Andrea Hammel, Reader in German at Aberystwyth University
Over the coming months, the I’m a Celebrity team is rumoured to not only want to use Gwrych Castle as a backdrop for their show, but also to incorporate the Castle’s history in their popular television programme. While the Castle must have seen a lot of fun and games in its time, there have been many occasions were the dark side of history dominated life at Gwrych Castle near Abergele.
Between 1939 and 1941, for example, up to 200 young Jewish refugees were accommodated at the castle trying to cope with dilapidated buildings, inclement weather and first and foremost with their new lives as refugees.
The story of the Kindertransport 1938/39 is often portrayed as a bit of a feelgood story. It is true that over 10,000 underage refugees escaped from Nazi Central Europe to the relative safety of the UK via the scheme. But they suffered trauma, hardship and heartbreak along the way. Because they were from Jewish backgrounds, they experienced Nazi terror and had to leave their familiar surroundings behind without the support from their parents.
Most Kindertransportees were not orphans, but were separated from their families. The British government had decided they would only admit children and not adults without having to undergo the complicated and restrictive visa and permit process. The British government also demanded a £50 guarantee to ensure that the British state did not have to financially support the child refugees and offered little official help.
The majority of the boys and girls on the scheme were accommodated alone with foster parents all over the UK, but some lived in children’s homes and communal training camps such as the Gwrych Castle Agricultural Training Centre. Clearly finding placements for so many children was a challenge for the volunteers who organised the Kindertransport, and they often had to accept any offer, even if it was far from ideal.
Gwrych Castle was in a dilapidated condition when it was offered to the Handler brothers in 1939. But it was superior to an open camp, where some of the Kindertransportees had been staying in Kent.
The first children arrived during early September 1939, so almost exactly 81 years ago. Use of the Castle was free, as neither the Dundonald family nor the British government wanted to make use of it.
But there was a reason for this. Only a few rooms of the castle were inhabitable, the walls had water damage, and washing and toilet facilities were extremely limited and in dire condition. This meant that after two weeks, the castle’s new inhabitants had to dig field toilets. There were only a few adults, often very young themselves, to help and guide them so the boys and girls often had to organise the cooking by themselves from very limited ingredients, resulting in meals such as ‘milk potatoes’. Initially, they did not even have enough plates and cutlery nor beds for everyone.
200 new arrivals in the small community of Abergele did not go unnoticed. The local community rallied round and donated household goods and clothes to make life a little easier for the child refugees. A few months later, some of the Castle’s inhabitants assisted local farmers, or were trained with local businesses. Some found out that besides learning English, learning Welsh was a big advantage.
Local historian Andrew Hesketh has researched the everyday life of the child refugees in detail. Of course, general education for the younger ones and agricultural training for the older ones and religious instruction was compulsory. But there were also leisure pursuits: the youngsters formed a football team and played (and won against) local teams. They played table tennis, had their own newsletter, and organised parties and even a dressing-up competition for Purim.
Some former inhabitants describe getting ill, and feeling the negative effects of minimal adult supervision; others express their gratitude for being given the chance to escape Central Europe, and for their experiences in Wales.
Life remained spartan at Gwrych Castle throughout its period as a training camp and some issues such as how to heat the buildings or how to have reliable running water and electricity were never resolved. In 1941 the Agricultural Training Centre was wound down because many refugees over 18 were interned as enemy aliens, but also because of the high running costs.
More research on the history of refugees from Nazism in Wales clearly needs to be done. Aberystwyth University has recently become a regional hub of the Second World War and Holocaust Partnership Programme led by the IWM and efforts are on their way to look into this important part of history further.
Gwrych Castle provided the young refugees with the community of camp life, but also with the challenges. These refugees’ early experiences will always be linked to the location.
No doubt the use of the location will contribute to this history becoming wider knowledge which is welcome. But it is too complex and serious to become mere entertainment.
NB. This post first appeared on Nation.Cymru on 30 August 2020