Internment history


Immediately following the outbreak of war on 4 August 1914, the decision was taken to intern all German men between the ages of 17 and 42. Men within this age group were classified as military age and therefore perceived as a greater threat. The high numbers of men within this age bracket also contributed to the decision not to repatriate the majority of German’s living in Britain. Their potential deportation was seen as a gift to the enemy, providing them with thousands more men able to fight. As a result only very small numbers of men were repatriated throughout the duration of the war and in the majority of cases these men were classed as to old or unfit to fight.


This initial policy of full scale internment was retracted almost as soon as it had been issued with a replacing order which demanded only the arrest of those acting suspiciously. By 13 August 1914, 980 men had been interned and by the 28 August this figure had grown to 4,300. Numbers continued to increase and widespread arrests were implemented until the end of September 1914 when all available camps had reached capacity. By November 1914, internment of civilian enemy aliens had begun with 14,500 detained in camps around Britain. This was approximately one third of the total number of registered aliens and debate was on going regarding continued policy and if exceptions could be made for nationals of more friendly nations such as Hungarians and Poles.


An increase in anti-German hostility followed by a series of riots in Deptford in London on 18 and 19 October 1914 prompted the government to reintroduce their policy of full scale internment ‘in the interests of public safety and public order’. In reality the camps were still overcrowded and time was needed to find further locations and construct the new camps and with the exception of the vulnerable south coast of England further internment was limited until May 1915.    


Destruction and looting of German shops.

Painting depicting rioting and looting of German shops.


The initial camps were makeshift using buildings that could be easily converted to accommodate the internees, with the first men detained at Dorchester Camp in August 1914 rapidly followed by York, Edinburgh, Olympia in London and Lancaster. Alongside these camps were a series of ships including the ‘Saxonia’ and the ‘Royal Edward’ docked in the Thames at Southampton and were used as temporary camps. Stobs Camp, near Hawick, Scotland was used as an internment camp from November 1914. The site was already a military training ground and so was easily converted to hold significant numbers of men. Accommodation was provided in tents and military issue pre-fabricated wooden huts each sleeping thirty-three men. Despite initial plans to develop Stobs into a large civilian camp it seems to have held only 6,000 men at its peak and by spring 1915 had already changed from a solely civilian to a mixed camp. By July 1916 all civilian detainees had been transferred, predominantly to Knockaloe on the Isle of Man with Stobs became an entirely military prison camp. 


Conditions in the camps varied, and the holding camps where men were initially transferred before being moved on to one of the large permanent camps were often the worst. Paul Cohen-Portheim a German national who was not interned until 24 May 1915 was initially taken to Stratford Camp. The night before his internment he was visited by a police officer who asked him to report to the police station at 10am the next morning from where he would be taken to a camp. When Cohen-Portheim asked what to bring he was told to pack as if he were going on holiday. Stratford Camp was overcrowded and provided only the most basic of provisions for the men, the food was poor, mattresses were crowded together to provide sleeping space and there was only a small courtyard in which to exercise. Newbury Camp was also a holding camp and had equally poor conditions, constructed on a race course with accommodation provided in horse boxes where up to eight men would sleep on a bed of straw. Lancaster Camp, set up inside an old wagon factory provided even worse conditions for the internees. Seven hundred men were housed in one large room with a dirt floor and spent the winter of 1914-15 there without heating or lighting. Catering facilities were severely limited and a shortage of plates and cutlery meant many of the men ate straight from the cooking pots..        


World War I Propaganda Stamp

First World War propaganda stamp. Wikimedia Commons. 


On the 7 May 1915 the situation of German’s living it Britain and not yet detained took a dramatic turn for the worst. Government desire to drum up support for the war led to the encouragement of propaganda in the media which in turn fuelled the increasing need of civilians to have someone to ‘blame’ for the conflict that took so many brothers, sons and fathers away from their families. The sinking of the Cunard liner the RMS Lusitania by a German U-boat of the Old Head of Kinsale, Ireland proved to be the event that brought the underlying tensions of the British public bubbling to the surface. The Lusitania sank within eighteen minutes of being hit by a single torpedo and 1,153 passengers and crew lost their lives.


The British people decided enough was enough and that it was time to take matters into their own hands. The desire for revenge grew with the publication of descriptions of events and images of the mass graves in Queenstown, Ireland where many of the bodies were washed ashore. Rioting began and shops, businesses and homes of anyone believed to be German came under threat. Windows were smashed and premises looted and in some cases people were also attacked. Liverpool in particular was affected by this tragedy as a number of men from the city had been crew on board the ‘Lucy’.

On the corner of Scotland Road ominous gangs were gathering – men and women, very drunk and very angry. Suddenly something crashed up the road… A pork butcher’s had had its front window knocked in with a brick and a crowd of men and women were wrecking the place… everything suggestive of Germany was being smashed to pieces (O’Mara 1934, 225).

Scenes such as this were seen throughout the major cities and in London alone the riots caused over £200,000 worth of damage. Although the aim of the riots was to seek revenge against the Germans the violence often spilled over to other immigrants as Viscount Sandhurst recalls in his diary:

The rioting in E. London shops continued with great violence to-day – any German shops being wrecked and in some cases any with a foreign name (Sandhurst 1928, 197).

In some instances people were even seen to turn their back on their own relatives due to their German connections be it as a naturalised Briton or as a woman who had married a German husband and therefore legally become German. 


Signing on Russian shop to prevent looting.

Signing on a Russian stop to try and prevent looting.


The government’s response to the Lusitania riots of May 1915 led to a permanent change in policy – the introduction of full scale internment for all men between the ages of 17 and 55. This move was designed to calm the volatile situation around the country following the Lusitania riots and it was argued that the decision was made based on the safety of the aliens. This decision did not cover women, approximately 10,000 of whom, with their children, were permitted to live with restricted freedom. Such freedom came at a price however, with their husbands interned many women struggled to provide for their families as anti-German sentiment made it difficult to find employment and friends were few and far between. It was during this period that the only major effort to repatriate was undertaken and between May 1915 and June 1916, 10,000 enemy aliens left the country. Women, children and men above military age were eligible while single women who had lived in the Britain for less than five years formed the only group forcibly repatriated.


Reporting at a police station for internment was a truly intimidating idea. Having to say goodbye to wives and children, not knowing when they would see each other again, how long detention would last or where they were going to be held were all daunting thoughts. Many men then faced a night in a holding camp before being marched through the streets often lined with crowds shouting abuse and throwing rotten food. Paul Cohen-Portheim recalls his own journey from Stratford through the streets of London at the start of his journey to Knockaloe Camp on the Isle of Man:

We were marched through the streets to the station, flanked by soldiers with drawn bayonets. The population must have known this was due, for in spite of the early hour the streets were full of a hostile crowd. The memory of a recent Zeppelin raid was fresh with them; this must have appeared to them as a sort of revenge. They spat, they insulted, they jeered, they threw things. I had been so utterly unprepared for this that I could hardly believe it was happening. Perhaps it was happening to somebody else, or was it a nightmare? Only one face stood out from the crowd, horribly real, that of an old woman with wild wisps of white hair blowing about it. She grimaced furiously and shouted ' 'Uns! ', then she grinned and nodded and said in a lower tone and with a curious sort of satisfaction, as if to herself: ' Biby-killers ! ' Then again the furious ' 'Uns,' the smug ' Biby-killers ! ' Her voice seemed to follow me all the way. She was quite drunk. I don't know what the actual distance to the station may have been, it seemed many miles to me (Cohen-Portheim 1931, 29).

As the numbers of internees steadily increased the need for permanent camps increased. Lofthouse, near Wakefield along with Alexandra Palace, London and Stobs, near Hawick, Scotland were the largest and best developed camps along with Douglas and later Knockaloe on the Isle of Man.