78 Derngate Archive

How Britain treats the alien – a visit to the isle of man camps

21 Oct
George Leach

The following article was published in The Manchester Guardian on 19th July 1916.
The text is transcribed from the scanned original which can be accessed via the link at the foot of this page [ 1 ].

By George Leach.



We stood on the hillside beyond Greeba, in Man, surveying the whole stretch of Knockaloe Camp, the great and strange cosmopolitan town where the streets are formed of double-ribbed barbed wire, and where the compounds, for all their spaciousness, look like enormous cages without tops. Further up the hill a group of alien prisoners, attracted by the offer of reward and perhaps impelled by the monotony of camp life, were quarrying for stone; to our left another party were reclaiming a barren hill-top for a market garden; and inside the huts we had already seen hundreds of deft craftsmen plying their trades. In front of us recreation in a dozen forms was in full swing, and in the Twenty-two Acres, one of the three general recreation-grounds which serve the camp as a whole, and which only supplement a fairly liberal provision in each of the compounds, football was being played with Teutonic fury. One noticed particularly a game where the sides wore club colours of a style which would have done no discredit at Oxford; these were the young nuts who, thought not well enough to afford the privilege camp at Douglas; were presumably remittance men. Sailors of every hostile nationality and of every sub-division, picked up from trading ships on every ocean : Cockney waiters who criticised the game with the superior knowledge of a regular attender at the Cup Final; flat-capped vagrants from the banks of the Danube, much addicted to the society of dancing bears; Viennese fiddlers who used to make Hungarian bands of all colours on seaside promenades; small tradesmen who specialise in pork and offal. And a hundred other different types, usually only to be seen together at some great gateway between the continents, made up the strangest crowd that ever watched the game.

In the mornings a party of journalists, with Government passports, we had seen something of the inside of the camp. And had admired the businesslike humaneness with which Colonel Panzera ( who has just given up the administration of Bechuanaland ) and his staff are striving to prevent 22,000 human creatures from lapsing into the gloomy idleness which brings degeneration, and on leaving I ventured to congratulate one of the officers on the success of their efforts. “Yes,” he said quietly ( I found afterwards his own household had suffered heavily in the war), “it is worth doing, and I’m glad we’re doing it. But we should doit with ever so much more satisfaction if we only knew that our own lads in Germany were being treated half as well.” It was a just reflection but still it is being done.

The Camps and Their Population.
The Isle of Man has obvious advantages as a place of internment, and they are being fully used by the Government. Nearly 26,000 prisoners, equal to half the ordinary population of the island, are interned – 22,000 at Knockaloe, near Peel and about 2,700 at Douglas. All are civilians. Some of them have been settled in England since early childhood – so long, indeed, that when they entered the camp they could not speak a word of German. “I ain’t no blooming’ ‘Un; I come from The Smoke,” protested a waiter in the Douglas Camp. And the officer who told me the story swore that such an accent could only have been contracted during an infancy spent within full sound of Bow Bells. There have been very few attempts to escape, and none of those who have attempted has succeeded in leaving the island. The hopelessness of the enterprise, and perhaps some happier feeling as well, are illustrated by an incident which happened at one of the camps the other day. Some of the prisoners, not very many, are hired by the farmers. Two of the guards of a small working party, pressed by the heat and burden of the day, or by some equally malign influence, became suddenly incapacitated; the grinning prisoners, shouldering the rifles and bearing a helping hand, marched back to camp where they surrendered themselves and their guards to a scandalised sergeant. Suitable punishment has been awarded, and one trusts that one may leave one of those isolated occurrences which sometimes happen in quite the best families to the humour of the censor.

Knockaloe is a town of wooden huts about four mile round, with 23 compounds each capable of taking a thousand men. We inspected as many huts, taken at random, as the morning would permit. And in every case we found scrupulous cleanliness, and a state of rude comfort which compared favourably with that which one expects in the best-conducted barracks. The dietary is far more generous than our own men ever received in Germany, even before the recent reduction. I append the official scale for each prisoner, which, within its limits, is varied according to the taste of the Compound Kitchen Committee and the skill of the cooks, who are, of course, drawn from the prisoners themselves: –
Bread …………………………….. 18 ounces
Meat (fresh or frozen) ……. 8 ounces
Meat, preserved (tinned) .. 4 ounces
Potatoes ………………………… 8 ounces
Margarine ……………………… 1 ounces
Tea or cocoa ………………….. ½ ounce
Moist sugar ……………………. 1 ¾ ounces
Milk (condensed) ……………. 1-20 of 1lb tin
Salt ………………………………… ½ ounce
Pepper (black) ………………… 1/72 ounce
Also a second vegetable twice weekly consisting of haricot beans or rice – 1 ½ ounces
Cabbage or turnips ………… 2 ounces

In addition there is a free issue of 280lb of flour daily and a crate of onions weekly to each compound. And a monthly allowance of £10 is made for the cooks to provide sauces and other extras. The best evidence of the quality of the food is that the officers eat exactly. The same bread as the prisoners; the loaves are issued indiscriminately to compound and mess alike, and at lunch we all admitted that we had never tasted better.

Dodging the Censor.
Liberal as the allowance appears to be, it is considerably supplemented from the prisoners’ own resources. In one week in April, taken at random, over 11,000 parcels were received in the camp, mostly, of course, from relatives in Britain. Many contained the rather gross delicacies, in which the German delights, and some, under the same appearance, contained other things which could neither be eaten or worn, and which the camp regulations utterly prohibit. In the censorship department one saw evidence of many artless and some artful attempts to evade the prohibitions. There was the tin of preserved fruit which Gretchen had sent to Karl; it corresponded in weight ( a piece of lead did this ) and outward appearance to all that it purported to be. But the censor’s skewer discovered a bundle of German papers. It would have been all the same whether or not, but in this case Gretchen made discovery more certain by a covering letter in which she told Karl that she had sent him a tin of peaches and spent ninepence on having it properly soldered! A forbidden letter encased in a clinical thermometer, which was itself embedded in a German sausage, was more cunning, but the censor has a knife as well as a skewer. Newspapers packed in lard, a small bottle of rum in cheese, and a cake of hard methylated spirits ( a sort of desiccated grog sufficient to enliven a whole troop of dragoons) in hair grease, were other typical deceits.

And besides the parcels the prisoner with means may purchase pretty well anything he likes (except alcohol, which is totally prohibited at Knockaloe) in the dry canteen, which has a branch in every compound. It is a wonderful place, the dry canteen, a sort of Whiteley’s and I am sorry space forbids me giving the amazing figures supplied by an obliging manager. Suffice it say that one can buy anything from a tin of anchovy paste to a length of Manx homespun, and the the monthly turnover runs to £9,000. After the expenses of administration, the profits of the dry canteen are returned to the prisoners themselves in the shape of grants for recreation tackle or other purposes which appeal to the Compound Committees and have the sanction of the commandant.

The great problem of the camps is the provision of suitable employment. As a breezy subaltern put it to me, “You must either give ‘em something to do or let them go ‘dotty.’” It was crudely expressed, but recognised a sad truth. I must leave this over for the present, merely noting that inside the camps much is being done by the War Prisoners’ Committee, chiefly run by the Society of Friends, to whose work I heard many fine tributes. Education, recreation, and amusement serve much the same purpose which the subaltern had in mind, and liberal means are provided both at Knockaloe and Douglas. Every camp (there are four at Knockaloe) has its own little theatre, if not two, built by the prisoners themselves. And among a community which contains a large proportion of professionals the cult of music is especially strong. In the theatre in No. 1 camp we met Herr Sterbal, who has an orchestra of forty, and who told us that he had been a member of the Queen’s Hall and the conductor of Mr. Alfred Rothschild’s private band. One of the party recognised him as having played before King Edward on a Chatsworth visit, and the little conductor flushed with pleasure at a happy memory.

Douglas is a much smaller camp than Knockaloe, and it has amenities which were designed for a very different purpose from hat for which it is now being used. In its beginnings it was the old “Cunningham’s Camp,” overlooking the front at Douglas, where thousands of bachelors were accustomed to spend a cheap and healthy holiday under canvas, and, except for the barbed wire, its appearance as a sanatorium is fully maintained. Of the 2.700 prisoners, 400 or 500 are privilege prisoners. By paying 10s. A week two or three may secure a small separate hut between them, and by paying £1 a week one may have his own tent or hut. Other privileges follow. They are allowed to have their own servants, and about a hundred other prisoners, who, of course, make their own bargain, are employed in this capacity. They may have two bottles of beer or one bottle of light wine each day; and though the limit of £1 a week expenditure in the dry canteen nominally applies to them as to all prisoners, a liberal discretion seems to rest in the camp authorities.

A Walk Down Bond Street.
In one quarter of the camp, except for the absence of plate glass, one might easily fancy oneself in Bond Street. Lifting the curtain which separates the cubicles from the main gallery, you may be shampooed by barbers who learnt their business in Paris and Berlin; you may walk into the tailor’s shop and select a suit of evening clothes or a Scotch tweed from an ample stock, with the knowledge that it will be cut by and artist from Bond Street itself. In the studio you may commission a landscape from a man who used to do the same sort of thing in St. John’s Wood – he has several on his easels; and in the lower camp you may sit for a life-size portrait with full condfidence. (When we peeped in here a nephew of Count Mensdorff was actually doing it.). Returning to Bond Street, in the open bazaar, if you have a taste for bric-a-brac, you may see it in the making with as much curious and expensive elaboration at least in labour as you wish. A visit to the seminary, where you may take a course in anything that is taught at the university, and a round in the skittle alley or a set at tennis may finish off the morning’s stroll, and send you hungry into the great central restaurant, where you will be lunched and waited on by cooks and waiters who learnt their mysteries and their manners in the swaggers clubs.

This is a fancy picture. I suppose it will cause scandal to some, but a cardinal fact to keep in mind is that, beyond the Government allowance, which is the same as at Knockaloe, nobody gets anything at Douglas that he does not pay for, either in money or work. Incidentally the circulation of money through the camps is a great boon to the Manx tradesman, who is thus regaining in some measure that which the war has lost him.

Wealth commands exceptional privileges in every country, and from the reports which come from Germany and Austria one gathers that the well-to-do Englishman who can afford to pay the price demanded has nothing much to complain of. With the destitute or the poor it is notoriously different, and it is here, where, on all the evidences, we may humbly take credit for setting an example of Christian humanity which none of our enemies has copied – excepting always the benighted Turk, who is not a Christian at all. So far, at any rate, the bleak horrors of Ruhleben [ 2 ] have neither abrogated nor modified the Golden Rule in Britain.


  1. “A visit to the Isle of Man internment camps.” George Leach, The Manchester Guardian. 19-7-1916. P.1o. Accessed via The Guardian Archive 19-7-2019. [ Link ]
  2. Ruhleben internment camp was a civilian detention camp in Germany during World War I. It was located in Ruhleben, 10 km to the west of Berlin. [ Wikipedia ]