How Winston Churchill's legacy shaped North Wales and Chester

Reporter:

Jamie Bowman

During the early days of the Second World War, with the fall of France imminent, Britain faced its darkest hour as the threat of invasion loomed

As the seemingly unstoppable Nazi forces advanced and with the Allied army cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, the fate of Western Europe hung on the leadership of the newly-appointed Prime Minister of Great Britain, Winston Churchill.

With an unprepared public, a skeptical King, and his own party plotting against him, Churchill somehow rallied a nation and changed the course of world history becoming, for many, the greatest statesman Britain has ever known.

Churchill’s achievements in those initial stages of the Second World War have been brought back into focus by new film Darkest Hour in which actor Gary Oldman puts in an incredible performance as the British leader which is tipped to bring him an Oscar later this year.

The film is sure to only enhance Churchill’s reputation as a true British hero, but in southern Wales his legacy remains mixed due to his handling of striking Welsh miners and railwaymen and the impact of his decisions on the Welsh economy in the wake of the First World War.

Further north, Churchill also made his mark with a number of sites continuing to bear the influence of the former PM.

1n 2015, Capital House, the oldest building at Queen’s Park campus in Chester, was renamed Churchill House in honour of its historic visitor dating back to when the premises was created in 1937 before the outbreak of the Second World War as the Western Command Headquarters of the Army, complete with bombproof bunker network.

Although shrouded in secrecy at the time, the building is now known as the location for top secret meetings between Churchill, General Eisenhower and General De Gaulle with Field Marshall Montgomery also a frequent visitor.

The purpose-built neo-Georgian property remained the command headquarters until the building was handed over to the Royal Army Pay Corps in 1972. It was acquired by North West Securities, a subsidiary of Bank of Scotland, for use as their Head Office in 1997 before being passed to HBOS on its formation in 2001 and to Lloyds Banking Group on its formation in 2009. Lloyds decided they had no further use for it in March 2010 and the building, which had stood empty for five years, was acquired by the University of Chester in March 2015.

Another site shrouded in secrecy and connected to Churchill is Rhydymwyn Valley Nature Reserve, now a lush habitat containing wetlands, grassland and ruined buildings that have been colonised by animals.

Almost 80 years ago it was a very different environment and many readers will already be aware it was previously used as a military site where chemical weapons were produced.

Some sections housed scientists who were part of the race to develop nuclear weapons principally to see if it was possible to create sufficient isotope U-235 for atomic bombs.

It was Churchill himself who called on chemicals manufacturer ICI to find a secret location to begin production of chemical weapons.

ICI suggested Rhydymwyn, said the experts, because it was 30 miles away from its production hub in Runcorn, Cheshire with amenities, including a natural water source and transport infrastructure all in place; and because it was inland and relatively safe from air attack.

In Wrexham, a far less dark part of Churchill’s legacy still stands.

Penley Hospital, near Wrexham, was built following a promise Churchill made to the Polish people.

The Polish Resettlement Act – the first ever mass migration act of its type passed by Parliament – offered them help to settle into civilian life in the UK and eventually British citizenship.

Many resettled in other parts of Europe, including in Wales and to serve the needs of Polish war veterans, Penley Hospital was set up, catering for up to 2,000 people at one time.

It still exists to this day, although parts of the hospital grounds have been given over as industrial units.

Andrew Scotson, spokesman for the Betsi Cadwaladr University Health Board which runs the remaining eight-room facility, said: “Penley Hospital was constructed during the Second World War and was initially occupied by the 83rd General Hospital of the US Army before providing a home for the number three Polish Military Hospital, initially for the treatment of Polish soldiers.

“The hospital was taken over by the Ministry of Pensions in 1949 for the treatment of Polish war pensioners and ex-servicemen who did not speak sufficient English to be cared for in other UK hospitals.

“At the outset the hospital was home to more than 1,000 patients in 30 wards.”

Graham Lloyd, who runs the Wrexham-history.com website, has dug up information on the hospital.

He wrote on the entry for the hospital: “On the border of England and North Wales in an area known as Maelor, three large American Army Hospitals were built in preparation for D-day casualties.

“Among them was Penley Hall number 129 General Hospital, with 1,000 beds.”

He added the roots of the Polish field hospital that came to Penley in 1946 was a result of the disaster in Poland when the war started.

Poland was invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union, leading to thousands of deaths and countless people forcibly taken to gulags and labour camps in Siberia.

Many able-bodied men, released from the gulags during an amnesty, signed up with the army under Wladyslaw Anders and joined up with the British High Command.

Thousands died in battle, while still more women, children and the elderly endured the long and perilous journey to the UK.

Penley Hospital was among three in the area that catered for Polish veterans, but it was later opened up to include their families.

In the 1950s, Penley became a general hospital for Polish people living not just in Wales, but also in England.

Headstones in Mary Magalene churchyard in Penley stand as testament to the Polish infants and babies born after the war, often to parents who were in poor health because of the rigours of war.

Mr Lloyd said: “I think it is an important hospital for more than one reason.

“It still exists today in a smaller form. I’ve visited the site, but only the bits that were converted into industrial units. But the fact it has stood since the war is impressive in itself.

“The second thing is about Polish culture in the area.

“Growing up in the area, I knew about the hospital, but I didn’t know much about it.

“I found out a lot through a website about Polish resettlement.

“People think the arrival of people from Eastern Europe is a recent thing. What they don’t realise is it has been going on for ages. I think it’s an important part of our local history.”

l Darkest Hour is in cinemas now.

Email:

jamie.bowman@nwn.co.uk

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