands. Fortunately, John Owen Smith’s book, ‘All Tanked Up: the Canadians in Headley during World War II’ contains a great deal of helpful material. First published in 1994, the book records the memories of locals and some of the Canadian veterans, many now no longer with us. Villagers recollected how the prisoners would sometimes escape by throwing their blankets over the barbed wire fencing in order to climb out and go down to the woods. Local children remembered being invited to parties in the camp recreation room and being given toys made by the prisoners. The arrival of the Canadians resulted in several romances for young women in Headley, and a handful of ‘war brides’.
Recent contact with the Royal Canadian Engineers has produced further documentation and photographs showing the construction of the camp. The site was not level as it is today and the strong cement cell blocks were on a marked incline. The Regimental History reveals that living in tents while the work was going on was less than ideal, due to the rainy summer in 1941.
‘Some grumblings were heard about rations. There was a temporary shortage of potatoes, with an attempt being made to fill up the vacuum with an oversupply of what was called cabbage, but to the Canadian mind was nothing more or less than boiled green leaves. Some reports of dissatisfaction regarding meat supplies were heard, even though the cooks reminded us all that we were already getting four kinds of meat, namely “RAM, LAMB, SHEEP and MUTTON.” This contentious issue was resolved to everyone’s satisfaction when the fall crop of potatoes arrived and we began to receive issue of really good frozen beef from Argentina.’
Once completed, the camp took all types of Canadian offenders, from those who had merely overstayed their leave to the more serious detainees. Attempts were made to ‘rehabilitate’ the soldiers who were there for two years detention because of self-inflicted injuries. They were taught a trade and then given the chance to go back to the front with their dishonourable discharge revoked. Little is known so far about the men of the Canadian Provost Corps who were responsible for the running of the camp during the war, but research continues. Maybe some readers will have old photographs of the camp or remember the Canadians who were there. If so, we’d be delighted to hear from you.
After the War
When the war was over and the Canadians had returned home, local families who had been squatting in empty Nissan huts were re-housed in the refurbished wooden and brick buildings on the site of the Erie Camp. In 1959, concerns were raised by the residents at the decision of Alton District Council to start using the old gravel pit on the site as a refuse tip but the huts remained in use until the 1970s when work began on building the Heatherlands Estate. As construction progressed, there were many complaints about flies, smells and rats. The remains of the old cell blocks are buried under the playing field and, though the rubbish was covered, over the years building on the former tip has caused problems with subsidence and methane gas was initially a cause for concern. Before the nature reserve project could be started, it was necessary to drill boreholes and test the soil on the site to make sure that it would be safe for use. We are now hoping that a new era will begin and that the nature reserve will restore the reputation of the site as ‘one of the prettiest spots in Headley’