Harperley P.O.W. Working Camp

County Durham


English Heritage and Mr Simon Raine


Archaeological Monitoring

Building Conservation

Construction of Harperley Camp began in 1942 to house Italian prisoners of war (P.O.Ws) captured in North Africa. The camp was built by the prisoners using the Ministry of Works and Planning standard-pattern modular hut designs and was completed in January 1943. The camp, known as Working Camp 93, was the main place in the area for POWs to be billeted. Other prisoners also lived at hostels in the surrounding dale to provide labour for agriculture and other occupations. By September 1944, most of the Italians had been permanently dispersed to the other hostels and local farms, to make way for low-risk German prisoners who were also employed as agricultural labourers in the area. Up to 900 prisoners used the main camp with about 1,000 more accommodated at its associated hostels and billets.

The German prisoners were gradually repatriated from late 1946, after they were subjected to programmes of ‘de-Nazification’. The camp was returned to the landowner who used the buildings as chicken sheds for a while, but otherwise left the camp alone.

The camp originally had about 60 huts, including a large mess hut in which one of the prisoners painted murals of rural scenes in Bavaria. There was also a theatre, doubling as cinema, with stage, orchestra pit and tiered seating. The site today is remarkably complete with about 85% of the original buildings extant, including all the main huts in both the prisoners’ and guards’ compounds. This means that Harperley Camp is the one of the best-preserved Second World War prisoner of war camps in Britain. In recognition of its national significance, the site was designated a Scheduled Monument (SM 34715) in 2002. However, many of the buildings are now in a poor state of repair, and the camp is one of the highest priority Heritage at Risk sites in the north-east of England.

In 2013, emergency works were carried out to protect two of the most at-risk and important buildings: the theatre and mess hut (refectory). The work comprised erection of temporary protective sheds over the two huts, installation of guttering for rainwater and creation of permanent drainage to take surface water away from the huts to existing drains at the edge of the camp.

NAA was commissioned to carry out two phases of archaeological monitoring during the work. A watching brief was carried out when 26 small pits were dug around the buildings to support the uprights for the temporary protective sheds, with further monitoring during the drainage works. A programme of drainage work comprised installation of plastic pipes leading from the two conserved buildings to the existing drains. Three parallel drains were installed in small trenches excavated between the conserved huts and the adjacent row of huts to the south-east of them. These linked to a new main north-east to south-west drain beyond the hut complex, running down the natural slope.

The pits revealed part of the foundations of the porch to the theatre, concrete or cobble paths and surfaces, and ceramic drains. The drainage works revealed a brick path in each of the trenches, running alongside a concrete path between two rows of huts. Probing with a thin metal spike confirmed that this feature ran the full length of the concrete path. The bricks had been reused from elsewhere in the camp, many still with cement from their former use, and were presumably laid to widen the area of hard standing beside the original path. This may have been to allow vehicle access to some of the huts, perhaps during the post-war agricultural use of the site. The camp seems to have been kept tidy and only a few artefacts were found, such as a glass bottle and a small number of potsherds including part of a plate with a factory mark for 1947.

Despite the derelict state of much of the site, efforts are being made to protect the remains by finding new purposes for some of the structures. Hut 16 (part of the guards’ compound) was converted into a small-scale cheese factory in 2014, and NAA monitored excavation of a new drain along the side of the building. This revealed the concrete footing for a small structure that had been added to the side of hut, possibly in the post-war period.  

The small size of the excavations meant there was limited scope for archaeological investigation. Nevertheless, the work provided useful new information about the layout of the camp beyond the visible standing structures and added to our understanding of this nationally important site.

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