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- Last updated: 20/01/2023
In March 1987, a most unusual museum opened its doors for the first time to the visiting public. Announced at the time as a ‘Modern History Theme Museum’ it has since gone on to win several prestigious tourism awards and continued to grow and expand its range of exhibits. The foundation of the museum, which enjoys an international reputation, came about entirely by accident following a visit to the site in 1985 by three Italian men who had been residents at the location during WWII.
To understand the origins of what today is the Eden Camp Museum at Malton in Yorkshire (www.edencamp. co.uk), we first have to turn the clocks back to the year 1942. In that year, the British army had captured many thousands of Italian soldiers and as POWs, they had to be held in secure conditions. The War Office acquired the land on which the museum stands and erected a perimeter fence using barbed wire to create a compound in which tents were erected. A year later, POW Camp 83, as it was designated, had been transformed into a permanent camp, complete with pre-fabricated concrete huts, plumbing and electricity, ready to receive the first Italian POWs.
However, their residence was only short-lived and they were relocated to other facilities by the end of 1943. The new residents were Polish troops in exile, who were being readied to take part in the liberation of Europe from mid-1944. Their departure left the site vacant, but it was not long before it was being used as an internment camp for German POWs captured in France. The camp remained in this role until it closed in 1949 when the last of the inmates left.
In the post-war era, parts of the former camp were put to use variously for food processing, soft drinks manufacturing and even a holiday camp. The site closed in 1955 and for the next 30 years, it was left unused. Then, in 1985, a plan was prosed to convert it into a potato crisp production facility. That is when the three Italians come into the story. They were former inmates and wanted to have a last look around the site. When their story emerged, it was decided to create a museum to preserve so much personal history.
During the war, over 160 POW sites were built across the country from Somerset to Northumberland, into Wales and up to Scotland. Most have been developed and built over, but Eden Camp was lucky to escape that fate. Whilst it is not unique in being the only former POW camp open to the public, it is the only one permanently open as a museum. It has never lost sight of this original function and has collected a gallery of incredible photographs, together with examples of artefacts made by the prisoners, which were often sold to buy things not supplied.
When Eden Camp first opened there were ten surviving former POW huts, each one containing an exhibition to cover a specific period of the war. Today, this has expanded to 14 huts, down from the original 45 at the peak of its use to house 1,200 POWs. These feature displays on such events as the Home Front, Blitz, the POW Experience and the RAF. Visitors are guided to follow a ‘one-way system’, starting at the beginning, with visitors entering the first hut and making their way through each hut in turn to see displays. This layout avoids congestion and allows more time to be spent in displays such as the music hall, WWI and the post-war era. Visitors move at their own pace to inspect the many artefacts on display, which include personal items, uniforms, weapons and newspaper headlines of the day.
The outside area has large items on display, including an M50 ‘Super Sherman’ tank, artillery, various vehicles, a replica V1 ‘Flying Bomb’ on a launching ramp and air raid shelters. To some visitors seeing these items for the first time will be a new experience. For military enthusiasts, even if you have seen these things before, it is always interesting to see a different version displayed with other unit badges. Among the outdoor displays is a life-sized replica Hurricane fighter, trucks and a Churchill tank. Time spent on site depends on interest level, but a suggested unhurried length of visit is about half a day, say, three or four hours. Overall, it is a fascinating experience with plenty of surprises and something for all ages and experience, from collectors and modellers to general interest.
As with other similar venues during the COVID-19 crisis, Eden Camp was shut down with enforced restrictions. However, the time was put to good use and displays were refurbished and overhauled, plus the site was prepared ready for when it could reopen. It is now a year later and Eden Camp is back up and running and enjoying a healthy visitor attendance. The site has a full range of facilities for wheelchair users and the shop is well stocked with a full range of related books, posters, DVDs and many other items including plastic model kits.
The museum operates a seasonal opening period and is currently closed for the winter. It will re-open on the 3rd of April 2023. During its open period, it hosts a range of themed events and re-enactment weekends with groups depicting various aspects of the war years. Looking at the number of positive review comments posted on Trip Advisor, Camp Eden is well-received and enjoyed by family groups. The website is interactive and a notice appears on the screen to invite you to join their electronic newsletter free of charge. This keeps you informed of news of re-enactment events, new displays and other upcoming events.
This museum provides an insight into the social history of the time and the fate of the POWs, something which is often overlooked. At the end of the war, many former POWs remained in Britain, started families and established successful businesses. If it had not been for those three former Italian POWs visiting the site, there would not be an Eden Camp Museum today. It’s strange how fate can intervene and change things for the better.