With the plight of thousands of Syrian refugees continuing to dominate the headlines, especially locally, it’s worth remembering the times when this area welcomed those fleeing persecution with open arms.
In the late 1970s the old RAF base at Thorney Island became home to hundreds of Vietnamese boat people.
Little more than 30 years earlier there was another influx. Again they were people fleeing a tyrannical regime, this time the Big White Bear – the Soviet Union.
They became known as displaced persons or DPs, arriving in England hopefully to start a new life either in the UK or America or Canada.
At the end of the Second World War there were up to 20 million displaced people across Europe. In parts of eastern Europe civilian and military personnel had fled their home countries in fear of the advancing Soviet forces with widespread reports of rape, pillage, looting and murder. Many dared not return, terrified of political retribution or being labelled as having helped the Axis powers.
The Baltic states of Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia along with Poland and Ukraine remained under Russian control and those that had escaped after the Russian invasion of 1940 did not want to return to live under a communist regime.
In all, the UK accepted 85,000 DPs. In addition 115,000 Polish army veterans also came over under the title of the Polish Resettlement Corps. Many of these soldiers were billeted at Emsworth.
During the war, because of overcrowding in Portsmouth’s naval barracks, several naval camps were built at Bedhampton, one being HMS Daedalus III.
To the south of this camp was another of brick-built and Nissen huts, put up for the people of Portsmouth in the early 1940s but never used.
At the end of the war, when the navy had moved out of the Daedalus camp, it and Bedhampton Camp were used to house DPs.
Hundreds of these people came to Bedhampton via Havant railway station. Many were in poor condition and only had what they stood up in.
The camp had a manager, a Mr White, who told the refugees on arrival that he wanted them all to be happy in the time they were there.
He spoke highly of his charges. ‘I have been in charge of several camps and I have never met such a keen and well-mannered crowd,’ he said.
The ‘mother’ of the camp was Mrs Sandison, who took great care of the women and especially the children. On arrival she issued each of them with a cotton sleeping bag, four blankets and pillowcases. They also received cleaning materials and equipment for the huts.
Men and women were separated to begin with, even married couples, but this was eventually resolved and married couples could live together. There were recreation rooms with canvas armchairs where they could meet.
It might sound awful, but these people were actually in the camp for processing and remained there for three months before moving on to other parts of the country or abroad.
The ‘invasion’ was accepted with open arms by local people.
Although they had been through much trauma in the war, what these refugees had been through was many times worse. Many gave clothes especially for the children and took them on car rides and into their homes for a meal and conviviality. There appears to have been no animosity towards the refugees and they all lived together in the local community quite happily.
Many spoke English and one man, a forester from Latvia, told how he had not seen his wife and six-year-old daughter for three years. He dared not try to write to them in case the letter was intercepted and something happened to them if they were still alive.
After three years or so most had been cleared and given passports although many still had to report to local police stations every six months well into the late 1950s.
After the last had moved on the camps were used by people bombed out of Portsmouth and used until the Leigh Park estate had been built.