The First POW Camp

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Norman Cross POW Camp

I’m not normally a fan of ‘Time Team’ but when I saw the ‘Death and Dominoes: The First POW Camp’ episode I just had to watch!

Aired on 3 October 2010, the Time Team gang visited Norman Cross in Cambridgeshire, which was the world’s first purpose built prisoner of war camp. And when was this camp built? In 1797, during the Napoleonic Wars.

It was designed by the Royal Navy to house French prisoners of war and built so far inland as to deter the prisoners from escaping and making their way back to the coast to (hopefully) sail home to France. At it’s height, the prison housed 5,500 men, but there is a record of 6,272 men on 10 April 1810! The prison was  closed in 1814 following the Treaty of Paris and the building subsequently dismantled. (If you want any more info about the site please visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norman_Cross which has some wonderful information and details!)

Items found at Norman Cross

Watching the dig on TV, the team have discovered some rather delicate pieces; shards of bone engraved with a circular pattern – and even more astonishing – some gorgeous domino pieces. The prisoners of war spent their time gambling and these homemade pieces are a testament to this pasttime. What else must there have been to do in a POW camp? Gambling with friends would have filled many hours!

‘Boredom was also a problem, and to counteract widespread gambling the inmates were encouraged to make and sell craft items from bone, wood and other materials. Many of these survive in Peterborough Museum. Time Team found further evidence of this in the form of a large collection of bone-working debris, and some finished objects (combs, needles, buttons, dominoes). Personal items including metal buttons show the range of military affiliations represented amongst the occupants of the camp (British, French and Dutch).’ (http://www.wessexarch.co.uk/blogs/time-team/2011/04/18/time-team-series-17-death-and-dominoes-first-pow-camp-norman-cross-cambri)

However, the main purpose of the dig was to find the graves of those prisoners who never made it back home – possibly dying from the typhoid epidemic which broke out in 1800. A number of graves were found, neatly aligned and with complete skeletons. Fascinating! But what about the large population that had been wiped out during the epidemic? Well – the ‘plague’ cemetary wasn’t found. As usual the team had many maps and geographical data that pointed towards the famed site, but no physical evidence was discovered. It’s a shame – that would have been a wonderful find!

‘Time Team found a number of graves to the north and north-east of the camp, just outside the walls. Several of these contained more than one individual, although these may have been interred in several phases. However, the ‘plague’ cemetery, reported (by local tradition) to lie to the west of the camp, was not located.’ (Link as above.)

Nevertheless, this was one of the most interesting Time Team episodes I’ve watched. I’m so pleased that they managed to find physical evidence; not just a wall or some bricks (like they normally seem to uncover), but personal items that would have once meant so much to one person. A domino piece that reveals the gambling habits of a group of prisoners. A piece of engraved bone. A button that would have been sewn onto a uniform – the pride of the man who wore it.

That’s what real history is. The objects – they mean so much more than just words!

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2 thoughts on “The First POW Camp

  1. If your interested in prisioner of war camps, you might want to check out Sissibghurst Castle in Kent. It was a camp during the 7 years war and has a reputation due to a chap from the Kent Militia shooting a prisoner. It caused lots of outrage at the time with French government complaining and an inquest. One of our Curators at National Trust had the records transcribed and there is an exhibition at Sissibghurst about it’s role.

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