The Canadians in the Park : Sheffield Park and Garden during the Second World War
During the Second World War, Sheffield Park was requisitioned by the War Office and became an extensive camp for several Canadian regiments. The impact on the landscape was noticeable and the garden has taken many years to reinstate to its former glory. This year we are focusing on looking at what life would have been like for the soldiers who were based here before moving to continental Europe to join the war effort.
Looking around Sheffield Park and Garden today, it's hard to believe that it was home to thousands of troops a little over 75 years ago. But in 1941, troops were drafted in to build two large camps and Nissen huts sprung up all over East Park. Initially these were occupied by British soldiers but two years into the war, Canadian troops arrived in large numbers and their impact on the estate and surrounding area was quite immense.
Local children were fascinated by the foreign soldiers and many hung around hoping for a ride on a military vehicle or a discarded Sweet Caporal cigarette packet with their prized 'cards' showing pictures of different aircraft. At the time, the house was occupied by Nellie Soames, the widow of Arthur Soames, a passionate plantsman who became the owner in 1910. Many dances were held at Sheffield Park and other grand Sussex country homes that were taken over for troops, where the locals had the chance to dance and socialise with the soldiers.
Training and manouevres
Training mainly took place on the parkland and South Park to the edge of the garden. The ground was rough with patches of gorse, bracken and brambles, and training focused on the weapons and artillery they would be using in battle. After the war, hundreds of spent bullets were found in the bank behind Upper Woman's Way Pond where it is thought the troops used it as a rifle range.
First hand memories
Alan Bradford, a member of the gardening team here at Sheffield Park and Garden, has strong family connections to the time the Canadians were in residence. His grandfather, Tom (Pop), owned the local paper round and from the age of 13, his dad, John, delivered the meat on behalf of the local Butcher. Alan recalls
In the early 1940’s just after the outbreak of the Second World War, Canadian Soldiers moved into Sheffield Park Gardens. This caused great excitement in the area, especially in my family because thanks to their proximity to Sheffield Park and their connection with local businesses they were given an extra special Family Pass. This gave them controlled access to the Canadian contingent stationed within the grounds.
Dad would regularly cycle through the grounds delivering newspapers and meat to locals and newspapers and sausages to the Soldiers. He never tired of telling me how on Sundays he would have to collect 300 newspapers from the Waiting Room at Sheffield Park Station. Pop would drop him off at the Canadian Camp entrance from where a Soldier in a Bren Gun Carrier would come and collect him so he could deliver the papers round the camp. He often returned from his rounds better stocked than when he set out! I remember Dad telling me with a twinkle in his eye that, “the Canadian’s would give me tinned peaches, jam and cigarettes in return for the newspapers I bought them, which I then sneakily sold because I didn’t smoke and in times of strict rationing, my lad, cigarettes were like gold dust!” He also recalled with great fondness the parties held at the Soldier’s camp. “When my friends and I came through the Camp, the soldiers would hand out sweets which was an absolute treat for us all.”
Today, there are still a few clues in the garden of the Canadian's residence. Concrete Path in the south-east corner of the garden was laid by the soldiers and if you look closely, some of their footprints are captured in the path. On the parkland, the walls inside the pillbox are covered in graffiti too where they spent time on observations and on training exercises.
The impact on the estate today
Perhaps some of the biggest remains are the brick and concrete bases of the Nissen huts around East Park. Over one hundred huts were laid out in a random formation beneath the tree canopies, hidden from view of any enemy planes. They were used as dormitories, wash rooms, storage huts, workshops and mess rooms to cater for all the needs of the troops. Historic photographs show us what these looked like and how they were used, plus there is one remaining hut within the gardener's compound that is still going strong.
Apart from Alan's memories passed down from his family, we are also fortunate to have seen a photo record from a Canadian soldier who spent time at Sheffield Park and Garden during the war. His pictures record scenes from daily life, such as down time in the mess room, having a haircut from a fellow soldier to playing ball. Our thanks to Tim Bell, Summer of 44 LHG, for his kind permission in allowing us to share some of these.
What's happening this year
As part of our series of events this year to mark the Canadians in the Park, Alan with help from the garden team and volunteers, has built a replica Nissen hut in the garden down by the junction of Concrete Path and Nyssa Grove. It has been recreated using photographs, war diaries and memories of the soldiers and local residents. Inside you can get a feel for how life would have been and see some artefacts kindly lent to us by Newhaven Fort and many replicas, highlighted with quotes from the war diaries and interviews conducted with local residents.
Also this year, we will be holding an archeological evacuation in East Park to look for more artefacts. Tours will take place where you will be able to see what's been discovered so far and learn more about the Second World War era at Sheffield Park.
If you're a fan of military vehicles, make a note of Saturday 21 July when we will have a display of historic vehicles in the car park bought along by local enthusiasts. Come along to meet the owners and look at these restored vehicles, the first large gathering here in over 70 years.