Peckham Rye Playgroup’s home is a colourful one, all painted red brickwork, blue flowers and psychedelic snails. But the Teletubbies waving gleefully from the side of the hut give little clue as to its darker past; it used to be a Prisoner of War camp.
During the second world war, British forces took over 130,000 Italian soldiers prisoner, mainly from battlegrounds in North Africa. At the same time, Britain was suffering labour shortages back home, due to the number of men who were away fighting, or who has already died.
So the Italian PoWs were transported to Britain where they were put to work in clearing and reconstructing buildings damaged by bombs, as well as in agriculture.
At least four huts were built on what is now Peckham Rye Park to house some of these PoWs, who were put to work in agriculture. The surrounding land was used to grow vegetables and raise pigs and chickens.
The camp was an open PoW camp, meaning the prisoners were free to come and go. Locals have shared memories of seeing them out and about on Rye Lane, marked out by certain symbols on their backs. They did, however, have a curfew at night, and the camp was surrounded by barbed wire.
The Italian PoWs were joined by German PoWs later in the war.
The breeze block building, with its red tin roof, looks somewhat out of place on the edge of Peckham Rye Park, nestled among the trees and the more natural-looking cafe building. It’s the only surviving PoW hut on the site. Others were used as storage facilities and changing rooms until they were demolished in 2009.
Today, an information board outside the remaining hut gives a bit of the history, including photos of the other huts before they were demolished.