The Battle of Kew

by Simon Fowler

In the later years of the Second World War there was an Italian prisoner of war camp in Kew. It housed some 2000 prisoners, who worked clearing bombsites in London during the day. As Italy was now an Allied nation, the men were technically not prisoners, so they had the privilege of being able to leave the camp between 7pm and 10pm every evening.

There was little entertainment provided at the camp itself, so the men tended to congregate around Kew Bridge and Kew Green particularly at the Boathouse pub which was located next to the Bridge. The pub has long gone. The summer of 1945 saw several altercations between the prisoners and local men.

The most serious took place on 30 June when some 50 Italians were attacked by a gang from Brentford.  The incident seems to have been caused when one of the youths let off a firework near a group of prisoners, which the Italians misheard as being a pistol shot. The police were called and prevented a charge of 150-200 Italians across Kew Bridge to attack the youths.  Policemen formed a cordon across the roadway to prevent the two sides from attacking each other.  At one stage they had to draw truncheons and forcibly move the Italians off the bridge.

This fracas followed on from a fight outside The Boathouse pub a few days earlier in which both an Italian and British soldier were stabbed.  The fight seems to have broken out over an Italian approaching a local woman. 

A police file survives regarding the riot and it is clear that the Police investigating the affray were sympathetic to the Italians.

The file also includes correspondence with the Kew Ratepayers Association who complained about “these uninvited and extremely ill-behaved men” who, in particular, were “molesting women and girls”, However, the Police concluded that the complaint was “somewhat exaggerated” and that local girls ran after the prisoners.

Indeed, there must have been mild embarrassment when in May 1946 a constable found an Italian corporal embracing a woman from Ilford on the towpath, the policeman saying that “She was a willing party”. The corporal was reprimanded.

The Italians left Kew in June 1946 and their departure probably broke several young hearts. In turn they were replaced by German prisoners, who remained in the area for several years, until they were repatriated during the summer of 1948.

Over the years residents have told me about the brothels which are supposed to have flourished in Kew during and after the war, although there seems to be no documentary evidence for this. However, it is possible, as there were large numbers of lonely young men – American, Italian and German – stationed locally.

This article was first published in Twickenham and Richmond Tribune, 21 August 2021.