Life & Culture

You’ve met the Windermere Children, here are the ‘Southampton Boys’

The Lake District village was not the only place in the UK that offered refuge to young Shoah survivors. Faith Eckersall recounts the heartwarming story of Wintershill Hall


Remembering the past: some of the Boys’ children and their offspring visiting Wintershill House last May

The staircase at Wintershill Hall in Hampshire is a thing of great elegance, curving majestically down from an oval landing into the property’s cavernous entrance hall.

If you’d visited during the winter of 1945, however, you’d have seen rope coiling the banister, strategically placed to prevent the children who lived there from “breaking their necks” trying to slide down it.

The people running the place, Dr Fridolin “Ginger” Friedmann and his assistant, Mrs Katz, instinctively knew that children will always do reckless things. Even those who had survived the unimaginable trauma of the Holocaust.

Thirty years later, as a child living in this rural area of Hampshire, I was very familiar with the ancient hamlet of Durley, near Southampton, where Wintershill Hall is located. I’d cycled the local lanes and had always admired the stately looking house, sitting proudly atop its hill.

However, it was only while researching a piece about Jewish life in Hampshire that I discovered how Wintershill and the surrounding countryside had witnessed child Holocaust survivors doing much the same things as I’d done, just three decades previously. It was a tantalising thought, especially as, through genealogy research, I had not long discovered that my paternal great-grandparents were Jewish.

The house is a now a successful wedding and events venue, as well as being home to the Balfour family, who have owned it since 1948. During the Second World War, however, it belonged to James Montefiore, a relative of Jewish philanthropist Leonard Montefiore, chairman of the Committee for the Care of the Concentration Camp Children.

Leonard was the driving force behind the rescue operation that initially saw child Holocaust survivors brought to Lake Windermere for rehabilitation.

The story of the Boys – they were known as this even though their number included girls – was movingly dramatised in a 2020 production starring Game of Thrones’ Iain Glen, with Tim McInnerny playing Leonard.

When James offered Wintershill Hall to Leonard, his offer was snapped up and so, in October 1945, 128 boys and 28 girls began their journey from Europe to Durley, travelling in freezing cold bombers to RAF Stoney Cross in the New Forest.

This group acquired the name the Southampton Boys and they certainly would have seen the lights of that city as they were bussed eastwards across the New Forest.

One of their number, Ivor Perl, recalled: “It was the first time I’d seen an aeroplane; to be flying was like an adventure.” He remembered a packed lunch and people singing Shalom Aleichem.

Unlike the Boys’ Calgarth Estate home at Lake Windermere, which was bulldozed in the 1960s, Wintershill Hall is virtually unchanged. The children’s Nissen hut dormitories have been removed from the side lawn, although the beautiful oak tree, which was visible from their windows, still flourishes there.

Even Wintershill’s modest white iron gateposts, which appear in the most famous picture of that time, remain, as does the house’s handsome façade.

Major General Jamie Balfour’s father bought the property in 1948 from the people who purchased it from James Montefiore. He is proud of its unique heritage – the house also saw war service as a school and was the temporary headquarters of Hampshire Fire Brigade – and he happily shows off photographs of the unchanged gardens and the formally dressed children assembled in front of the property.

“I understood they wore English tweed jackets, and they would speak English and play in the grounds, building dens and that kind of thing,” he says. Sometimes, however, the children’s behaviour reflected their unique experiences. “Virtually the first thing they did after arriving was to take every key from every door they could find and throw them in the pond. They didn’t want to be locked up ever again.”

Every so often over the years, Maj Gen Balfour has answered the door to a visitor whose relative stayed at Wintershill Hall during those months from October 1945 to the summer of 1946. “Some walk up, some drive, and they just want to see what it is like now.”

He has joined and hosted events for members of the 45 Aid Society, the charitable association set up 61 years ago by former Windermere boy, the late Sir Ben Helfgott, and chaired by Angela Cohen, who is the mother of TV personality Robert Rinder.

Her father, Morris (Moishe) Malenicky, stayed at Windermere. She recalls the following memories: “They just wanted to jump in the lake, and play; be children again. They spoke of the peace and quiet of the English countryside and I can imagine that for the Southampton Boys, it was very much the same.”

The 45 Aid Society’s short documentary The Southampton Boys featured a number of those who remembered Wintershill Hall, including Perl and the late Alec Ward, whose memories were given voice by his grandson, Liron Velleman.

“On a flight to England, I remember being very apprehensive and many things were worrying me,” Ward had said. “For example, at that time I had forgotten my birthday; would I be able to learn how to speak English, would I have the opportunity to learn a trade or profession, what kind of people were the English, would they force me to change my religion?”

He need not have worried. “On arriving in England, I found nothing but wonderful hospitality. We had landed at RAF Southampton – and enjoyed a wonderful tea with cakes and oranges.”

His daughter, Lyla Ward, is in no doubt about the part played by Wintershill in enabling the group to enjoy some kind of childhood following unimaginable horror.

“For him, like the others, childhood and adolescence were compressed into a few months,” she says. “As a survivor, he’d already gathered some strength at Kloster Indersdorf [a displaced children’s home near Munich] and I think being at Wintershill gave him space, although there must have been conflict inside him, too.”

Having heard her father’s stories, of exploring the lanes and countryside around Durley, she laughs: “I don’t think they were always angels – they may have been given bikes but I’m pretty sure they may have ‘borrowed’ them, too and that locals were very understanding! They would do anything to survive and enjoy the freedom.”

She believes her father’s account may have been “rose-tinted” because, like many of the other children, he suffered post-traumatic stress. “He had so much gratitude, however, for the environment he was in, and for the opportunity it gave him to start again.”

A detailed and moving account of the children’s lives at the time was produced by the British journalist Mollie Panter-Downes and published in the New Yorker magazine in March 1946 under the title “A Quiet Life In Hampshire”. She describes a “large, rather gloomy-looking Georgian mansion” with a Star of David chalked on the portico pillar.

Dr Friedmann was an “eager, thickset, red-headed man with humorous eyes” who baldly described the atrocities witnessed by his young charges and the effect the cruelty had on their behaviour. At first youngsters would literally leap over tables to get to food when it was served, and tuberculosis was one of their health issues.

The children attended lessons in the morning in the main part of the house, with afternoons given over to handicrafts or, occasionally, political discussion and history.

Twice a week the Boys would play the Durley lads at football – regarded as a key sign of Britishness – and there was also a well-remembered dance performance given for the children.

According to Panter-Downes, the children were “mad for movement” and found it on bicycles, which they used to visit the surrounding area including the nearby village of Bishop’s Waltham, where they bought sweets and watched films in the cinema.

I can remember buying sweets in the same high street as a child, and while the cinema has long-since closed, its splendidly named Oddfellows Hall building remains, and is now home to the King’s Church. Reading accounts, such as those of the late Magda Bloom, of walking to Winchester from Durley, and from Alec Ward describing his feelings of being “intoxicated by the freedom in England” are especially moving given that I and so many children before and after them experienced the same happiness and liberty in this area. Most humbling of all is Mr Ward’s statement: “I could walk free, wherever I wanted. I could ride a bicycle and be a free person, all of which I had not experienced for the last five years… everyone was so kind and helpful to me.”

I’m not Jewish nor have I ever experienced anything remotely as traumatic as Alec and his friends did. But, as someone with Jewish ancestors who came to this country more than a century ago, it’s wonderful to feel the small part played by the place where I grew up, helping such traumatised children to restart their lives again.

Further information on the Southampton Boys can be found in Martin Gilbert’s book The Boys: Triumph Over Adversity

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