A tour of the last surviving World War II German POW camp in Canada reveals hopeful plans for its future.
Seventy years ago, a provincial reform school for boys on the outskirts of Bowmanville was transformed into a POW camp for captured German officers during World War II. Today, the surviving structures of Camp 30 are fighting another war, against vandals and time. Victory appears to be a possibility.
Recently, Torontoist joined a tour of the complex organized by the Architectural Conservancy of Ontario’s Next Generation group. It will likely turn out to have been the last organized tour of Camp 30 for a while, because Kaitlin Homes, the property’s owner, still doesn’t know quite what to do with the site. Discussions regarding its future are ongoing.
Tour guide and executive director of Clarington Museums and Archives Martha Rutherford Conrad praised Kaitlin’s decision to not demolish Camp 30 while long-term preservation efforts are underway. While Kaitlin is planning to build subdivisions on the north and south ends of the property, they have agreed to set aside the core 30 acres of Canada’s last surviving German POW camp.
Opened in 1925 as a provincial training school for boys on land donated by local businessman John Jury, the site was chosen to hold POWs because it was easy to convert for those purposes. Several original school buildings, especially Jury Hall, show influences of the Prairie style of architecture as practised by the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, including flat roofs, and upper rows of windows designed to maximize natural light. When Rutherford Conrad approached American architecture experts about the buildings, they found it odd that the province chose a style that was at a low ebb when the school opened.
The front of Jury Hall was a popular spot for prisoners to pose for photographs when the Red Cross delivered their medals from Germany. Officers brought to Camp 30 were generally treated well: they were allowed to garden, produce plays, run a newspaper, and attend lectures given by visiting professors from the University of Toronto. They were even given occasional offsite access to swim in Lake Ontario or ski.
Despite their relative comfort, the Germans were still prisoners and made regular escape attempts, many plotted in the triple barracks building. Some POWs made half-hearted efforts to flee; there were stories of prisoners who, having performed their escape duty, went to nearby farms and asked the farmers to drive them back to the camp. Other efforts were intended to return figures like U-boat commander Otto Kretschmer to battle, but his tunneling attempts failed. A move to shackle the POWs following similar German actions after the battle of Dieppe led to the “Battle of Bowmanville” in October 1942. Prisoners took over key buildings for several days and fashioned weapons from whatever was on hand, from china to ketchup bottles. The cafeteria, the oldest structure at the camp, was the last building to fall back into Canadian hands.
Camp 30 was quickly turned back into a reform school after the war, which it remained until 1979. Several private schools used the site over the next 30 years until Darul Uloom, an Islamic boarding school, departed the premises in fall 2008. Afterward, Camp 30 fell prey to vandalism that has accelerated over the past two years. The walls of the general’s house/hospital are spray-painted with the Joker’s catchphrases, while the theft of vinyl siding from the cafeteria exposed its wood to the elements. A nightlight Clarington Museums hoped to preserve vanished at some point within the past year. Fires played a role in demolition of the former administration building and left marks on other structures. While high schools have frequently shown interest in visits, potential liabilities from hazards like broken glass and open manhole covers have scared them off.
As for Camp 30’s future, a request for a National Historical Designation has been filed and will be determined in July. Discussions are also underway with Parks Canada to transform the site into an urban national park like the Rouge Valley will be if all its approvals come through. Work is underway to establish a stewardship foundation that would restore and operate the site. Rutherford Conrad hopes to have that up and running within six months. She is optimistic about Camp 30’s ability to attract visitors, based on high interest when it was part of Doors Open in 2009 (1,400 people passed through the gates, with 400 more turned away) and a “Spirits of Camp 30” tour last October that included historical re-enactments. Five buildings are being recommended for preservation, while other structures, such as the natatorium (a combination swimming pool and gymnasium), are regarded as less architecturally significant or unsuited for safe reuse.
If funding was available, Rutherford Conrad said she would love to brick up the buildings to ensure their survival before more interior damage can be done. A long-term plan would be developed, and ideas beyond museum use—such as community gardens and offering the cafeteria as a reception hall and restaurant space—would be explored. Anyone interested in helping the efforts to preserve Camp 30 can contact Clarington Museums and Archives.
Photos by Jamie Bradburn/Torontoist.
The executive director of the Clarington Museums and Archives’ name is Martha Rutherford Conrad, which was previously misspelled with a hyphen, and then later incorrectly written as “Robertson-Conrad.” The corrections have been made to the above article.