The Norwich bus worker who fell in love with a POW
- Credit: Family Collection
It was in the summer of 1968 when we told how a former Italian PoW returned to Norwich to visit the family who befriended him when he was at a camp on Mousehold Lane towards the end of the Second World War.
His name was Ercole Voltan and he arrived with his wife Josephine, formerly Guiseppina (Pina) Rizza, and their daughter Sonia, to meet up with Sam and Edith Berry and their daughter Myra.
“They were real friends when I needed them most,” Ercole told us at the time.
Today that friendship continues between Myra and Sonia after all these years.
Now she is Myra Hawtree, who received a national honour earlier this year – the Unsung Hero Award for her outstanding contributed to netball over many years.
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And Sonia lives with her family in Canada.
Grandmother Myra, who lives at Sprowston, takes up the story.
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“Around 1945/6 there was a German PoW camp on Mousehold Lane. I lived on Pilling Park Road and most Sundays would be taken for a walk by my parents over Mousehold Heath and we would see the prisoners walking around the exercise field next to the huts.
“Eventually the Germans were moved on and Italian PoWs housed there. As they were not considered to be a threat, having changed sides and fought with the Allies at the end of the war, they were allowed to go off camp for walks.
“One Sunday my parents began talking to a soldier who spoke good English. Following that, every Sunday he, Ercole, would look out for us and I remember he and his friend coming to our house for tea.
“Some people didn’t think fraternising with the prisoners who had been our enemy was a good thing,” admitted Myra.
It was during this time that Ercole became friendly with a girl of Italian origins who Myra thinks was living with the Valori family, well known for their fish and chip shops and ice cream.
Her name was Guiseppina (Pina) Rizza, one of five children born in Inverness. Her father had died when she was two and she had a tough time. Her mother had a breakdown and she with her sisters were placed in a children’s home run by nuns in Aberdeen.
Pina won a scholarship and moved to a boarding school in Hampshire before joining the Woman’s Land Army during the war. She met the love of her life while working in Norwich as a bus conductress.
Ercole was repatriated to his home village in Italy, working as an interpreter for the allies, and kept in touch with his Norwich friends, the Berry family.
By then Pina had moved to London to work for Barclays Bank but they continued to correspond and in July 1947 she made what would have been a difficult journey, with everything still chaotic after the war, to visit him and his family in Italy.
The long distance love affair continued and in April 1949 they were married at Milan cathedral.
First off they moved to Scotland where Ercole worked on the hydro-electric systems being set up at the time.
“Then,” said Myra, “ in 1950 they decided to move to live in Toronto as Canada was encouraging workers to emigrate there. After struggling initially they both got jobs.
“All this time my parents still corresponded with them and I remember that Pina became an Avon rep and used to send my mother and I. Avon lipstick which was not known here at the time.
“They had two children, Edward and Sonia and Ercole worked in real estate.
“In 1968, Ercole, Pina (she changed her name to Josephine) and Sonia visited the UK and spent some days in Norwich visiting my parents and an article appeared in the Evening News,” explained Myra.
By the time Myra’s mother died in 1984 they had lost touch. But that wasn’t the end of the story – far from it.
Looking through old photographs in early 2019 Myra saw their friends from all those years ago and thought she would Google the name – to see what popped up.
“I was pleasantly surprised to find a lot of information about Pina (now Josephine) that appeared in the local Toronto newspaper. She was 97 and the article was about her receiving an award from the local hospital’s oncology department in recognition of fund-raising for them, following her treatment for stomach cancer when aged 87.
“The article said she was living at Humber Heights retirement home so I found the address and sent her a letter-card of Norwich Cathedral. Soon I was delighted to receive a letter from her daughter Sonia saying how thrilled they were to hear from me after so many years,” added Myra.
“Although Sonia was only eight when she visited us in Norwich she remembered it quite well. I even found an entry in my diary from July 1968 saying I had taken her to see Elvis in “Clambake.”
Ercole had died in 2001 and in May of 2019 Josephine (Pina) passed away. “I was so pleased that I had been able to make contact with her.”
Sonia and Myra keep in touch with each other. She has a son and a daughter. Josephine had written her life memoirs and Sonia sent her a copy. A fascinating story of a very eventful life.
Thank you Myra for sharing this story with us.
Prisoners of war in Norfolk
By September 1946 there were more than 400,000 prisoners of war across the country.
There were camps at Mousehold and across Norfolk…at Aldborough, Diss, Hempton Green, near Fakenham, Marham and various RAF Stations.
Officers could not be forced to work but many did while the men worked on mainly on farms, repairing roads and other work.
They were paid up to a shilling a day and when Italian prisoners worked for more than eight hours a day – they received cigarettes as a bonus. A maximum of 30 a week.
Did your family house a prisoner of war in the 40s? Get in touch. Email email@example.com
PoWs helped to clear the deep snow from the Norfolk roads in the long, tough winter of 1947 which crippled the county.
Repatriation was completed by the summer of 1948.