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Tweedsmuir Polish Camp

A recently built, permanent exhibition at the Rural Life Centre which recalls and commemorates the post-war lives of Polish displaced persons in Tweedsmuir Camp, Thursley, has been given Lottery funding.

Imagine a childhood spent as a displaced person and housed in a former military camp. Grim? Not as Zen Rogalski remembers it. Until the age of nine, he and his six year old brother, Wies, spent 'an idyllic childhood' in Tweedsmuir Military Camp at Thursley, where Poles and their dependents displaced by the War were housed between 1947 and 1960.
One memory is of throwing fallen roofing shingles around like Frisbees Zen recalls, mindful of what 'Health & Safety' would have to say about such childish pranks today.

Now grown up with families of their own, the Rogalskis have spent a good part of their adult lives, not to mention a lot of their own money, researching the Polish residency at Tweedsmuir. This work involves documenting the residents's stories of how they came to be there and what happened to them after they left.

Their website has been much praised and they have received Heritage Lottery funding of £50,000 for a permanent exhibition at the Rural Life Centre in nearby Tilford. The accredited country life museum hosts a number of living history events each year, including a Village at War weekend each May, with re-enactments of Canadian and American troops who were stationed in the area.

Tweedsmuir Camp was built as a depot by Royal Canadian Engineers and it is thought that many thousands of Canadian troops arriving in this country passed through on their way to battles in occupied Europe. After the war the camp was used as temporary accommodation for personnel of the Polish Resettlement Corps, demobilised Polish service men and women, and their dependents. It was here that the Rogalskis lived from 1948 to 1957.

Zen and Wies, together with their parents, eventually left the camp to settle in Clapham, London. However the brothers have never stopped in their quest to find out all the stories behind this early chapter in their lives and lives of the other Polish people in Britain. We have been trying to find our roots, trying to unravel a tortured history that has impinged on our lives and made us what we are today, says Zen.

After the horrors of war, their parents, who had met and married in Surrey, regarded Tweedsmuir as a haven. The camp residents who had come from the rural and agricultural areas of Poland were soon keeping cows, geese and chickens, and growing vegetables on the site to supplement their diet. Men from the camp were employed in local industries, such as the Dennis engineering factory in Guildford and Nutbourne Brickworks in Hambledon, whilst many of the women worked at Secretts Farm in Milford.

For children like Zen and his brother it seemed a perfect childhood and now in memory of those who lived in the camp they and project volunteers want to bring the story of these years and these people to a wider audience. The Rural Life Centre is a perfect place for our exhibition, which will be housed in a timber building similar to the barracks in which we lived, says Zen. Ours is a social history of a small group of people intertwined with this area of Surrey.

Zen and Wies are always busy compiling and collating personal stories for the new exhibition. This is no easy task as the Polish families who lived in the camp were widely dispersed by 1960. They are always gathering photos and memorabilia, the originals of which will be archived and preserved for posterity at the Surrey History Centre for future researchers.

Getting Lottery funding has enabled them to realise their dream. We're doing this for our parents, our children and grandchildren and for all the people who were in the camp, Zen says. Although some of our findings are now on the website, they are only the tip of the iceberg. It is our hope that the exhibition will give the local community a valuable insight into part of the cultural heritage of Surrey which is in danger of being lost, says Wies.

The exhibition will be particularly interesting to local, Polish and Canadian visitors who want to discover more about this unique heritage. English and Polish institutions in the UK have been approached with a view to touring the exhibition and the brothers were delighted that the Polish Ambassador agreed to attend the official opening at the Rural Life Centre, which was held in 2012.